Kids argue with their friends. A lot. Observational research of preschool and elementary school age friends shows that they have about three conflicts per hour. Friends actually have more arguments than non-friends, because they spend more time together, but being able to move past those conflicts is key to having the friendship continue.
What Do Kids Argue About?
The topics of arguments in children’s friendships change with age. Toddlers and preschoolers mostly argue about who gets to play with what and who can or can’t do what. Luckily these arguments tend to be short-lived. One study found that over 90% of preschoolers’ arguments were resolved within ten back-and-forth exchanges, and over half were settled within four exchanges.
In elementary school, there are more arguments about social behavior, along the lines of “You’re being annoying!” or “You’re not being a good friend!” Children this age often use rules or rituals like Eenie-Meenie-Minie-Mo to resolve conflicts related to play, but arguments can get complicated as other friends become involved and take sides.
Among teenage friends, arguments are mostly about relationship issues. With both school-age children and teens, hurt feelings can go on for days or even months, as they worry, stew, dwell on grudges, and sometimes talk endlessly with other friends about a conflict with a friend.
How Do Children Resolve Conflicts?
Children’s way of resolving conflicts also tends to change with age. An in-depth research review by Brett Laursen and his colleages at Florida Atlantic University found that children between two and ten years of age are most likely to resolve real-life conflicts with peers by demanding and giving in. Eleven- to 18-year olds maily resolve conflicts by withdrawing temporarily without solving anything. It’s not until ages 19 to 25 that negotiation becomes the main way that people resolve conflicts. This doesn’t mean that younger people can’t compromise; it’s just hard for them to do so, especially when they’re upset.
How Can Parents Help?
As parents, we can’t solve our children’s friendship conflicts for them, but we can offer guidance to help them work things out.
1) Start with Empathy.
When our children are upset about an argument with a friend, they need our understanding and compassion. This is not the time to point out your child’s flaws! Instead, you can say, “You’re mad at her!” or “That hurt your feelings.”
2) Discourage Retaliation.
When kids are angry, it’s tempting to try to “get even.” This never helps!
3) Suggest Apologizing.
An apology can be a good way to move forward. Dear Abby once wisely said, “The person who is least wrong should apologize first.” Can your child explain why this is a good idea?
4) Urge Forgiveness.
Hanging on to bitterness hurts us more than the other person. If the friend’s bad behavior only happened once and it’s unlikely to reoccur, if it was unintentional or it happened more than a month ago, urge your child to let it go.
5) Try Again.
Everyone makes mistakes. Part of being a good friend means not expecting perfection and being willing to move past difficulties. Often, the best way for children to resolve conflicts is just to take a little time for tempers to cool and then approach the friend again in a kind way.
Q: How has your child resolved a major conflict with a friend?