It isn’t easy being five.

I sometimes think the hardest thing about parenting isn’t discipline or sleepless nights or picky eaters. It’s knowing your child faces a hundred different battles every day and you can’t fight them for her.

Last week, Flea’s teacher asked if Flea might be worried about anything as she’s been complaining of stomach pains at school. So one evening, snuggled in bed, I asked Flea if she’s having fun at school these days.

Almost immediately Flea became tearful. She took a deep breath and whispered, “It’s nothing too bad, but I just don’t like all the falling out.”

It turns out that Flea’s struggling to cope with playground conflict – there are some older kids who always want to pick what game the kids play, and then there’s a boy who pushed someone, and there’s a girl who screams (“It just goes right through me,” says Flea) and another girl who pushed her tongue out and told Flea it was none of her business why they were playing horses and not doctors.

So far, so typical for five-year-olds, I know.

After chatting for a few minutes, I asked Flea whether this was the reason for her recent stomach aches. Flea nodded. “I have lots of warm spots in my tummy for all the people I like but I have a big empty space here where the other people are,” she said, touching her middle. “And that is the bit that hurts.”   

Here's the thing – what's everyday for kids with siblings (and I should know, I grew up with three older brothers) is brand new for Flea. She's an only child so she's never had to wrestle for a toy, scream to compete for attention, or deal with the fact that someone doesn't want to play what she wants to play. She's not a wimp by any stretch of the imagination, but she's never been punched or kicked or pushed over. And I can't bring myself to think that's a completely bad thing. 

The other thing about growing up in a single parent household is that you almost never see people argue. You can be happily married but the chances are you occasionally bicker over the breakfast table, either with your spouse, or one of your other kids. We don't have that. We’re genuinely just a very chilled out household. Again, it's not such a bad thing to be able to say, right? But it means Flea is easily upset by raised voices or disagreement. 

Basically, then, Flea's never had to toughen up. She doesn't yet have the skills many kids take for granted – those negotiation and conflict-resolution skills, or the ability to stand firm when someone doesn't agree with you. Nope. What she has instead are empty spots in her heart for the people she doesn't like. 

When you choose to raise your child alone, there are consequences of that choice that can take you by surprise years down the road. But that doesn't mean you can fix it – I suspect this is one issue I need to let Flea resolve on her own. I've told her she can walk away from people who are rude, and it's perfectly okay to tell people you don't like what they are doing, but I'm not sure I can (or should) do any more than that.

What do you think? How did you teach your kids to deal with conflict?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 5th May 2011 / 7:29 am

    Wow, Flea sounds like a very wise and sensitive little girl – to talk about her feelings (stomach) in that way. It is SUCH a tough one. And I don’t know the answer. I am just coming into this kind of thing with Betty – she comes home from pre-school upset about what another child has done and it ties me up in knots – you feel helpless. Your tranquil household sounds so lovely – you are very lucky to have that x

  2. Nikki
    5th May 2011 / 9:10 am

    Hi Sally,
    Only child or not, all children have to learn to deal with conflict so don’t beat yourself up too much about her being an only child – she’s just arriving late to the game so is probably more mature about it. The gap between my two is only 15 months so they had to learn about sharing air time and toys from an early stage but the eldest still comes home from school talking about issues in the playground. I just say – walk away if you’re unhappy or someone hurts you and tell a teacher is you feel you can’t cope with it. She’s a right tattle tail so that’s normally her resolution LOL!
    It’s harder with my youngest – soon to start school himself – as he’s more sensitive and prefers quiet to rowdy so I think he’s really going to struggle at school. Hey ho – it takes all types in this world and eventually we all (well most) learn the basic skills needed to cope. It’s lovely that Flea expresses herself so well and for that alone I think you should be very proud. The rest (her coping mechanisms) will come with time.

  3. 5th May 2011 / 9:24 am

    Littlest has grown up in a very – ahem – vocal household with a mum, a dad and a sister, and she still has exactly the same problems that Flea is having.
    Last term Littlest had those tummy aches before school – turned out that she was being bullied by some boys (along with associated mind tricks ‘Don’t tell anyone, because we’re friends now, right?’ – who said six-year-old boys were dim?). We went into school and within a day it was sorted – penitent cards were drawn, and things straightened out.
    I think at this age things are much simpler – I cannot even begin to understand what’s going on with Eldest’s class, Year 5.

  4. 5th May 2011 / 9:39 am

    Flea is such a senstive a nd well adjusted child. I know you and I know that you will find the right way to deal with this with her. She is a real credit to you Sally, she really is. I would love a little of what you and Flea have to rub off nad me and the boys. I know that their loudness can be scarey to her too

  5. 5th May 2011 / 10:09 am

    Hi Sally
    Im not convinced it is even just about being only child, sometimes it is just thier nature or personality. Our boy is 13 months older than his sister and we have had comments from nursery concerned over the fact he wont stick up for himself. If another child wants the toy he is playing with he lets them have it and goes and picks up another one. This did have me concerned but like flea I am convinced he just has a sensitive and sharing personality.
    I have read entries about flea and she sounds amazing child, i would suggest doing what we have decided to do and allow their own personalities to grow and just be the support they need as and when. To help them make sense of things that have happened.
    I love the nature and personality of my little boy and I am happy now to not intervene and try and change that, yes he gets upset easily, but he is kind loving and caring, and long may that continue.
    Fleas maturity is amazing and just shows how special a little girl she is, she will develop her own style on how to deal with the conflicts and situations, and it will be one that suits her personality.
    Her empty spots are that persons loss if they cant find their way into an amazing girls warms spots than that’s their loss.

  6. 5th May 2011 / 10:09 am

    I raised my 16 year old on my own for half of his life and always struggled with the fact that our home life was just so peaceful! I thought it would turn around and bite me in the ass at some point, especially as I was raised by parents who I never saw argue. In some ways it has, insofar as he’s never found it easy to cope with the louder/more confident boys … BUT … he has other qualities that, in my opinion, make him all the more special. He’s sensitive (like Flea sounds), understanding but still able to stand his ground when pushed … it just takes longer for him to explode! (not a bad thing)
    My youngest is 6 and has been raised in very different circumstances, so i’m carrying out a live experiment day by day really … it will be interesting to see if he turns out like his brother or the complete antithesis!
    I can get a little ‘shouty’ from time to time but far from feeling guilty, I know that actually (and unfortunately), I’m actually preparing them for The Real World.
    Bless Flea … if it’s any consolation, my 6yo comes home telling me similar tales – what’s crucial is that she obviously has your support and understanding. Not all children have that do they … so I’m sure she will be just fine. It’s good that not all children are rowdy and loud – she sounds adorable x

  7. 5th May 2011 / 10:13 am

    I grew up as a shy, quiet middle child, with a confident and pushy older sister and a confident and noisy younger brother. I arrived at school less able to handle conflict, not more.
    I then witnessed parents having an extremely turbulent couple of years of marriage, followed by a very nasty divorce, and it made me even less able to handle conflict.
    Now as an (alleged) grownup, I can’t handle conflict in any way whatsoever. It’s just who I am. Maybe it’s just who Flea is and maybe she’d be that way regardless. She sounds sweet and sensitive, and in all honesty not being able to handle conflict is not always a bad thing. It means I work very very hard at living my life in a way that makes sure I don’t get sore tummies.

  8. 5th May 2011 / 10:15 am

    We had almost the same issue with C – only child, and a conflict-free house (we’re still married, but we don’t argue). She found playground politics incredibly difficult and quite upsetting to deal with when she first started school, but she seems to be more robust now she’s in year 4 (I think. By the time I remember what year/class she is in, she seems to be in the next one).

  9. 5th May 2011 / 11:20 am

    Oh poor Flea… I think ignoring someone for their poor behavior is often seen as condoning that behavior, so it isn’t the answer and turning the other cheek is just setting her up to be bullied… which is to awful to think of because a bullied kid very quickly goes from despair to despondent. You are an assertive no nonsense kind of mum, give her some assertiveness tools… Make a game of it. I wrote some tips in this post on bullying… just scroll down for the se7en tips. I have found just asking my kids to think about how they are standing: like someone who is going to be tripped on their way past or someone who won’t be interfered with… once they have acted that out they often feel more able to at least present a more confidant front.

  10. 5th May 2011 / 11:23 am

    I’m entirely with you on not experiencing bad being perfectly good. I know from my own experience that being bullied at school did not teach me to cope with being bullied at all, quite the reverse. It taught me to take it. Likewise my eldest, who hasn’t been in school and has been raised in an admittedly large but none the less kindly household, can deal perfectly well with bullies. She tells them they are tiresome and small and walks away and it all washes entirely over her. Amuses me enormously. My third daughter though, who is brash and sassy and ought to be able to deal with it, falls apart at the slightest hint of a bully.
    FWIW, we teach our children not to react with reciprocal aggravation when possible, to stand up for what is right and for anyone being bullied, not to get involved with things that don’t concern them unless there is good cause and that there is normally a choice and that people who are nasty tend not to be worth being around.
    It is tricky though as every situation has a rule of some sort and needs thinking about. So the most important thing seems to be “do what you know to be right, keep safe, don’t end up being the problem.”
    Not easy stuff for a kid though.

  11. 5th May 2011 / 12:49 pm

    Thanks Elsie, she is very articulate, which is possibly part of why she’s never done pushing and shoving! It’s just difficult to see your child upset and know they have to work it our themselves x

  12. 5th May 2011 / 12:50 pm

    That’s a nice way to look at it, thanks Nikki. I’m hoping it will come with time, definitely.

  13. 5th May 2011 / 12:50 pm

    Gosh, that is shocking from those six-year-olds! Little gits. Sorry, that’s not very right-on, is it?

  14. 5th May 2011 / 12:51 pm

    She is a sensitive little soul, which is weird given she came from me, I admit.

  15. 5th May 2011 / 12:52 pm

    Thanks Dean, perhaps you’re right and I’m attributing it to something when it’s just her nature. Flea is very similar, she will just let things go rather than fight with someone. I asked her had she thought about telling the bigger kids that she wanted to have a turn at choosing the game and Flea just said, “Oh. I never thought of that.”
    I think you’re right, maybe it’s just her temperament and it’s best not to intervene – thanks.

  16. 5th May 2011 / 12:53 pm

    I like anyone who views parenting as a live day to day experiment! Thanks for the comment, not rambly at all!

  17. 5th May 2011 / 12:54 pm

    But I wonder if you can be taught to cope with conflict – even if you don’t particularly like it.
    Believe it or not, I hate conflict, but I do have the skills I need to stand up for myself when I need to, or if I think it’s a point of principle, and I think people who do that are generally happier than those who don’t. Does that make sense?

  18. 5th May 2011 / 12:54 pm

    I’m glad it’s not just us! Nice to hear it calmed down for you guys, too.

  19. 5th May 2011 / 12:54 pm

    Thanks for that, will pop over and have a read.

  20. 5th May 2011 / 12:55 pm

    You’re right it’s not easy but it is important – I remember reading about the Montessori idea of social justice – of teaching children when and how to stand up for what’s right, and I desperately want Flea to have that, and be someone who will speak out when things are said or done that aren’t okay, whether to her or someone else.
    I really like your approach to that, I’m going to see if we can make that work for us, thanks Merry.

  21. 5th May 2011 / 3:02 pm

    Oh yes. I would love to be able to return something to a shop without my chin quivering, for example.
    I’m just thinking that you can’t necessarily pin it down to being an only child or not witnessing arguments, because my experience was the opposite and I’m still a sensitive mouse (was going to say Sensitive Sally there but that would be confusing… )
    Interestingly, one of the things I found most surprising about having children is how all that vanishes when it comes to standing up for my children. I’ll almost never stick up for myself, but when it comes to telling someone, “YOU DO NOT GIVE MY NINE MONTH OLD TOOTHLESS BABY A WINE GUM TO EAT!” (yes, father-in-law, I’m looking at you), I don’t even hesitate. Tigress instinct I reckon.

  22. Domestic goddesque
    5th May 2011 / 5:52 pm

    i do love the way Flea talks about things- she has such a clever way of expressing herself, which she can only have got from you! I am at the stage of constantly having to tell one or other of my children to stop bashing/pushing/pulling the hair of their sibling. It’s exhausting. But it hadn’t occurred to me that it might actually help them when they go to school. I am confident that you and she will work out a way of dealing with it though.

  23. 5th May 2011 / 5:00 pm

    Hi Sally,
    It’s really tough to deal with our little ones struggling – I know I’ve been in tears before …… our 6 yo is a sensitive little boy (and being a boy he’s kinda isolated amongst the macho crowd), however, we’re keen to teach him that kindness is a great value to hold and we know it will stand him in good stead in the future. He’s also learning that the behaviour of others is their responsibility and that if they are unkind it may be that someone has been unkind to them ….. most bullies tend to come from families which have different view of the world from ours.
    Regarding Flea’s comment “I have lots of warm spots in my tummy for all the people I like but I have a big empty space here where the other people are,” she said, touching her middle. “And that is the bit that hurts.” ….. you could try using her own metaphors to help her get over the tummy aches… for example you might ask her what kind of big empty space it is, ask her what she could fill it with that would make it so that it didn’t hurt – could she take some warm spots from the friendly space and put them in the big empty space….. Kids are brilliant at this kind of visualisation and it’s really important if you try it to use her words exactly. Just an idea, but anythings worth a go.
    It’s not easy to see them stuggling and it is our job to help them through the stuggles, knowing that we’ll never elimate them totally – after all, they go on throughout our lives.

  24. Bumbling
    5th May 2011 / 5:09 pm

    Although Moo is only 2, I’m already seeing the same thing. Whilst she is an only child, and living with a single parent, I don’t think it is that. It’s just her.
    My sister’s eldest at the same age was in essence an only child but was the complete opposite to Moo. She was not afraid to butt in or of conflict. Moo however likes to wait her turn, to let other children play, and to have a clear path rather than fight her way through. I remember at the time my sister being so proud of her confident child, convinced it was because of going to nursery. Moo goes to nursery and is confident there, but she definitely has a softer side.
    But as my parents keep pointing out, that’s because she’s just like I was when I was her age. And I turned out not too bad, right? Well, ok then… 🙂

  25. 5th May 2011 / 11:20 pm

    My daughter, far from extrovert as a child, always had a strong sense of personal justice and even in primary school was a child who would stand up to bullies and be more comfortable saying she wasn’t interested in something than in going with the flow for popularity and an easy life. She has become a tolerant, easy going, funny and unusual adult who is so strongly herself I would be proud if only I could take credit. How did I have a child so strong? My son was always hugely popular and more inclined to want to be with the in crowd such that he found himself at one stage involved in bullying others in a desire to be cool. He looks back on that with real shame. He has become an adult who is truly kind, blackly funny, dry as martini, someone to turn to when things fall apart. Flea will be fine. She is sensitive,strong and funny (at five) and she has you.

  26. MummyMummyMum
    6th May 2011 / 8:37 pm

    Flea sounds like such a lovely sensitive little girl, and so articulate for a 5 year old! I think its great that she has not had to experience conflict in the home, unfortunately my children have constant conflict ( with each other ) which I don’t think is very good for them as everything is a battle where the one who screams loudest or pushes hardest wins.
    I think it is lovely that Flea is being brought up in such a peaceful home. I am trying very had to instill some peace into our house, but not really succeeding as yet. 🙂

  27. 8th May 2011 / 6:29 pm

    I worry about Squidge being an only child too but nothing I can do about it. I’m VERY Portuguese so lots of raised voices, stink eyes and slamming of doors so I guess it’s kinda like having a sibling, no?

  28. 23rd May 2011 / 11:04 am

    Who says it is? Actually, every stage of man has something you can criticize about.