4 Steps for Teaching Children to Manage Conflict

Elaine Conrad

Whether it’s in my private practice, my work at a busy clinic, or as a teacher in a classroom, I encounter conflict. As a therapist, I have listened to couples talk about how they seem to have the same argument over and over again. In a family, conflict might look like disagreements between guardians and their children. At school, conflict can be as simple as students having a difference of opinion in the classroom that makes its way to the playground. Conflict happens – it’s an inevitable part of our lives. But how that conflict plays out is what has the potential to either leave us feeling frustrated, defeated, and angry – or satisfied and fulfilled.

So how can we teach children to manage conflict in a way that strengthens relationships rather than hinders them? Here are four ways you can effectively work through conflict and teach children to do the same:

1. Start with “I” statements.

Using “I” instead of “you” helps to lessen feelings of defensiveness in the other party. Staying away from phrases like “You make me so angry when you talk to me like that” is often a surefire way to cause the other person to put up a wall of defence. Taking a softer approach by using statements like “I shut down and don’t want to continue the conversation when I hear harsh or negative words” helps to reduce finger-pointing while still sending the same message. “I” statements speak to what you are feeling and why the other person’s behaviour is causing you distress.

It’s important to teach this concept from a very young age (even to toddlers). If your little one says “You make me mad,” have them reframe their statement to “I feel mad when you do that.” Follow up by asking them questions like, “What does sad or mad feel like for you?” They may need help with how to describe their feelings, so give some examples by asking, “Does it feel like you have a hot face?” “Do you have a sore tummy?” Etc. This is a great way to introduce emotional regulation to young children. These skills help young children realize they are in control of their emotions when they are in conflict.

How can we teach children to manage conflict in a way that strengthens relationships rather than hinders them?

2. Ask for a do-over.

Sometimes we say things we shouldn’t in the midst of conflict – after all, we’re human and emotions run high when we are feeling stressed and as though our position is being threatened. Taking a moment to collect our thoughts and rethink how we handled the situation and how we could do better next time are good ways to repair a relationship when conflicts arise.

When conflicts don’t go well, take a moment and say “Hey, can I have a do-over? I think I may need a minute to rethink what I just said.” Then take a few minutes to calm your body and mind by breathing deeply, getting outside for a nice walk, shifting to something pleasant, and then coming back into the conversation with a fresh perspective. For little ones, I have them say, “Stop. Rewind!” And then I use garbled language like I’m rewinding a tape. They usually laugh a little, and they get the picture. Then I take a deep breath, making sure to engage my entire body and say, “Okay, let’s try that again with kinder words this time.”

3. Practice perspective-taking by getting curious.

Nothing helps calm conflict like good old-fashioned perspective-taking. The old adage, “Walk a mile in another person’s shoes,” is popular for a reason. And this holds true whether we are working with a two-year-old, a 15-year-old, or a 65-year-old. Be curious – why might this person be thinking or acting the way they are? If we are curious and think about the conversation from their perspective, it helps soften our response.

I encourage people to use “I wonder . . .” phrases often when engaging in conflict: “I wonder why they are holding on to this view so tightly” or “I wonder why they are having such a hard time with their emotions right now.” With children, teaching them to think with examples such as, “I wonder why it is so important to Johnny to play with that toy right now” or “I wonder why Deshawn wants to be the team captain.”

Teaching perspective-taking from a young age helps us learn valuable relationship skills that can be used throughout our lives in both personal and professional relationships.

Teaching perspective-taking from a young age helps us learn valuable relationship skills that can be used throughout our lives in both personal and professional relationships.

4. Model the behaviour.

As adults, there are times when we don’t handle a conversation just the way we hope to all the time, and that’s okay because nobody’s perfect. In fact, these are good teaching moments for children – as they see us make mistakes, they realize that it’s also okay for them to make mistakes. The most important part of making these mistakes or “ruptures” as we call them in attachment relationship counselling is that we rectify them.

Modelling how we do things such as saying “I’m sorry” when we are wrong, making amends, showing kindness to someone when we have caused harm, or walking away from a situation when we feel overwhelmed are just a few examples of modelling behaviour. Use modelling as an opportunity to teach children emotional regulation skills to help in times of conflict. As adults, our role when we encounter conflict in relationships is helping children and youth understand that when faced with conflict, we have strategies to manage it. So the next time you’re in a conflict, show those around you that there are strategies to manage any strong emotions that may arise.

 

In any conversation, it’s important to practice these four steps at every opportunity. Oftentimes, children become frustrated because they don’t know how to express their needs and wants, which may cause them to act out physically. As we teach children positive ways to regulate emotions, manage conflict, and model these important skills in our own lives, the children and youth that we work with, live with, and encounter every day will reap the rewards in their own relationships and so too will the future generations.


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Author: Elaine Conrad (MEd, RP)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute.
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