Helping children manage inevitable conflict

As much as we try to avoid it, conflict is a normal and unavoidable part of life and relationships.

Additionally, experiencing strong emotions, including anger and aggression, is part of our innate emotions.

These feelings are signals that help to protect us from real or perceived threat, and helps us to establish healthy boundaries and assert our needs.

However, as children, we don’t yet have the capacity to manage these powerful emotions and so, how parents support and assist children to make sense of these feelings, provides opportunities for them to learn to manage conflict from an early age.

Helping children learn to manage conflict effectively will also help them to experience more fulfilling friendships and enjoy better social experiences. Of course, how well children are able to resolve conflict is directly related to their age, stage of development and life experiences.

For example, a young child may not know how to compromise without assistance or have the emotional capacity to empathise with the needs of others. Equipping children of all ages with the strategies provided will help them to harness their feelings, develop more pro-social behaviour as well as become more equipped at resolving inevitable conflicts.

Learning to manage strong emotions

While children do experience very strong innate emotions, including anger, aggression and frustration, it is important that they learn that yelling, physically attacking or intimidating others do not help to resolve conflict.

Helping children to learn simple strategies for remaining calm, such as taking a deep breath or stopping and counting to 10 to regain their capacity to think before acting, is an important part of the process of learning to manage difficult feelings and effectively dealing with conflict.

Talk and listen

Speak to your child about their feelings being normal and giving these feelings expression through words which will prevent them from needing to act these out indiscriminately.

This helps your child to recognise the value of using words and speaking clearly to solve conflict. Work together to develop phrases that they can say to help find a solution for the conflict.

For example they can learn to say, “I/we can talk about how I/we feel and find a way that will work for me and you/others.”

Learning to say how they feel and what they wish would happen, rather than attributing blame and overly focusing on who caused the conflict, are also important skills to develop. For example they can say, “I am angry that you took my ball and need you to ask me first”.

Being a good listener is also a valuable skill to learn. Helping children learn to listen to each other can be difficult, especially when they are very young and/or emotionally upset or overwhelmed.

Trying to talk things through when they are feeling upset or tired will not be helpful and could only make matters worse. In these instances, it is often best to wait until your child is calm and less emotional or tired, before proceeding with any talk about conflict resolution strategies.

Problem-solving together to find a solution

Initially children will need help to navigate the process of brainstorming potential solutions together, with the aim being able to find a solution that makes everyone happy. For younger children, keep the options limited and simple.

For example, you can ask them what do they think will help to solve the problem and then add your thoughts or ideas that are simple and uses age-appropriate language. For older children, remind them that everyone has the right to be heard and that no idea is silly or stupid.

Encourage fairness

Talk regularly with children about the benefits of being kind, practising fairness and sharing with others. Catch them doing the right thing as often as you can – rewarding positive pro-social behaviour with lots of verbal encouragement.

While young children find it difficult to understand why they need to “take turns”, they will often be more willing to share when encouraged to let the other child have a turn once they have had their turn – this gives the child a sense of control over the situation and the act of sharing, rather than it being something they are being forced to do by an adult.

When they feel that they have been given a fair opportunity at having their turn, they will be more open to allowing another to take a turn, and in the meanwhile you can provide generous dollops of praise (verbal rewards) for them being able to wait their turn.

When nothing else works

Teach your child that it is okay to walk away when nothing else works, and that they can feel safe to come to you or another trusted adult to seek assistance in resolving difficult situations and being comforted while struggling with this.

Its also vital for all children to learn that life/reality has limits and that they will not always get what they want.

Role play friendship-related scenarios

Use role play to help your child feel more comfortable employing the strategies outlined above.

Taking time to actually talk through and role play potential scenarios that might develop in the playground or on a play date will help your child feel more confident to use these conflict resolution strategies when needed.

Encourage imaginative play

Imaginative play provides a powerful safe haven for children to work through overwhelming emotions, to make sense of things they have seen, heard or learned from others, and for processing social interactions, including conflicts. Having the space, time and freedom to play imaginatively, provides children with a sense of power – they feel in control, capable of figuring things out, of thinking things through and solving problems. In play therapy for example therapists often see elements of a child’s real life experiences re-enacted in imaginative play and can guide them in terms of expressing their feelings and then imagining appropriate pro-social responses.

Host regular play dates in the safety of home

Regular play dates provide your child with real life opportunities to develop friendships and to practise pro-social behaviour, with your support, and away from the stress of the school playground or other larger group setting.