Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, 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. Fighting 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 cool 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, parents need to guide children to a next better decision so that they learn how to mend physical or emotional damage done.
Yet, we all face 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 between parents and their children. Using the steps below can help navigate this struggle with skill. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Whether it’s your five-year-old hitting an older brother in frustration, your second grader 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 no harm to self 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 we have the competence to manage our 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 best done 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, 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 parents, it’s easy to forget that children are learning how to be in healthy relationships and that includes learning how to fight fairly. Because of your child’s learning and development, they will make mistakes and poor choices. How we, as parents, handle those moments can determine how we help build their conflict management skills. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child is going through. Here are some examples:
- 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.
- 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?”
If children struggle giving you a feeling word, then offer them options and ask which ones fit their true emotions. This helps expand their emotional vocabulary.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Manage Conflict in Healthy Ways
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 and 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.
- 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 them yet? What options do you think you have?” Be sure to reflect on outcomes of possible choices.
- 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 emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions 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
Though it is easy to forget, your attention is your child’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished in family life. But if your child is working hard to work through arguments constructively, it will be worth your while to recognize it. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to your child’s motivation to work hard by the following actions.
- 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 makes up for a poor choice by apologizing sincerely to a friend, recognize that effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid stickers, gifts, or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children. When you remove the candy, for example, have they internalized the skills and the sense of responsibility for performing it? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Be specific. “Good job” seems not to carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You talked with your brother until you both could agree; love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
If you focus only on outcomes – “You didn’t argue at all.” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say – “You were arguing in the car, you both calmed down, and then, you talked it through.”
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.