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Q -- How should I handle it when my children fight and scream in public places?

-- C.J.T.

A -- Before you can hope to handle public battles, you need to lay the groundwork at home.

The first thing to do, parents and experts say, is set a rule that fighting in public simply won't be tolerated. Call a family meeting, discuss the rule, and make sure everyone agrees to it before you leave home.

"Tell your children that screaming and yelling aren't acceptable at home, let alone in a public place," says Linda Mahon, a mother from Graham, Wash.

Next, expect that the rule will sometimes be broken. Most of the parents who called Child Life suggested taking children home immediately and refusing to take them on future outings until they can behave. But the experts say that if children learn how to handle their disagreements, you may not have to go that far.

"It is natural for siblings to fight, but they can be taught conflict resolution skills," says G.F., a parent from Phoenix.

Again, it helps if parents begin to teach these skills first at home, says Adele Faber of Roslyn Heights, co-author of "Siblings Without Rivalry" (Avon, $7.95).

Using Mrs. Faber's method, parents must model for their children how to negotiate solutions to problems. They must also point out their children's anger to them and let them know that even angry feelings are OK.

There are several ways to do this in public, but here are the basics:

Approach the battlefield prepared to describe what you see.

"I see a boy who's so mad at his sister that he's about to explode," Mrs. Faber says. "I see a girl who's so angry she could just scream."

With this, you've acknowledged the anger, and Mrs. Faber says this alone is often enough to diffuse the situation. Next, depending on the level of agitation and the children's ages, ask them how they think the problem could be solved. Or give them two alternatives of your own.

With younger children, Mrs. Faber suggests using a dramatic stage whisper to repeat the rule firmly: "No loud fighting in public places. It disturbs people, and it's embarrassing me."

"Give them two choices," Mrs. Faber says. "Whisper your fight softly or wait until you get home and finish it there."

If it doesn't work the first time, try repeating the whole process.

When everyone is completely out of control, Mrs. Faber advises a cooling-off period.

"If the children are old enough, send one to the cereal aisle and one to the frozen foods and tell them you'll meet them at the meat counter in five minutes," Mrs. Faber says. "When you come back together, you can work on solutions."

Especially with young children, parents need to intervene before arguments escalate to violence, says Meg Eastman, author of "Taming the Dragon in Your Child" (Wiley, $14.95).

"It's developmentally normal for a 3-year-old to just hit," says Ms. Eastman, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Portland, Ore.

"Children aren't prepared to work out solutions on their own until they're much older."

Rather than focus on who started the fight, Ms. Eastman advises asking the children how they've tried to solve it. Then ask how you can help and encourage the youngsters to suggest solutions.

Ms. Eastman also points out that some children don't do well in public situations because they get too stimulated. Some siblings' competition for status and power are triggered in public. She suggests looking to see if there are predictable patterns that may help you take preventative measures.

In public, the biggest problem for parents is often dealing with their own embarrassment. Mrs. Faber points out that this is an excellent chance to model appropriate skills to other parents.

"Fighting is a natural, inevitable part of life, and conflict resolution skills need to be taught right along with reading and writing," Mrs. Faber says. "Look at fighting as an opportunity for your kids to learn to respect others' differences, to learn to defend themselves and compromise."

Can you help?

NO CLOTHES: "We have a lot of trouble getting our 3-year-old son dressed any time of day," says Jim Statsky of Berwyn, Ill. "There may be two or three pairs of pants or shirts that he'll wear, but anything else -- or something new -- he'll scream and cry and complain that it hurts him. I sure would like some help."
Child Life is a forum for parents to ask child-rearing questions and share tips with other parents. If you have advice, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608.

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