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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and growing your child’s skills to manage conflict provides a perfect opportunity.
Conflict happens in families — between spouses, among siblings, and between parents and children. Arguing in family life is normal and expected. How you argue and how you work through problems together can build your child’s life skills so that they are ready to grow and sustain healthy relationships beyond your family life. Children ages 5-10 will need to exercise and build their skills in listening, empathy, communication, and problem solving in order to thrive. They will need to learn to stop and calm down before saying or acting in harmful ways. And, they’ll have to learn to reflect on poor choices and take responsibility for their actions. If they cause harm, you will need to guide them to a next better decision so that they learn how to mend physical or emotional damage done.
Yet, everyone faces challenges in managing conflict. “You can’t tell me what to do!” your child may exclaim in embarrassment and frustration after riding a bike into a busy street. As your child develops, they will need to test their limits and the rules in order to internalize them. This can lead to power struggles. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you to help your child work through conflict in ways that build their skills.
Whether it’s your five-year-old hitting an older brother in frustration, your seven-year-old refusing to get ready for school, or your nine-year-old arguing over play plans with a lifelong friend, establishing healthy ways of working through conflict that do not harm themself or others includes teaching your child vital skills that will build confidence.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to manage conflict in healthy ways can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your relationships and responsibilities; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, managing conflict in your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child manage conflict. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about managing conflict by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to how they feel when confronting challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life; and
- will grow self-control, empathy, and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your child in their ability to manage conflict in healthy ways. For example, if your child is hurt or feeling rejected, it’s a normal reflex for them to lash out in self-protection. Begin by considering the following.
- Ask about how your child feels when arguing with a family member or friend.
- “What gets you really upset or mad at a friend or a relative?”
- “What feelings do you experience?” (Name the multiple feelings that occur.)
- “How does your body feel when you’re upset?” (Name the ways that your child physically experiences being upset, whether it’s a red hot face or a racing heartbeat.)
- “Have you hurt another person’s feelings when you’ve argued? How did that feel?”
- “How might you have argued differently to express your needs but not harm the other person?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, it’s easy to forget that your child is learning how to be in healthy relationships and that includes learning how to argue fairly. Because of your child’s learning and development, they will make mistakes and poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build their conflict management skills. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is experiencing.
- Five-year-olds are working on understanding rules and routines. Consistency helps them feel a sense of stability.
- Six-year-olds may be more apt to question your rules. They thrive on encouragement. They can become critical of others and need experience with kindness and inclusion.
- Seven-year-olds crave structure and may struggle with changes to the schedule. They may be moody and require reassurance from adults.
- Eight-year-olds are more resilient when they make mistakes. Their peers’ and teachers’ approval is very important.
- Nine-year-olds can become easily frustrated. They need directions that contain one instruction. They may worry about peer approval and their own appearance and interests.
- Ten-year-olds are developing a strong sense of right and wrong and fairness. They tend to be able to work through conflicts with friends more rapidly.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Hang up a picture of a traffic light to teach constructive conflict management skills as a game. Role play and make it fun. Here’s the process.1
- Red Light – Stop and calm down.
- Parent: Stand at one end of the room or yard and turn your back to the players. Have your children call out one common problem they face and then they can start running toward you.
- Flip around to face them and say, “Stop!” with your hand held out flat.
- Now, ask everyone to breathe slowly, deeply, and loudly to practice calming down.
- Yellow Light – Feel, communicate, and think.
- The children walk and move toward you in slow motion.
- Feel. Children say the problem and how they feel about it. Parents can respond by rephrasing what their children said into an “I-message” such as, “I feel frustrated when you take my school supplies because I need to use them.”
- Communicate. Set a positive goal together such as, “We want to make sure everyone has the school supplies needed at homework time.”
- Think of lots of solutions. Make sure all players get to contribute an idea for solving the problem. Then, think of the outcomes or consequences of various choices. Ask, “What might happen if we try….?”
- Green Light – Go, try, and reflect.
- Players can run toward you, tap you, and then pick a solution or idea most, if not all, liked. Go try it out.
- Be sure to reflect on it later: “How did it go? Would you change anything?”
- Teach your child to repair harm. A critical step in teaching children about managing conflict is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Harm could be physical, like breaking something, or emotional, like hurting someone’s feelings. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another, but it’s that next step that matters in repairing the relationship.
If your child struggles giving you a feeling word, then offer them options and ask which ones fit their true feelings. This helps expand their feelings vocabulary.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily disagreements can be opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard to manage feelings, words, and choices constructively.
Practice also provides important opportunities to develop consequential thinking or the ability to think ahead to the impact of a particular choice and evaluate whether it’s a positive choice based on those reflections.
- Allow your child the chance to take steps to meet their big challenges, taking responsibility for their own relationships – even when you know you could do it faster and better.
- Be sure to consider how you can create the conditions to support their success (like offering coaching or guided open-ended questions to prompt thinking) so that your child learns to become their own best problem solver.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to hold your hand through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
- Initially, practice may require more teaching, but avoid offering direct solutions, going directly to the other in the conflict, or solving a problem for your child.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child how to meet their challenges with skill and persistence, and you are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to do those new tasks well and independently. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful, helping them grow cause and effect thinking (as they address problems and conflicts), and helping them grow skills in taking responsibility.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work to resolve a problem. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! You could say, “Show me you can work out your argument with your sister.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like, “I noticed how you talked to your sister about how you were feeling and then worked with her on a way to come to an agreement. That’s excellent!”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is frustrated or feeling incapable, proactively remind your child of their strength. In a gentle, non-public way you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how you talked to your sister yesterday? You can use that same strategy with your friend today.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can ask questions like:
- “How are you feeling about your free time at school?” Offering a chance to talk about lunch and recess gives insight into your child’s social challenges.
- “Seems like you are holding onto angry feelings toward your friend. Have you talked to him yet? What options do you think you have?”
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 for managing conflict. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Don’t move on or nag. Children often need more time to deal with their feelings and approach someone with whom they are upset. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they can address their problems on their own with your support. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to work through their problems.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You took a deep breath when you got upset — that is a great idea!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you don’t argue with your brother in the store, I will get you a candy” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were so helpful in the store today. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is bravely facing their sister who hurt them, for example, a short, specific call-out is all that’s needed: “I noticed you talked to your sister to try and work it out after she hurt you. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like no sibling fighting – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child sincerely apologizes to a friend, recognize that effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps as ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.