It’s an age-old problem, the significance and emotions of which tend to stay with us for many years (and often, for the rest of our life): what should we do when we fall out with a friend? Apologise? Hide? Defend? Pretend?
It’s agonising enough to go through this experience yourself – but when it’s your child who is affected, your emotions, the possibilities and your parental responsibilities can seem so much greater. Your instinct will be to protect your child and to teach them – conflict resolution skills are as important as good manners or social skills. Disputes are a fact of life and we learn from them: about ourselves, about others, about authority, living among others and about the consequences of our actions.
Your options will depend a lot on the circumstances: the age/s and gender/s of the children concerned; the temperament of each party; the cause/s of the fall-out (real or perceived); who else may be involved, and why. There is no ‘silver bullet’ or magic cure but I hope this post might offer you one or two nuggets to think about.
Your child may openly tell you there is an issue and what it is. In which case, in more ways than one, your and their next moves are a lot easier than they may otherwise be.
If they haven’t told you,, what signs should you look out for that something is wrong? Loss of appetite, distraction, sullenness, defensiveness and an uncharacteristic tendency to show strong emotions (in any direction) are all possible signs. Similarly, if your child suddenly becomes withdrawn from a social circle or is sending noticeably fewer texts or is spending less time on Facebook/Instagram/SnapChat, there may be a problem. More obviously, if their conversation with you involves less and less chatter about what they and X have been doing or chatting about or planning, it might be time to take note.
Broaching the subject (if necessary)
If there is apparently something wrong which they are not talking about, I would recommend you broach the subject at an appropriate moment. Be supportive, gentle and non-confrontational. No matter how bullish or argumentative your child can be, avoid jumping to conclusions. Similarly, if they are usually mild, polite and submissive, don’t assume the other party is to blame.
Mums might find it appropriate to hug and ‘extra-love’ their child. Fathers likewise, although for older sons this might be too much, so a less tactile stance might have more desired effects! I don’t wish to stereotype, only to offer the benefit of experience.
It may take more than one attempt to ‘get the picture’. Depending on the age of your child you may never know the whole story (nor, indeed, might they), but the important matter is to understand the basics of what has been done and said, why, and how the situation has evolved since the event.
To intervene or not to intervene
The most natural instinct in the world is to protect one’s young. If they are sad, it’s our duty to make them happy. If they are threatened, we should defend. We are not wild animals but many of the principles are common among species. I have a penchant for animal documentaries and often wonder that other species’ reactions are more natural and effective than our own: animals rarely agonise, they simply follow their instincts.
If your child asks you to ‘leave it to them’ it’s probably wise to try to do just that, except keep a wary eye on matters and (again, depending on their age) solicit help in the form, perhaps, of the other protagonist’s mum and/or dad. If they appear to accept help, do so supportively but in a measured way. At the other end of the spectrum, don’t micro-manage the situation: aim for a balance, intervening only when necessary, helping your child to see and participate in the problem-solving process.
“He said; she said”
The most important thing, in my opinion, is to try to help your child to resolve the situation. ‘Walking away’ leaves the situation in the balance and may lead to future regrets or even bullying.
Once you have more of a picture of what has happened and why, bear in mind how both parties were feeling prior to the tiff and what was said or unsaid during the incident. Talk about this with your child and encourage empathy. The other child (or yours) may have problems and/or arguments at home. Stress is not the sole domain of adults: children are prone to stresses and anxieties, too. Another point to remember is that our perception is our reality: if a child (or adult) truly believes X has happened, whether or not it has is almost irrelevant.
Consider role-playing with your child before taking action. Also remember that you need to practice what you preach: don’t help them to resolve conflicts and then shout and scream at them at home.
Respect and empathy
No one wants to try to make amends when they feel threatened, yelled at or ‘dissed’ (disrespected). They are more likely to retaliate, which will only add fuel to the fire. So it’s important to encourage your child to remain calm.
Empathy is immensely powerful: helping your child to understand that their friend may be argumentative or aggressive because they feel neglected, sad or jealous can help them to forget about proving they are “right”. The same goes for your child: how are they feeling?
Perhaps encourage a conversation away from the playground/park/street corner. Encourage your child to talk calmly to their friend and show the empathy you have taught them. Again, depending on the age of your child your actions will vary but consider advising your child to question along the lines of: “I feel really sad we have argued. How are you feeling? Did I do something to upset you? I didn’t mean to make you unhappy. Or “It is because I went off to play with Jordan?” Straightforward questions can help defuse anger by giving the other friend a chance to explain them self and help your child work out the root cause of the disagreement. Of course, your child also needs to be given the opportunity to explain how they feel and why but maybe suggest they go second?
It’s not easy for any of us to admit we may be wrong but it’s the most effective way to take the heat out of an argument. I’m not suggesting you insist on your child being always ‘in the wrong’ but even when they are not, acknowledging how they made their friend feel is powerful without actually admitting guilt. If they are guilty, however, they should admit it and apologise for the action. There are few children who will fail to respond positively to such an acknowledgement.
I’d recommend you help your child to understand what compromise is and the part it plays in any relationship. Help them to work out ways to work with their friend to avoid further upsets. Give examples from your own life (friendships, marriage), like dividing time evenly between two activities or finding a new third activity that both people want to do. Give kids the opportunity to practice compromising with you, too.
In conclusion, it really is not a good idea to fall out with people, especially friends, at whatever age. We can be hot-headed, proud and defiant creatures but the emotional upset, hours of agonising and dreadful feelings of hurt are just not worth it. My vote goes with talking it out – every time. If you need to help your child to agree to differ, it can only be a healthy way forward.