Despite what carefully curated Instagram feeds would have you believe, if you’re a human being interacting with other human beings, you experience conflict daily. And while the word “conflict” itself is associated with all sorts of icky stuff, conflict doesn’t have to be such a bad thing.
Conflict in its purest form is simply two or more people with different ideas coming together. And while a single person who keeps mostly to themselves may be able to live life with very little conflict, it is straight up impossible to avoid when you are part of a family.
Does your toddler want to play with the shovel that another cherub faced little person is happily playing with in the sandbox? That’s conflict. Did you walk in on (yet another) sibling screaming match over a game/toy/whatever? Conflict. Is your teenager asking for a midnight curfew and you want him home by ten? Big conflict. Can’t agree with your spouse on whether to take a vacation centered around golf or white sand beaches? Yup. Conflict.
Often times, we see two main approaches to handling conflict within families. The traditional “my way or the highway” approach is meant to shut kids down. This teaches our children to shrink back to avoid conflict, to sneak around, or to rebel. On the flip-side, if we avoid conflict with our kids by giving them whatever they want, they learn to be entitled and demanding.
But have no fear! Below are some simple strategies for helping kids learn to communicate, collaborate, and compromise when conflict comes up.
“It’s Okay If It Isn’t Hurting Anything or Anyone”
Pick your battles and resist the urge to micro-manage your child’s every move. Instead, think: “It’s okay if it isn’t hurting anything or anyone.” Get involved if a child is hurting someone else through aggression or by not respecting their bodies, and get involved if property is getting damaged. Otherwise try to stay out of it.
Research shows that for children to really get into an involved game, they need 30-45 minutes of uninterrupted time. By staying out of their play you give your kids the chance to become fully immersed in their own worlds, and create an opportunity for them to practice working through conflicts on their own.
Say What You See
While the natural instinct in conflict is to find someone to blame, consider simply narrating. Put on your best newscaster voice and say what you see:
By simply narrating, you tell kids that you’re there to help them without taking sides. The other huge benefit is that “saying what you see” gives you an alternative to responding emotionally. Taking sides is never a good idea. Since you weren’t there you don’t know what happened, branding one child the “bad” kid and the other the victim can create a pattern that’s hard to move away from.
Give Concrete Tools
Rather than telling kids what they cannot do, try saying what they CAN do in a matter of fact voice:
“If you want to go to the movies tonight you’ll need to come up with a plan for how you’ll finish your project over the weekend.
Let’s face it. Telling people what they can’t do is frustrating at worst and annoying at best. Telling a child what they can do teaches problem solving and social skills and encourages a relationship with you that’s built on trust.
Don’t Make Assumptions or Overreact
If you see something potentially concerning, try asking the kids if they need help. Often we get involved when it isn’t necessary. Or we drag out a conversation about what went “wrong” for way longer than needed. Try these approaches instead:
“Do you need help figuring out a solution or are you okay?”
As adults it’s easy to assume that all roughhousing or “mean” talking is problematic. But kids like to play rough, and it’s good for them as long as both parties are enjoying the interaction. If someone is clearly being bullied or hurt, by all means, get involved using the strategies above, but know that a good game sometimes involves elements that are a little rougher than unicorns and rainbows.
Focus on Solutions
So let’s say you’ve used all of the strategies above and you still find yourself smack in the middle of an increasingly heated conflict. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, whose fault it was, and what YOU are going to do about it, help the children come up with a solution. Think of yourself as a mediator instead of a dictator.
“I’m worried that if I get you a cell phone you’ll be on it 24/7. What kind of rules can we agree on to make sure that isn’t a problem?”
The more you encourage your child to communicate and problem solve, the more capable she becomes at doing so without your help. This means you’ll get called in less and less to mediate at home. It also means that in the future you can send her out into the world feeling confident that she has the skills to advocate for herself and to come to an agreement when conflict arises.
Validate Feelings While Setting Limits
Like conflict, negative emotions can make parents feel uncomfortable. But children should know that sadness, anger, and disappointment are a normal and healthy part of being human. Sometimes you’ll try using all of the approaches we discussed above, and still end up with a child who insists on doing the opposite of what you suggest. This often means that you have to go back to the first principle and ask yourself: “Is the child’s behavior hurting anything or anyone?” If the answer’s “yes,” step in and set firm limits even as you stay connected.
“ Shoot! It’s 8:15 and you still haven’t brushed your teeth. Shoot! We don’t have time for an extra book. Maybe you’ll finish in time to get two books tomorrow!”
By setting clear limits and following through your child knows exactly what’s expected of them. By following through on what you say you give the message that you’re reliable and consistent and there to keep them safe. Finally, by normalizing your child’s emotions you tell them that acting out doesn’t get them their way and that you love them even when they are having a hard time.