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Knowing When to Step In

July 1, 2013
By Geoffrey Putt, Psy.D.

When it comes to kids and their disputes, the decision to step in or stay out is a dilemma faced several times each day by many parents. Letting children settle their own disputes with siblings or peers can teach valuable life lessons, but some situations may warrant a parental referee. Of course, it's important to evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis, but there are some general guidelines to follow when trying to determine how best to proceed.

When to Step In

Although the natural instinct as a parent is to step in and rescue your child, rushing in to solve the problem for them doesn't actually teach them anything, so it's important to choose your interventions wisely. Yes, as a parent, it's hard to watch children struggle, and extremely tempting to jump in with advice about what to do. But, continually solving our children's problems for them actually does them a disservice, robbing them of the chance to learn the mechanics of problem resolution on their own, a valuable skill that they'll need throughout their life.

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So how can parents help children be responsible for solving their own problems, while still providing the support they need?

Rather than stepping in to provide the mandated solution, instead give children a chance to work out their own issues with mom or dad serving as a mediator. For instance, a dispute over a toy takes place between siblings. Parents can start by offering suggestions like, "maybe you can take turns" or "perhaps you should set a timer." Parents can use these opportunities to foster problem-solving skills that encourage fairness, such as suggesting one child split a cookie while the other child chooses which half. Just like walking and talking, kids need to practice problem solving.

Also take advantage of teachable times when a child makes a mistake. Parents should use this time to probe ways a situation could have been handled differently to get more positive results. For instance, "if you had taken turns, what do you think would have happened?"

In cases of mild behavior, it's often difficult as a parent to decide if it's appropriate to step in. In other cases, however, intervening is more obvious, especially in cases of physical and violent behavior. These situations must never be ignored and always addressed quickly by a parent. Whether a child is violently acting out, screaming or bullying, parents must take an active role in the safety of your child and others. Whichever side of the argument a child is on, they need to know that this is unacceptable behavior and will not be tolerated in the future.

Problem solving is a skill that takes time to develop, and a child will fail many times before successfully navigating through common childhood situations. Even when it seems children have reached a peaceful solution, parents should still remain somewhat engaged and observant of the situation. Part of the learning curve may involve the quick escalation of what appeared to be only a mild conflict.

When Not to Step In

Sure, when a child is facing a major conflict such as hitting or violent behavior, it's necessary for parents to step in. But, there are some times when it's just as important for parents to not step in.

Children continuously seek attention from their parents, an innate desire that sometimes manifests itself in negative behavior. If the behavior your child is exhibiting is not harmful, such as whining, tantrums or even bad habits, ignore the behavior. While it's often hard to do nothing, especially since you just want it to end, giving a child the attention that they are seeking simply reinforces the behavior you want to eliminate.

Conversely, parents who offer extra attention to their child when they are behaving well will see more of this behavior, a method widely known as positive reinforcement. Reinforcement can be in the form of a hug or simple word of encouragement to let them know that mom and dad are proud of them for sharing, sitting quietly or using words instead of aggression to express emotion. Other ways to reinforce positive behavior is to reward them when rules are followed. For example, when the toys are picked up, a child can have extra story time with mom or dad or play on the swing set before dinner.

But, as most parents can attest to, it isn't always that simple. What if a child is exhibiting both positive and negative behaviors?

Let's imagine that you tell your child to complete one of the daily chores, only to hear them turn around and mumble under their breath as they do it. It's a common occurrence, but it's OK. Even though they are whining or sulking, they are still doing what is asked of them. They are following direction and that is what parents should focus on. By focusing on the positive action, instead of the undesirable behavior that accompanies it, parents will likely see more compliance from their child. If parents are consistent, it's more likely that the negative behaviors will eventually disappear as the child recognizes that it is being ignored.

One Step at a Time

Parenting is a journey and a lot of learning, which includes setbacks, will take place along the way for all involved mom and dad and child. At times, you'll feel on top of the world, basking in the glory of moving two steps forward, only to find yourself taking one step back in what seems like an instant. Remember, even if that's the case, you're all still moving forward. As a parent, being able to identify the types of situations that require parental guidance, as opposed to behaviors that should simply be ignored, will help children find successful outcomes for themselves, moving down the path in the right direction.

Geoffrey Putt, Psy.D., is the director of parenting and family support services at Akron Children's Hospital.

 
 
 

 

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