Teaching children how to handle conflict

Conflict is normal and comes up throughout life in all types of relationships (with siblings, parents, peers, teachers, neighbors, bosses and others). Everyone will confront conflict in their lives. Not everyone learns how to consistently handle it successfully, however.

As a parent, there are a couple of things that are critical in teaching your children how to handle conflict effectively. All children observe how their parent/s (and the other people in their lives) handle conflict. Whether you are aware of it or not, you are, first and foremost, modeling for your children how to address difficulties when they arise. All of us can look back and reflect on how our parents, or other adults, in some cases overreacted, became agitated, enraged, etc., or, perhaps, never discussed any stressful issues at all – they shut down.

Therefore, it is very important to pay attention to your own emotional regulation when conflict arises. Are you triggered into anger, frustration, feeling victimized, hurt or another strong feeling? Do you find yourself reacting quickly with your words and/or behavior? Does your heart rate go up and your muscles tighten? Those reactions are our bodies’ normal response to an upsetting situation, but they do not allow us to use our best tools to resolve a difficulty. Help your children see that it’s hard to solve a problem when they are upset.

It is imperative if you want to teach your children to effectively handle conflict, that you first teach them how to regulate their strong emotions. You can demonstrate some strategies to help them calm down in a conflictual moment by, for example, breathing exercises, separating from the conflict by moving away from the person and area, and practicing taking a step back and pausing before reacting. The important skill you are teaching your children here is to wait until they can begin using their head again in order to solve the problem.

Once calm, the following simple steps can be taught to help children learn to resolve conflicts.

1. First, it is key to help your child recognize how the dispute makes them feel. It is paramount to validate their feelings and help them learn to express them in a kind way that will foster resolution.

2. Next, each person needs to clearly express themselves and listen to the other side in order to begin to understand what is going on and why each may be acting the way they are. As they each share what they want or wish would happen, they need to be encouraged to be accurate, relevant and kind. Teaching children to use “I” statements allows them to express themselves without blaming others. This looks like: I feel (feeling) when you (behavior) and I wish that (outcome). As they listen, children can learn to hear the other person’s point of view and communicate an understanding back to them (listening to understand) rather than trying to just win an argument. With this step, you are also teaching empathy.

3. Once they have all shared their feelings and listened to the other viewpoint, both parties then make suggestions of possible solutions on how to move forward. All ideas are welcome and creative options are encouraged.

4. In many conflicts, all parties have contributed in some way. All need to work to negotiate a solution that is fair and that all can live with. It is important to remember that success in addressing conflict involves accepting compromise. No one gets everything that they want.

Children need to receive guidance to learn how to navigate conflict properly and effectively. Learning how to deal with it well early in their life allows children to develop productive communication skills in order to have healthy relationships. Once they have practiced managing conflicts with parental supervision and support, then they can more easily use the skills they need to find good resolutions to the conflicts that they inevitably will encounter in the future.

Ann Brandner Byrne is a clinical supervisor at Bainbridge Youth Services, which has a monthly column in this newspaper.