Family, Kids & Relationships

How to respond to all kids involved when one child harms another

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Do you ever feel like some parenting advice only applies if you have one child? What if you have multiple kids, or you’re hosting a playdate and they’re all having a problem…at the same time?

When one kid hurts another, who do you give attention to? They both need different kinds of help — which can be pretty overwhelming for parents and often leads us to yell and make rash decisions.

Placing blame, taking sides, or doling out harsh punishment will simply lead to increased sibling rivalry, bottled-up anger, and feelings of resentment. But you do need to send a clear message that the hurtful behavior is not OK. It’s a tricky balance! 

Here are some steps to follow to help all the kids involved when there’s a conflict (and actually learn from the experience). It’s far from easy, but with some practice you can gain confidence in taking these steps, and eventually teach your kids to work out their own conflicts!

Like a lot of parenting situations, there’s no quick fix and it may take years to see “results.” Be patient with your kids AND yourself… you’re in this for the long haul! 

7 Steps to Managing Conflict between Multiple Kids…

Know when to step in

If kids are roughhousing, or having a minor shouting match, they might not actually need your help — you can give them some space to let off steam.

BUT if things just don’t seem safe and fun anymore, or one child is bullying the other — being aggressive or mean and not stopping when the other has made it clear they’ve had enough — you may need to intervene and guide them.

Approach them calmly

This can be incredibly hard to do, especially when more than one kid is the complete opposite of calm, but it’s probably the most important step toward helping them learn and grow from the situation.

Take a deep breath before you approach your kids. Focus on keeping your voice level and your movements slow.

If at any point during this process you find yourself getting wound up again, model taking a moment to reset before proceeding. You can even say out loud, “Let me try that again.”

Give equal treatment

Even if you know who started the fight or who hurt the other, it’s not helpful to take sides or place blame. Ask each child if they’re OK. If any first aid treatments are needed, that should be your number one priority and you can ignore the rest for a bit.

Then offer a neutral observation and remind them of the rules: “I saw pushing and I heard screaming. Remember the rule? We treat each other with respect in this family. That means no hurting each other.”

Separate them if necessary

When the harm done has you worried about the harm done to one or more child, physically or emotionally, or they’re still distressed or aggressive and not able to work it out, it’s time to separate the kids so you can address them one on one.

Direct them to separate rooms, but don’t treat it as a punishment. If you/they are not ready to talk yet, tell them that everyone needs time to cool down before you can solve this problem together, and that you will come check on them in X minutes (anywhere from 1-15 minutes, depending on age/temperament).

Talk one on one

For the one(s) who got hurt or who witnessed it: Ask how they’re feeling and tell them they’re safe and loved. Without saying anything negative about anyone, remind them that what happened wasn’t OK and that you’re working on solving it. Ask if they are ready to see their sibling(s).

For the one(s) who did the hurting: Offer reminders of safer choices for dealing with anger (deep breaths, punch a pillow, walk it off). Reiterate the rules and calmly lay out logical consequences if needed. Ask them how they think their sibling is feeling, and what they think they should do.

If you have a partner/co-parent at home, split this job! If not, take turns with each child and be clear about why you need to do that.

Mediate the conflict when they’re calm

Kids will learn more if you act as a mediator instead of a judge. When everyone is calm enough, you can say, “Are you ready to solve this problem? First we need to listen to each other. Let’s take turns saying what we think happened and why. Then we can come up with solutions.”

Ask questions about what was happening right before the conflict, and how each kid was feeling at the time (tired, hungry, frustrated, bored, etc.). Listen to each response and make sure each kid gets a chance to talk without being interrupted.

If they don’t have reasonable suggestions about what to do now or how to make better choices next time, offer some ideas: come to an adult instead of hitting back; use “I feel” statements instead of insulting; apologize and fix/replace the broken toy.

Focus on positives the rest of the time

When the kids are NOT busy fighting, take a moment to notice and point out specific positive behaviors: 

“I love how you listened and stopped when your brother said no.” 

“Isn’t it fun when you share toys respectfully?” 

“That was smart to take a bathroom/snack break!”

Also be sure to proactively spend quality one-on-one time with each child throughout the day/week. That might just be five minutes to read a book or play tic-tac-toe together, but be sure to tell them AND show them that you value that special time together!

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.