Step in during kid conflicts or let them handle it themselves?

Posted by
Mama said knock you out cross stitch by Etsy seller aliciawatkins
I am wondering where and when my fellow mamas see it appropriate to step in during kid conflict. The media has (rightly, in my opinion) highlighted the occurrence of bullying and its negative, long-lasting effect on kids. As the mother of a long-haired boy who has already had feminine-flavored insults thrown at him by other kids, I’ve already had to make choices on when to step in to help him handle the situation.

My boy is going on five, and most other moms seem to have hit the point of “handle it on your own” with their kids. No tattling! No complaining! Deal with it! But I feel torn — I want my son to be able to handle his conflicts, but I feel like some of them are beyond the pale of what a kid should be left to deal with on their own.

What do you think: how do you decide when to let your kid(s) fight their battles, and when to stop potentially damaging situations?

Comments on Step in during kid conflicts or let them handle it themselves?

  1. It’s such a tough question. The temptation to intervene is there, but a lot of times kids do work stuff out on their own. I always intervene if someone is doing anything approaching dangerous. A kid was holding my son underwater. Nope!

  2. it really depends upon the situation. if she’s having a tiff with her friends, i stay out of it & tell them to work it out. but if it’s a case of other kids giving her a hard time, i will defend my child to the death. and further, i will have words with the kids parents if i need to.

  3. I am not a parent (yet), but as a teacher, it seems as though children are not being taught HOW to defend themselves at all. In our school system, it is always “tell a parent or teacher”, never “learn when and how to defend yourself”. It seems like kids are taught that everything now is bullying– students will want teachers to “handle” when other kids do things like make faces at them or ignore them now, because in their minds even that is bullying.
    Personally, I think the bullying issue has become too involved and exaggerated and kids should be taught to fight back at least a little before running to an adult.
    I think that parents/teachers/etc should step in if (like said above) the situation has the potential to become dangerous.

    • @ g;
      I agree with you on the lack of “self defense”. Unfortunately at our schools our kids are told that if they defend themselves they are culpable as well which really irks me. We had a “bullying meeting” at the grade school because the fighting was getting so out of hand and the only parents that showed up were those of kids who had been bullied…how does that help? We also supposedly have a “zero tolerance” policy for cyber-bullying and when my son was threatened via fb, I showed it to local law enforcement and they did NOTHING. The child threatened to kick my son’s butt and even used an example of another boy who assaulted my son for how bad it was going to be. I’m a very frustrated parent in my area and i have taught my kids self defense and given them my divine blessing to use it.

    • The “fight back” mentality is not working, it never has. The reason for bullying awareness is because things NEED to change.

      At my son’s school the children have certain procedures they follow before involving adults. When you feel uncomfortable you put your hand in a “stop” position, you ask them to stop verbally and you walk away. If the other person(s) continues, you repeat this. If they are continuing, you tell an adult that you need “conflict management” with this person(s). The children then are encouraged to partake in a “conflict resolution” that is read off a script. At this point if the offender continues the bullying adults need to be involved.
      The students at my son’s school have also gone through extensive workshops with a local counseling programme that has helped the children to move on from a major trauma they had recently. It is a good thing when the community is involved with educating your children on positive solutions to bullying, recognizing bullying (what is/isn’t), and it gives them the opportunity to see it from a neutral place. Parents and teachers are often seen as authorities. A counselor and/or trained mediator is often seen as a person who would withhold judgement.
      All of these things have shown the students, administration and families how we can all work together. You don’t have to be friends but we must learn to cooperate in this world (classroom) to get things done. And we are better people for it!
      With all of that, I personally only step in when I see that my son is struggling, either emotionally or physically. I definitely step in when things get physical! I find that the “bullying” behavior is often just a sign of someone who has not learned and/or has not been taught how to get attention in a positive way. Obviously most of these children will be “unreachable” to your kindness and compassion. The best thing to do (in my opinion) is talk to the other child, if they are unwilling to change their behavior, collect your child(rens) faculties and encourage her/him to move on to a new area in the playground or a new activity in the classroom.
      Reading the ques of your children will help them recognize situations and respond to them when you are not with them. “Did you notice how that person was making you feel?” Discuss and role play positive responses so that when they are faced with this situation again (and again) they will be able to withhold violence.
      The next level comes when the bully’s parents refuse to see their child as needing intervention and they continue to make excuses for their childs behavior. That, however, if for another post.
      Peace now!

    • Not all bullying/conflicts happen at school. One day this past winter after they got off the bus, 2 other girls held down my 7 year old took her coat and hat and ran down to the brook in the woods by our apartment complex and threw them in! Her friggin’ winter coat! In January! In MAINE! I work till 11pm, so I didn’t hear about it until I got home that night, and my in-laws were watching the girls for us. My mother in law was perplexed. Her kids were homeschooled (she’s Bill’s stepmom) and had never had to deal with bullying. I was fuming. The girls returned her coat the next day, one of the mothers laid into them about it, and had washed it and dried it. I told my daughter if someone is holding her down and bullying her that she needs to fight back. If someone is hurting you, you FIGHT back, I also told her to yell, and scream as loud as she can to draw attention to the situation.

  4. This IS a tough one! I’ve had to face this more than than I would have liked to with both my children. I think the first thing is to have an open line of communication with your child. I recently found out that my son thinks I “over react” when I’m in protective mother bear mode! Which has prevented him from coming to me when he is having a problem (a classmate stole his backpack) Unfortunately the way he handled it on his own resulted in an after school fight and out of school suspension so he now knows that even if mom’s way bothers him, it was better than his way. I think the second most important thing is to be aware of the situation as fully as you can. Who is bullying who, how did it start, have the other parents been notified, if it’s at school-is the school aware? I tend to let my two kids work out their problems more and more…because stepping in only causes more whining and pointing of the finger…but when it comes to other kids targeting my babies, I get protective. I think the last thing is that we can’t ever be TOO safe…who knows when bullying is going to turn ugly. I’d rather look back and say “wow guess I got a little overprotective” than look back and say “wish I had done something” after something terrible happens.

  5. I agree with the teacher’s comment above. Both “fight back!!!!!” (wrong) and “only tell a teacher!!” are not workable solutions. An after-school fight? The opposite of an answer. Run to the teacher for every single indiscretion? Not workable or productive. Have mommy or daddy scream at the kid? No.

    I would highly suggest looking into Peer Mediation curriculum (if you just google it, there are a BUNCH out there, and instructional videos).

    Imagine how different the world would be if we had Peer Mediation curriculum in every school grade, K-12. Imagine if they had this in the Middle East.

    I think we are doing a HUGE disservice by not teaching this in schools. But maybe as parents it’s something you could look into to either ask the school to teach, or have a Peer Mediation club, etc…maybe OBM can do an article on it too 😀 .

    • I was a peer mediator in high school, but I was never actually called upon to mediate anything. The training was valuable to me, though. I’m a college professor now and I still use some of those techniques when dealing with angry students.

  6. My belief and practice is that it’s the job of parents and teachers to help children navigate conflicts and help them learn the tools to solve problems on their own so that intervention becomes unnecessary. Of course this means that there will be a lot of parent/teacher involvement up front, the “payoff” is worth the effort. The difficulty is in still providing the space for children to work it out while just guiding them. It can take awhile or seem like it’s not going anywhere. I also think it’s important not to force an apology. Sometimes it is enough for a child to grasp that his or her action made another child sad, hurt, etc.

    I use this problem solving model with my preschoolers: (the HELP method)

    I think the Peer Mediation curriculum suggestion is a great idea.

    There are exceptions to every rule and sometimes it’s appropriate to do nothing and other times a parent or teacher must intervene immediately.

  7. I usually wait to see how my daughter (now 6.5) will handle a situation before I step in. If the situation is becoming dangerous or physical, I’ll remove her from the situation.

    I remember one time on the playground (a couple years ago) when I literally FLEW over to my daughter because a girl twice her age was trying to shove her her off of the high playground equipment! My little girl was sobbing and trying to hold on to the rail. I was boiling with rage, but I calmly and firmly told the child to NEVER put her hands on my kid again. She ran off to ‘tell her mom on me’, so I walked over and nicely told the child’s mother what had happened and what I said. The poor lady was so apologetic and mortified. She made her daughter apologize, then took her home 🙂

  8. My son is two, but generally I let him try to interact with other kids on his own, and only intervene if there’s something physical or if one of the kids involved is getting upset.

    Unfortunately, my son is typically the more assertive child in conflicts, which puts me in a weird place as a non-assertive person.

  9. I think a distinction needs to be made here.

    The onus should never be on a child to defend himself from racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. insults (and a boy being teased for having long hair is ABSOLUTELY sexist and homophobic). Too many excuses are made for children who sling insults (or fists) at other children – “Boys will be boys,” “They don’t know what they are saying,” etc. They may not understand the complexities behind their comments and that they are steeped in heteronormativity and male privilege, but that doesn’t really matter. They need to be told that their behavior is inappropriate. We can work on teaching children WHY such behavior is inappropriate later, but a marginalized child should not have to wait for his bullies to understand their hateful words.

    Friends or siblings quarreling over who gets what toy or so and so stuck his tongue out – no, that does not necessarily need adult involvement. As long as children are safe, they should be able to work out these small conflicts themselves. No one is these situations is marginalized or feels like he or she cannot stand up for him or herself.

    • Agreed! (And that is part of peer mediation, determining when a situation is actually physically dangerous/threatening – for situations where a child is in real danger, then of course an adult needs to be told/intervene). Peer mediation never advocates putting a peer med’r in harm’s way. But many, many situations are not at that level, or can be “problem-solved” before they get to that level.

      I also don’t think OBM is talking about situations where your child is in real danger (then of course, intervene!). But for regular “kid conflicts,” I think peer mediation is great. (And again, there are a lot of resources online that go into the specifics of what the process is about).

  10. What Cal said exactly. I think it’s good for them to settle petty arguments on their own, but the second it turns into bullying or insults of a highly personal nature, or if it turns physical, I step in. In most cases I will talk calmly with the other child(ren) about how they would feel if the tables were turned, but sometimes I admit I just shoot them a dirty look. I’m not perfect! My kids are never the instigators, it’s hard not to get angry. I am not some amazing mother who does everything right, yet somehow my kids are kind and gentle with other kids. I know some of it is left up to genetics, but it can’t be THAT hard to raise a child who can make kind decisions!

  11. I think there’s a very fine line to tread though when intervening. It’s all well and good storming in to defend your child and instigate discipline upon the other child/children involved but there’s potential (without wanting to cause drama on here) that your child is just as guilty if not more so. Perhaps it’s better to involve yourself but in an unbiased manner until it’s known what role your child has played and what needs to be actioned?

    • As someone who babysits many children frequently (including for parent meetings – up to 12 at a time) I have a couple of guidelines/thresholds for intervening.

      – If everyone is picking on one person, I call an immediate halt. I use my “librarian voice” (the one you don’t argue with) to emphasize that picking on people is not okay. I definitely give the kid who is being picked on a couple tries to defend themselves verbally before stepping in.

      – If one kid is repeatedly rude or hurtful verbally (name-calling, etc.), I get everyone involved to come and sit down. We go around and each person gets to tell their side of the story without being interrupted or corrected. I then tell them what I hear they are saying (i.e. “it seems as though what X said hurt Y’s feelings, is that right?”) and ask what they think should happen. Children generally have a fair sense of justice.

      – If someone is physically hurt by someone else, the parties involved sit down and tell their sides, and I decide what happens (i.e. “X hit Y with a stick, so X gets to sit on the bench for 5 minutes”).

      If things escalate to a point at which I do step in for any of those reasons, it’s generally because a kid has poor communication skills or is not developmentally where they ought to be. Usually some sort of group activity or distraction stops any sort of argument/bullying type behavior before it needs to be addressed.

  12. I have been dealing with this all year. My son started out the school year with long hair, and has had insults thrown at him. Unfortunately, we weren’t aware of them as he internalized them until he took a pair of scissors to hair he had refused to cut for over a year and a half. Unfortunately, the bullying didn’t stop when his hair got shorter, it just changed. I have become his advocate. I will always stand up for him, and he knows this. This has meant that we’ve had a lot of open and honest conversations, well, as much as you can have with a 5 year old (even though he is very articulate within our family).

    • I think you hit on something here that is really important to me, which is basically that while I try to encourage my son to find ways to work out his non-hurtful conflicts with other kids (sharing, bugging each other, etc.) I actually try to minimize the amount of “don’t tattle” or other ways of turning him away, even though I’m bombarded by parenting books and your-kid’s-development emails telling me to do so. I feel like it is really easy for kids to give up talking to people about how they are feeling and what they’re having a hard time with, and I don’t want him to feel like he’s alone when things get hard. Is that really a lesson I have to teach him? There are going to be plenty of times he’ll be forced to handle difficult situations alone, so it’s one of those things where I feel like I’m not over-sheltering by being his advocate when I can be.

  13. I hate tattling. Tattling and whining. I’m a big fan of letting kids work it out themselves, I just have to make sure to arm my son with the right words to do so. Unfortunately no matter how much I do the right thing with my own child, there are plenty of parents out there who haven’t done the same with theirs. Kids are MEAN! I was appalled by the things I heard kids say to each other when I worked at a daycare. I’m still a little torn between finding a balance between having a sensitive and empathetic child and one who can stand up for himself. I’m not always sure how to handle things. For instance, most of the time he has shaggy hair and while I don’t think his clothes are necessarily “gender neutral” I’m not a fan of things that are overtly “boy” like blue and things plastered with sports themes and trucks. I like nice, stylish clothes and sometimes he gets called a girl because he isn’t wearing camo and doesn’t have buzzed hair. There was one time at the mall play area where at first it seemed like the kids called him a girl because they just didn’t know differently but they continued to do it after their mom corrected them and I noticed that she was just smirking and laughing it off so I sat there fuming, wanting to get him away from these rotten kids but not wanting to upset him because he really wanted to keep playing with them and at 3 years old he was blissfully unaware of anything negative going on. What do you do?

  14. I was really curious what others would right because I think this is a genuinely confusing issue. I was picked on like crazy I gave reaction which only prompted more taunting. You know what I got made fun of for? Curly hair being skinny and liking to read. All thing which as an adult are great. I’m curious what grown ups that were once bullies would say about why they bullied? I know I had my moment in HS where I was (briefly) a mean girl. I was thinking if I make fun of someone they won’t make fun of me. One of my best friends pointed out that I was potentialy making someone else feel pain that I had felt. I think that logic would work on a child but it takes sn aware parent to make that happen.

  15. I’m not a parent nor am I a teacher, but I was bullied lightly in elementary school, moderately in middle school, and lightly in high school. I stood up for myself, mostly by telling my bully to shut up and later on by trying to beat them down with reason. I would have insults hurled at me as I rode my bike around my neighborhood and I have to say that one thing that really strengthened me was when a group of bullies were throwing stuff at me, I hid on some apartment steps and one of the group came over and apologized for his friends. I got teased by the neighborhood boys up until one of them turned to his friend as we walked home and said “*John* leave her alone already”. In 9th grade I endured insults as I walked into school from a group of guys until one day one of their friends yelled at them.

    That was the long-winded way of saying that having one’s peers defend the victim goes a long way. Three times I’ve been “rescued” by friends of bullies, who all later apologized and are friends with me still now when I’m 24. I don’t have the answer, but I can say that I got stronger when people my age stood up for me. I don’t advocate fighting, but I do advocate speaking up. I don’t know if that can be taught, but I just wanted to share that.

    “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”

  16. As a preschool teacher I say “Use your words!”. Tell the person that you don’t like what they are doing and ask them to stop. After 2 times, then come tell a teacher.
    Children need the tools to defend themselves, but not with violence. They can use their words and try to work the problem out.
    In 9th and 10th grade I was teased BIG TIME (by students and by a young teacher for a speech impediment). I wish I used my words instead of being afraid.

  17. I agree with a lot of people here about focusing on teaching kids how to work out conflicts themselves and only intervening if things get serious, but I also wanted to recommend the book “Becoming the Parent you Want to Be”. It gives a lot of very specific advice about how to help kids work out conflicts.

  18. I think that kids come to adults with problems for help, and “help,” doesn’t always mean stepping in to play referee. It can mean just giving your kid advice to go back and confront the problem on their own.

    Another big part of it is awareness. Not awareness that bullying happens, we all know that, but awareness of your kids. Any adult that has any involvement with kids needs to be aware of their kids, and what they’re saying and doing to each other. Some adults don’t notice, because the insults being hurled seem benign at face value. As a teacher, this means letting your kids’ parents know when there are problems. As a parent, it means being willing to hear and accept that your kid might be doing something wrong, and then do something about it. (I have seen far too many parents try to brush off problems or make excuses for their kids, rather than address the problem.)

Join the Conversation