The most influential social experience a child encounters are with family members. A child’s family experience creates the foundation on how a child learns and understands the world. Relationships with parents and siblings as well as extended family members, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, not only provide support and nurturance, but also teaches children about how to interact in the world, including managing conflict. As mentioned in Part 1:Sibling Bullying, 12 Strategies Every Parent Need to Know, conflict is part of life and happens in almost every relationship. Conflict is not always negative; its how one manages conflict that is important. Learning how to manage problems, personal reactions and resolve conflict is an important skill to teach your child.
When your child has a problem or conflict, teach your child the following skills to encourage healthy strategies in managing conflict. These strategies are suggestions on how to help your child work through conflict and are not meant to be used all at once for every conflict. Some issues are quickly resolved, and other issues may need more work and support. Use these strategies often to teach your child managing conflict.
- Take a Deep Breath. Often in the midst of conflict, children experience intense emotions, consumed with frustration, irritability, annoyance and anger. Encourage your child to take a deep breath and wait before reacting. It can be challenging for children to solve problems when emotional. Focusing on breathing and counting to ten or fifteen can help a child gain composure to focus on problem-solving. If your child is so upset, allow some space to calm down before problem-solving.
- Use Your Words. Children express feelings through behaviors. Encourage your child to find words to describe what they are feeling. Asking your child to “use your words,” encourages your child to open up about their feelings and thoughts about what is upsetting. You may need to prompt your child through open-ended questions, such as ” Tell me what is upsetting you” or “What happened to make you so upset?”
- Label Emotions. Children often need support and direction understanding their emotions. Help you child to identify and label their emotions. When a child is upset, they may only be able to label the emotions of anger. However, before a child expresses themself through behaviors, and they were likely feeling a proceeding emotion: frustration, sad, rejected, confused, scared, bored, lonely, embarrassed. Use this prompt to help your child: I felt_________________when____________.
- Teach Empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand, be sensitive, and imagine what another person’s is feeling and experiencing. Many people confuse empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is expressing concern and feeling sorry for another person’s challenges, experiences or misfortunes. Empathy is the practice of entering into another person’s emotional experience and understanding the situation whereas sympathy is more of an acknowledgment of one’s hardships and providing support, comfort and reassurance. Look for various emotional moments, happy, sad, frustrated, surprised, and ask you child the following: When you saw_______________ what do you think he/she was feeling?
- Use “I” Statements. Teaching your child to use “I” statements is a life-long skill in resolving conflict. When individuals begin to address conflict through using a “You” statement, the responding reaction is defensiveness. I see this in marital therapy all of the time. Couples will attempt to resolve conflict by saying, “You don’t help me with anything around the house,” and the receiver will immediately feel defensive. Expressing thoughts through “I” statements elicits a different reaction: “I feel frustrated when I have to do all of the cleaning,” has a completely different tone and expresses so much more than the former “You” statement. Help your child identifies the feeling and the thought. For example, “I feel sad when I can’t play longer” or “I am frustrated that I am not able to have a later curfew.”
- Be Mindful of Body Language. A person’s body language is just as powerful if not more than the words they use. Teach your child the importance of basic communication skills: maintaining eye contact, open and relaxed body posture, facing the person one is addressing. Crossed arms, furrowed brows, not maintaining eye contact demonstrate emotions of shutting down, anger and defensiveness.
- Monitor Tone of Voice. Some people talk naturally louder than others. Teach your child that talking loud, yelling and screaming communicates intense emotions. When resolving conflict, encourage your child to speak in a firm and direct manner, keeping voice tone similar to a classroom or library setting.
- Understand What is at the Core of the Conflict. Problems and conflict often occur when there is a difference in opinion, need or want. Help your child to understand the how differences between family, friends, peers and teachers, can create stress and tension. Help your child to understand their goal, as well as understand the goal of the other person, which in turn can be helpful in working towards a solution.
- Problem Solve and Create Solutions. Teach your child how to talk about the problem with the other person and work on solutions. Often as parents, we want to jump in and solve the problem for our children. Stay close by to assist your child as needed. Allow the child to find solutions to the problem on their own.
- Communicate Perspective. Help your child to communicate their perspective of the conflict to the other person. For example; what happened, what upset them, what they did/said, what the other person did/said, etc.
- Take Responsibility for Actions. An important life skill is being able to understand how one’s behaviors impacts others and influences situations. Children often demonstrate a natural tendency to blame others for their behavior. Encourage your child to understand how their choices and behaviors impacted and contributed to the conflict.
- Apologize, Forgive, Let Go and Move On. Encourage your child to apologize for the words/behaviors/actions that contributed to the conflict. Teach your child to forgive not only the other person, but oneself for making a mistake. Children who are more sensitive may be hard on themselves for making a mistake. Encourage your child to separate the mistake and behavior from how they see themselves. In therapy, I often hear children say, “I am just a bad kid.” I correct and reframe the child’s statement to, ” I made a poor choice which hurt someone, I can learn from my mistake and make healthier/better choices.”
- What Did We Learn? After a child has calmed down, and the conflict is over, follow-up later and talk with your child about what they learned. This conversation does not need to be long; ask your child, “What did you learn about (fill in-describe the situation)? What do you think you could have done different?
- Provide Encouragement and Feedback. Children need positive feedback. The above mentioned skill set is not a one-time event; learning conflict resolution skills take time and effort and is a process of learning for you and your child. Resolving conflict in healthy ways is a process of learning through experience and making mistakes. Provide positive feedback when you see your child work on healthy ways to manage conflict. For example, “Sara, you did a great job staying calm, using your words and solving the problem. I am proud of you,” or, “Will, great job staying calm, finding a solution and sharing with your sister. I can see you are working hard to use the skills we talked about.”
- Be a Role Model. The family is the first place a child learns about the world. Skills and strategies developed in the home are played out in other areas of child’s life; school, neighborhood, community, teams, clubs, peer groups, etc. When parents, children and other family members experience conflict, remember, little eyes are often watching. Demonstrate the above skills in your own behavior when conflict occurs; you will be modeling not only how to manage conflict, but also reinforcing what you are teaching your child.
If you would like to read the first post in this series, please go here: Part 1: Sibling Bullying: 12 Strategies Every Parent Need To Know.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2014