Conflicts seem to invariably arise when you are in the middle of making dinner or completing a presentation for work. The scenario might unfold like this: You hear your kids arguing over who gets to choose the next game on the Nintendo console. This doesn’t seem to be a big deal to you, but it is definitely a big deal to them. Their voices escalate, they’re wrestling for the control stick, and calling each other names. Perhaps you didn’t hear, but a few minutes prior, one of your children bragged about being champion of all games while his sibling called him an ugly snot nose.
Even adults find it difficult to stay calm during a heated argument and often allow disagreements to cause long-term rifts in relationships. Parents need to examine their own behaviors when it comes to arguments with their spouse or other adults because, ultimately, they are their children’s strongest role models.
Teaching children to have healthy arguments and disagreements should be taught at a very early age. This will help them navigate both personal and professional conflicts in the future.
Understanding and Coping with Conflict
Dealing with conflict can be a daunting process for children because they are impulsive and egocentric. The first step is for children to be able to state what the problem is and to be forthcoming about what has transpired. Therefore, children need to feel safe about expressing their feelings.
Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in parenting and child development and professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University, advises, “Teach children how to solve their own problems. Give power to them to understand what they are feeling and the dignity to say how they feel about it.” Honig says that parents should avoid putting those involved in “time out” as a quick solution. “Instead, parents should create an environment where children feel safe to talk to you about it,” she urges.
Parents should then help children work through the process of evaluating what caused the conflict in the first place.
Linda S. Lucas, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist and assistant professor in the department of human services at Beacon College in Leesburg, FL, urges parents to start early. “Preschoolers are learning how to regulate their emotions, so this is a critical period for parents to use teaching opportunities when conflicts arise. Parents need to teach moral reasoning, how to identify the wrong behavior and what is wrong about it, and the impact is has on others.”
Lucas also instructs parents to allow children to voice their feelings and to cope with the problem. “Teach children to use their words to express what they believe the problem is. Parents need to listen to the child’s perspective and help the child understand the conflict involved. The key to a child’s problem-solving is the development of their coping responses.”
Fair Fights Exist When Cool Tempers Prevail
Arguments get out-of-hand in the adult world all of the time — even political leaders can learn a thing or two about keeping disagreements civil. So, teaching children at an early age to fight fairly and with respect for another’s feelings is an important life skill.
If parents use derogatory slurs when they have disagreements, children will pick up on this and use the same tone – or language – when they have a conflict.
“It has never worked for parents to think that they can tell their children to do what they say if it is not consistent with what they do,” Lucas reminds.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert and author of The Happy Kid Handbook (TarcherPerigee) asserts, “Kids don’t enter this world equipped with conflict resolution skills. I encourage parents to help children learn to cope with conflict as it arises. Don’t solve the problem for them; help them hit the reset button and figure out what to do. In my house, we have a simple ‘fight fair’ rule. We talk about our feelings and discuss why we’re hurting so that we don’t repeat the same hurtful behaviors.”
First and foremost, children need to learn to put themselves in another’s shoes. This will not only help them become a caring adult but will also help them understand both sides of an argument.
Honig points out that you have to teach empathy to children starting in preschool. She advises parents to help children see another point of view and perspective by asking, “How would you feel if this happened to you?”
Hurley counsels, “Kids often get stuck in their own personal needs and forget to think about the other person. It’s important for kids to learn that we all make mistakes and sometimes we hurt others because we’re not empathizing, but we can learn from those experiences and make better choices the next time.”
Honig recommends that parents read stories about kindness, loyalty, and caring to children on a regular basis, such as Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss. Good News, Bad News, by Jeff Mack and The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig are also good choices. (Browse Common Sense Media for books that teach empathy: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/books-that-teach-empathy).
No Name Calling
Calling someone an idiot is not an appropriate debate tool. It doesn’t get your point across. It only escalates the conflict. Children stoop to name calling because they are frustrated and don’t know how to express their feelings.
Hurley advises, “The first step is to help kids calm down. When emotions run high, kids tend to hyper-focus on their own needs and fail to tap into reasoning skills. Encouraging three deep breaths to calm the physical and emotional response in their bodies is a great first step. Next, teach ‘I statements,’ such as ‘I feel sad…’ This reduces the tendency to blame, which fuels arguments.”
“Teaching the stoplight is useful for little kids, too,” states Hurley. This is broken down as follows:
• Red = STOP: Take a break from the action and breathe.
• Yellow = THINK: Consider the other person’s feelings. Choose your tone and words wisely.
• Green = ACT: Share your feelings without blaming and talk about solutions.
“I always teach kids to listen for the sake of listening, not to craft a retort,” Hurley reports. Hurley recommends making a listening skills cheat sheet to post on your fridge for daily review:
• Eyes: Look the talker in the eyes.
• Ears: Listen to what the talker is saying.
• Mouth: Ask follow-up questions or statements to show that you understand.
Hurley suggests that a squeeze ball works well for young children. Each child squeezes a ball while listening to the other person’s point of view.
Focus on the Current Conflict
Have you ever brought up previous conflicts to make a point? I know that I do it quite frequently with my husband. However, bringing up old disagreements does not keep the focus on the problem at hand. Parents need to remind children that they are not fighting about past grievances and that the current problem is the one that needs their attention.
“If you and your partner bring up old hurts every time you argue, your kids will learn to do the same,” Hurley cautions. She suggests that parents ask kids to restate the problem from both sides to clarify. “Then, ask each child to think about the problem for five minutes (set a timer) and come back with three possible solutions.”
Children need to be taught how to formulate solutions and how to forgive if the situation has turned ugly.
Lucas explains that parents should discuss possible solutions and give children the opportunity to create a better way to solve the conflict without anger or aggression.
If siblings are fighting over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car, Honig suggests asking, “How do you feel? Can you think of a way you both get to sit in the front seat?” She then instructs parents to wait for an answer. Honig says it’s imperative to avoid describing a child’s idea as stupid or wrong. Instead, a parent should ask, “Can you think of a different way to solve the problem?” Parents should keep asking questions until an agreeable solution is reached.
Hurley recommends role playing. Ask the children to come up with scenarios that are typical problems they have with one another, such as whose turn it is to set the table. Scenarios are chosen at random. “Practice solving the problem for five minutes, then switch roles. The more kids practice and verbalize their feelings, the better they are at accessing these skills when conflict arises.”
Hurley also proposes using a white board for brain storming. “Kids tend to think of one solution and get stuck there. If a child comes up with a solution, he might truly believe it’s the only possible solution. Using a whiteboard to brainstorm helps kids visualize different ideas and solutions.”
Myrna Beth Haskell is an award-winning author, columnist, and feature writer. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications across the U.S. as well as internationally (www.myrnahaskell.com).