Q: I have a 2-year-old and am pregnant with my second child. I’m growing more scared with everything I read about teen disrespect, drugs and vaping, and all the kinds of bad behavior of older kids. I’m not sure what I can do or how I should raise my kids to be good. I want them to be responsible, successful, caring adults, but I think I need some advice on how to get them there.

A: Thank you for such an important question. Although there are many factors determining how successful and responsible children will become as adults, the most critical piece is the parent-child connection. When we have healthy, honest, open connection with our children, they can feel safe in talking to us about anything. Mutual trust is key, as well as listening to the underlying emotional root of their behavior, rather than reacting. As parents, we are the essential foundation for our children’s healthy development. We provide their moral compass, their protection, their unconditional love and acceptance. Every child needs one “charismatic adult” in his life who believes in his goodness, in all his capabilities and special characteristics. Parents are on the front line to be that person, seeing their child through the lens of “my child is perfect just the way she is.” Of course, we can often get derailed by “misbehavior,” reacting from a place of depletion. That said, our job is to own our feelings, our reactions, how we’re experiencing the behavior, letting our child know he is not the problem, that we understand he is struggling with a problem, that we want to support him in resolving that. This shouldn’t be interpreted as “fixing” his problem, but rather as listening to him without judgment or criticism, helping him brainstorm options to make things work better. Behavior will always be your clue to your child’s emotional state.

Schools are often under fire for children’s acting out. Many parents expect the school to be responsible for resolving bad behavior, as well as for teaching respect, kindness and good manners. When children misbehave in school, it indicates they’re out of balance. If this is an unusual situation, the problem might be related to something in school. However, when children come into school unsettled and agitated, or they chronically “misbehave,” it’s clear parents either aren’t doing their job or there are serious problems to address in the home. Something’s amiss. Practice speaking to your children’s emotions, rather than confronting their behavior. Listen to understand. Play with them often, showing them you enjoy having fun with them. Accept each of them for who they are, rather than trying to shape them into someone you’d like them to be. There’s a very good chance they will then become responsible, successful, caring adults.

Q: Please help me get my kids to stop fighting. I’m at the end of my rope. I avoid being around them as much as possible because they’re constantly at each other. I can’t stand it. Help!

A: Jealousy, resentment and competition between siblings cause considerable stress in parents. How we handle the conflict between our children will shape how this dynamic unfolds. If you’re taking sides, you’re assuming the role of judge and jury, determining who’s at fault and who needs protection. One parent might identify with the child of the same birth order, while another may protect the more reserved child. Parents typically decide the verdict before all perspectives have been heard.

If intervening, or avoiding the fighting, hasn’t been successful, I suggest it’s time to consider another approach. Sibling rivalry is normal as children work out their differences in a safe environment and build relationship skills. We want our children to learn how to resolve conflicts, yet something prevents us from allowing them to find their own solutions.

Siblings can have strong feelings toward each other. Our job is to acknowledge those feelings. If we listen to the feelings behind their battles, we then can connect with them, communicating acceptance and support without judgment or criticism. It creates needed space for children to consider more acceptable ways to express their anger.

Children can make peace with each other, despite our best efforts to find solutions for them. When our child pleads for our intervention to punish his mean sibling, we shouldn’t manage or referee their conflict. The problem is theirs to resolve. We do our children a huge injustice by reinforcing their polarized positions (ex: “If mom blames me, she must love you best. That means I’m not OK”).

When our children ask for help (or if fighting escalates into physical harm), it’s best to coach, not referee or judge. Try naming the problem, listening to each child’s account, and respecting everyone’s feelings and concerns. Clarify the problem, discussing what each child needs to work out an agreement that results in a win/win feeling. Support them as they brainstorm solutions, without judging or determining the best possible outcome. Sometimes children reach resolution without us. If we consistently make them work it out, children will stop bringing us into their battles. The competition for our attention no longer serves a purpose.

Empowering our children to resolve their own battles teaches the skills to find creative options. Our expectation of our children’s relationship has a great deal to do with our own childhood. Treating our children fairly doesn’t mean treating them equally, but instead honoring their uniqueness.

“Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children.” — Fred Rogers

Please send me your questions.