Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and growing your child’s/teen’s skills to manage conflict provides a perfect opportunity.
Conflict happens in families between spouses, among siblings, and between parents and children/teens. Fighting in family life is normal and expected. How you argue and how you work through problems together can build your child’s/teen’s life skills so that they are ready to grow and sustain healthy relationships beyond your family. Children/teens ages 11-14 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 them 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/teen may exclaim in embarrassment and frustration after breaking a house rule with a friend. As your child/teen 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/teens. 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 eleven-year-old hitting an older brother in frustration or your eighth grader refusing to get ready for a family event, establishing regular ways of working through conflict in healthy ways that do no harm to self or others includes teaching your child/teen 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/teen:
- 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/teen manage conflict. It also builds important critical life skills in your child/teen. 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/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about managing conflict by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s/teen’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/teen:
- 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;
- will grow their self-control as well as empathy and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your child/teen in their ability to manage conflict in healthy ways? For example, if your child/teen is hurt or feeling rejected, it’s a normal reflex for them to lash out with hurtful words in self-protection. Begin by considering the following.
- Ask how your child/teen feels when arguing with a family member or friend:
- “What are some ways you can tell you are having a conflict with someone?”
- “What are common issues that cause conflict for you?”
- “How do you feel when you are having a conflict with someone?” (Name the multiple feelings that occur.)
- “What do you notice about what’s going on in your body?” (Name the ways that your child/teen physically experiences conflict whether it’s a red, hot face or a racing heartbeat.)
- “What is the difference between impact and intention?”
- “What are examples of negative impacts you have had on others that maybe you didn’t mean?”
- “How might you have engaged differently so as to reduce the negative impact?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, it’s easy to forget that children/teens are learning how to be in healthy relationships and that includes learning how to fight fairly. Because of your child’s/teen’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/teen is going through. Here are some examples:
- Eleven-year-olds may argue with you as they assert their independence and fight with friends as they worry more about being liked. They may exclude others in order to gain popularity.
- Twelve-year-olds may find themselves more rundown by stress. They may be edgy and moody or anger easily as they deal with that stress.
- Thirteen-year-olds can be highly sensitive as they work to define their independent identity while still being dependent. They may feel an even greater sense of peer pressure.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act invincible and like they know it “all.” They may get angry if they are embarrassed or rejected in front of peers and particularly in front of crushes.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen 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.
Use the following model to help teach constructive conflict management to your child/teen:
- Step 1 – Stop. This is the most important step and requires us to pause. Explain to your child/teen that when we are in a conflict, it is easy for our reactive/emotional brain to take over. Unfortunately, we say unkind things and do things we regret when functioning like this. In order to get our thinking brain connected, we need to pause. There are many ways to help taking a pause, for example, taking a breath, visualizing a stop sign, or simply imagining hitting a pause button.
- Step 2 – Check in. The second step has three parts to it and requires us to check in with our body, our feelings, and our needs. The following questions will help:
- “What sensations do I feel in my body?” (heart racing, palms sweaty)
- “What am I feeling?” (angry, hurt)
- “What do I need?” (to be heard, to feel like my opinion matters)
- Step 3 – Communicate. Encourage your child/teen to then communicate the feeling, need, and request, which might sound like: “I feel hurt, and I need my opinion to matter. Could you listen to me first without interrupting?”
If your child/teen struggles with 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/teen to practice new skills if you seize those chances. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child/teen works hard managing 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 considerations.
- Allow your child/teen 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/teen 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/teen.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen 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/teen 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/teen may need active support. Use “Show me…” or “I’d love to see…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work to resolve a problem. You could say, “I’d love to see how you use some of the skills we just talked about in this argument with your sister.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice you were so clear about what your feelings were and what you needed from your sister. Great work asking her for exactly what you needed. That’s excellent!”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child/teen is frustrated or feeling irritable, proactively remind your child/teen that their power lies in their ability to pause before reacting. This might sound something like, “Yesterday, when you stopped and took a breath before reacting to your sister, you were able to stay in control and get the outcome you wanted. It may not feel like that today, but that ability is still in you.”
- Actively reflect on how your child/teen is feeling when approaching challenges. You can ask questions like:
- “How are things going with your friends? Who are you hanging out with during lunch?” Offering a chance to talk about lunch and recess gives insight into your child’s/teen’s social challenges.
- “I can tell you are still upset about what happened with your friend. What do you think might be helpful?” 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/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 for managing conflict. Third, if you feel that your child/teen 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/teens 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/teen 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/teen’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/teen 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/teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to your child’s/teen’s motivation to work hard with 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 a child/teen is bravely facing their sister who hurt them, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I noticed you paused and got really clear about what you needed. 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/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child/teen 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 gifts, or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children/teens. When you remove the money or extra screen time, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not 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/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens 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.