Teaching Conflict Resolution Skills To Children

With violent responses to our difficulties here in the United States topping the headlines of the major newspapers nearly every day, it has become increasingly important for parents to take advantage of "teachable moments" in which they can instruct their children in conflict resolution skills. The opportunities to do so arise with most children nearly every day. Whether the disputes between a child and his siblings, peers or teachers are minor or major, each one represents an opportunity for us to give our children insight into how conflict can be peacefully resolved.

There are three main things that a child needs to be able to do in order to resolve conflict peacefully:

* Understand his own feelings so that he can communicate those feelings with words, not actions.

* Understand how his behavior impacts others.

* Think clearly during a conflict so that he can brainstorm peaceful solutions to the problem.

Most parents, while well-meaning, jump into children's conflict rather quickly, lecturing them on "right vs. wrong" in order to achieve a speedy resolution. While the content of such lectures may be excellent, it is usually a case of teaching the right lesson in the wrong way. Lecturing merely makes the child feel judged and causes her to raise her defenses so that the information the parent is relaying cannot get through.

Rather than becoming "judge and jury" in such circumstances, parents can teach the lesson more effectively by adopting the stance of a calm, impartial mediator. In this way, a parent has the opportunity to non-judgmentally verbalize both parties' feelings and guide them in thinking more clearly about the potential solutions available. Let's see how this might look in a conflict between two children:

Joe and Jane are in an argument over which television program to watch. Both have one hand on the remote control and are trying to push each other. Jane is trying to kick Joe. Mother comes in and makes the observation: "Seems like you guys are having a problem." (This is an impartial observation of the truth, and blames neither child for the conflict, even though Mom may know that one child started it, and even though she's observed Jane's kicking strategy, of which she strongly disapproves.)

Both children turn to her and, in loud voices, begin to argue their "case", trying all the while to talk louder than the other. Mother listens a minute, then puts up her hand, stating "I can't hear when you both talk at the same time." Without waiting for them to respond, and making no attempt to find out the "facts", Mom then begins to help them put words to the feelings they have, "Joe, it seems like you're feeling possessive about the television and Jane, it looks like you're feeling angry at Joe." (Note that Mom does not try to make one child "right" and one "wrong", she simply states what she observes so that neither child needs to defend their position.)

The children turn back to each other and begin to yell louder. Mom does not respond to this. Instead she says, "Jane, it sounds like you're feeling cheated, and Joe I guess you're feeling resentful." (Impartially verbalizing both children's feelings does two things: it helps each child gain insight into their own feelings and it clarifies how the behavior of each child is impacting the other. For example, Jane's kicking is bringing up feelings of resentment for Joe, and Joe's insistence on watching his program rather than Jane's is causing her to feel cheated. Mother chooses her feeling words based on what she observes in each child's facial expression and tone of voice, while taking into consideration the context of the argument.)

This "back and forth" style of acknowledging the children's feelings is by no means easy, and requires practice on the part of the parent. It's clearly much easier to shout "Shut up and give me that remote control, you've both lost TV privileges for a week" than to try and think on your feet and come up with feeling words that describe what you see. However, when done correctly, it accomplishes the first two objectives in helping children resolve conflict.

The third objective - teaching the children to think clearly and brainstorm solutions - must come after the various feelings have been explored and talked about in this non-judgmental way. When the children have had their feelings respected and they've calmed down some (which usually happens once they discover that the parent is going to patiently refuse to take sides) the parent should then ask the key question, "Can you guys think of a way to work this out?" Although most often the answer to this question will be some form of "no", it plants two important ideas in the children's consciousness: that there IS a solution, and that they are capable of working it out.

When the children reject the notion that there might be a solution, the parent can then begin the brainstorming process. This should always be done in question form, lest the parent fall back into the lecture mode and ruin all the good work he's done so far. An example might be "What do you think would happen if you drew the names of the shows you wanted to watch out of a hat, do you think that would work?" Beginning with the words "What do you think would happen if..." or "I wonder what would happen if..." allows the children to either reject or own the solution. This prevents them from just taking the parent's advice and therefore becoming dependent on adults to help them resolve conflict rather than learning to think for themselves. The parent may stay in this "mode" for as many "solutions" as he can think of, or until he begins to feel discouraged by the children's rejection.

If the children are still intensely angry, and seem as though they might resume physically fighting with one another, the parent must then implement a solution that impacts both children equally. For example, "I'll take the remote control and the two of you can go to separate rooms until you calm down." If the children are calm at this point, however, the parent must be willing to walk away from the situation with it unresolved, encouraging the children to continue working on it, "I'm sure you'll come up with a solution. Let me know when you do." Although this may seem counterintuitive, it leaves the solution in the hands of the children where it belongs. Only by successfully resolving conflict themselves do children develop the resources to resolve future conflicts.