Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Assertive Anger Expression for Kids: Arguing vs. Disagreeing

Do your children bicker? Mine sure do. In fact, asking if they bicker is like asking if they breathe; it comes so naturally to them that some days it seems like a life-sustaining function. I try to remind myself that sibling rivalry, while not actually critical to survival, is at least a great teacher for kids, as they practice life skills like assertiveness, negotiation, and forgiveness.

Though I put great effort into not being a constant family mediator, one of the most effective lessons I was ever able to pass on mid-conflict was teaching my daughters the difference between disagreeing and arguing. Yes, one weekend afternoon, my kids were actually fighting about…wait for it…whether they should go to the same college or a different one. Did I mention that my daughters are ages 5 and 7?

I’m thrilled that college is on both of their minds and delighted that they feel so strongly about it, but an argument a full decade in advance of the event seemed premature. Teaching them that they could disagree without arguing happened as such:

What Does Arguing Look Like?
Since they were on the subject of school, I made use of our basement chalkboard and asked the girls to describe for me the kinds of things they do when they are arguing. My 2nd grader suggested that each girl raise their hands in order to give an answer—such a professional student! And so, in turn, my girls offered insight into their own behaviors with answers like:
  • Yell at each other
  • Raise our voices
  • Interrupt each other
  • Insult each other
  • Stop talking to each other
  • Pout (with a puffed out lower lip like you have never seen before!)

What Does Disagreeing Look Like?
We were on a roll! So, I drew a line down the center of the board and started a new column for my girls to describe how they show disagreement. The roll came to a very slow tumble. I suggested a few answers to get their momentum back. Our final list looked something like this:
  • Use a calm, kind voice
  • Use an “indoor” voice (e.g. regular volume)
  • Look the other person in the eye
  • Understand that her opinion is as important to her as mine is to me
  • Agree to disagree

No where on our list, I emphasized, did we write “let the other person have her way” or even “compromise.” My hope was to teach my daughters that differences of opinion are perfectly natural and completely okay; the way in which they express those differences is what matters. In kids’ conflicts, resolution is a goal, but it is not the goal. Rather, my main objective was to teach them assertive anger expression skills they can use to disagree respectfully.

Two Final Questions
In the end, I know that kids often follow the WIIFM principle: what’s in it for me. I posed these two final questions to help my girls understand the benefits of disagreeing without arguing:
  • Which set of behaviors is more likely to hurt your relationship with your sister or with friends?
  • Which set of behaviors is more likely to get you what you want?

Ahhh, I was speaking in their language.
I can tell you that there is no less bickering in my home, after our Disagreeing vs. Arguing 101. But I can tell you that there are kinder words, lower tones, and quicker resolutions. Problem improved.

By Signe Whitson, LSW. For more strategies on helping kids disagree without arguing, check out Whitson’s new book, How to be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens. Signe also writes for My Baby Clothes dot com, where you can find baby clothes, baby hats and tutus.



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