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Fighting in School and at Home

By James Lehman, MSW

Does your child always seem to get in trouble for fighting? You've tried talking to him, but the aggressive behavior hasn't stopped - he still roughhouses with his siblings at home to the point of injury, brawls with kids on the bus and gets into fistfights at school. In this article on aggressive child and teen behavior, I explain why kids get into fights in the first place - and I'll tell you the three basic types of fighting that you need to address as a parent.

Why is fighting on the rise for both boys and girls these days? In fact, why are so many child behavior problems increasing? It's not only fighting; many kids also have a much harder time showing respect for authority, following parental structure, responding to simple directions and completing tasks. It seems like on all levels of measurable behavior, kids are falling further and further behind.

In my experience, all of these behaviors are part of the same larger issue. For one reason or another, many children are not learning the problem-solving skills they need in order to avoid getting into a physical fight. As a result, they develop ineffective coping skills.

If your child uses fighting as a coping skill, you may naturally feel frustrated and unsure about how to handle this issue. Often, parents panic when they start to wake up to the fact that things are getting worse with their child's behavior. They react by using the same tools they used in the past, only they use them harder or louder or more punitively. The problem is that if your child isn't responding to your parenting methods in the first place, doing it louder or stronger probably isn't going to change that. In my opinion, it's not that parents need to use their skills more intensely - it's that they need to develop more intense skills.

How Kids Develop into Fighters
Are some kids more prone to get into fistfights and shoving matches than others? Perhaps. Many children have difficulties solving social problems, and this can often lead to aggressive behavior. A social problem can be anything from learning how to get food when you're hungry, to sharing toys, to responding appropriately when an adult says "no," to not using drugs when your friends do, and avoiding unsafe sex. Most children learn how to handle these problems as they mature. But some kids get sidetracked at some point in their development, perhaps because of a learning disability or some other hidden factor. In any case, they don't develop the problem-solving skills they need to function at their level. These are the kids who often resort to violence and aggression - they use verbal abuse and fighting in place of the coping skills they should have learned along the way.

Sometimes we unknowingly misdirect our kids' coping skill development by teaching them how to make excuses and blame others. When a parent says to a child, "Why did you hit your little brother, Tommy?" not only are they asking Tommy to make an excuse, but if he doesn't, they'll readily provide one: "Maybe you were angry." The question "why" always indicates that we're looking for an excuse or reason, when really what we want to learn is what he was trying to accomplish. So a better question is "What were you trying to accomplish when you hit your brother?" because it gets to the facts of the action. Why Tommy did what he did is not as important as what he was trying to accomplish.

Don't Ask Your Child "Why?" - Ask "What Were You Trying to Accomplish?"
The question "why" doesn't lead to a change in behavior, but the question "What were you trying to accomplish" does lead to that change, because when a person tells you what they were trying to accomplish, there's a window there where you can tell them how they can do it differently next time. If we're not careful, by the time kids are five or six, we've taught them how to make excuses and justify inappropriate behavior. If they're old enough to process this, you can ask them, "What can you do differently next time to accomplish this without hitting your younger brother or getting into trouble?" Younger kids often can't process this yet, so you walk through it with them. Give them some suggestions: "You can go to your room; you can walk away; you can come and tell me that you need some time alone."

There are many professionals who think asking "why" is important. They believe if your child knows why he did something, he'll understand his feelings better - and if he understands his feelings, he won't get aggressive. That's not what I've learned from experience. For children and adolescents, understanding their feelings better simply does not lead to a change in behavior. In fact, it's quite the opposite. A child cannot feel his way to better behavior, but he can behave his way to better feelings. So we always want to focus on what the behavior was and then what the behavior should be.

The Three Types of Fighting
When we think of fighting, we think typically of two people getting angry at each other and coming to physical blows. But certainly, kids fight in many ways and for different reasons.

  1. Oppositional and Defiant Fighting: One form of fighting is being oppositional and defiant toward everything. These are kids who fight and don't even know why. And the more we try to explore the "why" with them, the more they act defiantly. These are the kids to whom parents are most prone to unwittingly teach excuses.

  2. Verbal Abuse and Temper Tantrums: Kids often fight by being verbally abusive; that's how they strike out at you. The goal when you intervene with kids who are being verbally abusive is to teach them how to do things differently next time - the same as if they were fighting or hitting.

  3. Angry and Antagonistic Behavior: Sometimes kids get angry or antagonized by another child and hit them. Or two or more kids will have an argument that escalates until they come to blows. Some children are easily antagonized, and will often use a fist in place of other coping skills.
I think all of these kids who fight for these reasons have one thing in common: they simply have not developed their social problem-solving skills - whether it's an ability to communicate, accept boundaries, meet responsibilities, or get along with others - in a way that gives them adequate control over their angry and frustrated impulses.

Dealing with a child who is aggressive and gets into fights all the time is really tough; I understand that very well. I see a lot of frustrated parents today who feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Even though they have talked to other parents, read books and watched TV shows about parenting, they aren't able to change their child's behavior - and their own techniques continue to be ineffective.

I'm not saying there's a magic cure, but I do believe parents need to seek out information and learn new skills as much as they can. Sadly, many parents put a lot of effort into getting a diagnosis for their acting-out children by going from therapist to therapist, but often they don't get enough information on how to become more effective parents themselves, regardless of the diagnosis.

So now I shall give you practical advice on how to deal with fighting at home and at school. I'll address the importance of talking with your child after he's gotten in trouble for fighting at school - and tell you exactly how to do this, step-by-step.

When your children use fighting or other negative physical behavior as their main coping skills, you'll find that it usually doesn't stop at home--they will use it at school, in the neighborhood, on the ball field or at the mall. If your son uses physical fighting, for example, or your daughter uses verbal abuse in place of the problem-solving skills they need to learn in order to function successfully as adults--skills like communication, negotiation and compromise--make no mistake, you need to address this problem immediately. If you don't, understand that it's as if your children will be entering the world with a couple of hammers to handle their problems, when what they really need is a wide range of sophisticated tools in order to be successful.

How to Handle Fighting at School and at Home: 7 Tools You Can Use Today
When your child is disciplined at school for getting into a fight, I think the absolute best thing you can do is first find out from the school exactly what happened. That way, you'll have a framework for your eventual discussion with your child.

In my opinion, the most effective way to handle news about fighting at school is to do the following:

  1. Give Your Child Time to Transition:
    When your child gets home, give him ten minutes to reorient to the house. Let him have his snack or listen to some music. Don't challenge him immediately, because transition is difficult for people of all ages, and it is not a time to deal with any issues at all. For instance, if a child acts out at the mall, or there's a problem with the next door neighbors, when you get him back in the house, give him ten minutes before you talk with him. The time to talk about any episode is not right when he gets home. It's hard for people to process emotions during transitions. Rather, the time to talk about it is ten minutes later, after your child has calmed down.

  2. Be Direct and Don't Trap Him:
    When you talk, try to avoid blaming, tricking or trapping your child. Instead, be very direct and straightforward; put the facts out there. "I spoke to the school today and they were concerned. Would you like to tell me what happened?" Don't try to trap your child by saying things like, "Did anything happen at school today that you want to talk about?" Over time, trick or "trap" questions will increase your child's anxiety and make him not trust you, because he will never know what you're going to confront him with.

  3. Listen to What He Has to Say--Even If He's Wrong:
    Let your child tell you the whole story first, if he's willing to talk. Don't cut him off halfway through by saying, "Well, that's not what they said." If you do that, you're never going to hear his side of the story. By the way, your child's account may not be accurate or honest, and his perceptions may not be valid. But the bottom line is that if you hear the whole story, at least then you've got something comprehensive to work with.

    If you stop your child when he sounds like he's not telling the truth, you may miss the point that shines light on the fact that it's a matter of different perceptions. Often, a child's perceptions aren't the same as an adult's--and you won't learn that unless you hear the whole story. By the way, these misperceptions will need to be corrected. So encourage your child to talk.

  4. Use Active Listening Methods:
    When you say, "The school called me today about a fight. Can you tell me what happened?" your child may tell you something, or he may not. If he decides to talk, let him tell you as much as he can. Always use statements such as, "Uh huh.""Tell me more." "I see." and "What happened next?" Those are active listening methods that get kids to talk more and be comfortable. Don't forget, our goal is not to intimidate or punish. Our goal is to investigate and learn information. On the other hand, if he refuses to talk about what happened, I recommend that he not be allowed to play, watch TV, use electronics, or do anything else until he's ready to talk.

    When you are talking with your child, if he gets stuck for a minute, repeat back what you've heard him saying in this manner: "So what I hear you saying is, Jared came and kicked you today for no reason, so you hit him. Is that right?" Get it straight so that you're both on the same page. When your child is done, ask, "Did the school punish you?" and then ask how. Let him tell you what the school did and then say, "OK, when I spoke to the school, this is what they told me." First, start with the points your child and the school agreed on. "They did say you and Jared were having an argument and that it was almost lunch time." Or "They did say that Michael was being rude to you in the cafeteria and that he was teasing you about the shirt you wore today."

  5. Avoid Using the Word "But":
    Here's an important rule of thumb--when disagreeing with your child or wanting to point out something to him, avoid using the word "but"--use a word like "and" instead. Understand that the word "but" cuts down on communication, because it really means, "Now I'm going to tell you where you were wrong," This simply sets up a kid's defenses. For example, if you say, "You did a nice job cleaning your room today, but..." he knows something negative is coming. "But it still smells in there." That's not as helpful as saying, "You did a nice job cleaning your room, and now I'd like you to spray it with room deodorizer." You'll get the same result, but you're doing it in a more affirmative, pleasant way.

    So you can say, "I heard about what Michael said to you...and the teacher also said that he heard Michael say insulting things about your shirt. And then the teacher told you to go to the lunch counter, and said that he would take care of Michael for you. Instead, you chose to curse at Michael and started walking toward him in a threatening way. What were you trying to accomplish when you cursed at Michael and walked in his direction?" Keep probing, trying to find out what he wanted to accomplish. Most importantly, you want your child to make an admission about what happened so he can learn from it.

    One of the things you want to do if you can is point out the exact moment when your child's problem-solving skills stopped working, because that's the point where the learning can take place. If your son says, "I started walking toward Michael because he was being mean to me," you can respond, "You know, you were right that he was being mean and you were right to get angry, but if the teacher says he's going to take care of it, you have to stop or you'll get into trouble. If somebody insulted my clothes or called me names, I wouldn't like it either. So I understand."

  6. When Talking with the School about Consequences:
    Find out what the school's usual consequences are for fighting when you talk with them. If they ask you, "What do you think we should do?" I think you should say, "Well, what are the standard consequences for this behavior? Is there any reason why you shouldn't follow them? I think you should follow your policy."

    Let me be clear here: anything that your child does that is physically aggressive, physically abusive, or verbally abusive should be followed up at home with a discussion and possible consequence. (Any functional problem--running in the hall, chewing gum, throwing something--should be handled by the school. It's their job to manage routine behavior.)

    The reason you have to challenge the more disruptive behaviors at home is because home is the place where you have the time to teach him about alternatives. If it's the first time, help him figure out where his coping skills broke down, and then work with him on coming up with some appropriate ones. On the other hand, if this is the second time this has happened at school, not only should you talk about where his skills broke down, but there should be a consequence to keep him accountable. That consequence could include any task that you think would be helpful to his learning about the situation for the amount of time it takes him to complete it. So grounding him for six hours is not helpful, but having him write ten things he could do differently next time is helpful.

    If your child is suspended from school, I recommend that he loses all his privileges and electronics until he's off suspension. That timeline is easy; the school has already set it for you. Remember, if your child is suspended to home, then you put the keyboard, the cable box, the iPod and the cell phone in the back of your car when you go to work.

    And here's how I recommend that parents deal with siblings fighting at home:

  7. How to Handle Fighting at Home:
    Fighting at home differs from fighting in school for a parent because if you weren't there when the fight started, the reality is, there's no way to tell who's telling the truth--or if in fact there is a truth. Remember, if two kids with distorted perceptions get into a physical fight, there may not be a truth; there might just be their distorted perceptions compounded by the absence of communication and problem-solving skills.

    Either way, if you weren't there to see the fight start, the best way to deal with it is to give both kids the same consequence and learning lesson. To begin with, meet with each child briefly to get their perceptions. Then give each kid the same consequence and learning lesson, no matter who you think was responsible for starting it. So that might be, "You will both go to your rooms until you write three paragraphs (depending upon how old your child is) on what you're going to do differently next time." Or "Each of you has to go and write an apology to your brother. Until it's done, you both stay in your rooms." If your kids share a room, then send one to the kitchen. Separating them is important because not only will it stop the fight, it will help your kids calm down.

    With younger kids, they can be sent to their room for a while to play on their own. And with older kids, let them listen to music in their rooms. The idea is that they should calm down and then write their essays. (With younger kids who can't write yet, you might just have them tell you what they will do differently next time.) By the way, each child should be dealt with separately, regarding how they respond to the consequence. So if one child is resistant and defiant and the other is not, that's taken into consideration, in terms of how long they have to stay in their rooms or go without privileges.

Understand that your kids may have another fight an hour later, and they might have to go back in their rooms again and again. The important thing here is that when they write those apologies or alternative behaviors, the part of their mind that's trying to solve problems and learn how to communicate better is beginning to work. Part of any learning experience is to get that area of the mind--the learning, problem-solving, communicating area of the mind--working. It's like exercising: as long as your body is doing push-ups, your muscles are going to get bigger. When you stop doing push-ups, those muscles don't get bigger anymore. And certainly, if you want to teach your child how to communicate and problem solve, you have to use those situations as much as you can. Think of it as practice for the future--you are helping your kids build muscles that will help them behave appropriately for the rest of their lives.

Whenever possible, build on past successes. What has the child done in this type of situation that worked for him in the past? You can ask, "Yesterday your brother was annoying to you, but you didn't hit him then. What made today different? It seemed like you handled it great yesterday. What did you do then that you didn't do today? What did you say to control yourself? How is this different?" Pointing out a previous success in a similar situation can provide insight and direction for the future, and that's exactly what you want to give your child.

Fighting in School and at Home is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents magazine. James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. This program offers practical, real world solutions for the most challenging problems parents face: defiance, disrespect, back talk, lying, cursing, lack of motivation, acting out in school and more. In this step-by-step program you'll learn the techniques James has used in his private practice to help children take responsibility for their behavior and help parents get back in control of their homes. James has worked with troubled teens and children for three decades, and holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University.

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