Conflict is normal. It is going to happen regardless of your age, ability to communicate well, or peer group. It’s to be expected. So why do we try and avoid it with our kids (and each other!) at all costs, instead of teaching them how to work through it?
Becoming intentional with the way I parent my kids through conflict — so that it is consistent with the way I want them to work through conflict as an adult — has equipped my kids more than I knew possible starting at very young ages (before 2 years old). Conflict between kids is an incredible training opportunity if you handle it properly, and it isn’t complicated.
Here are 5 simple steps to processing conflict between kids:
1. Recognize conflict is normal (stop shielding them from every discord / pretending there is no conflict). We can shelter our kids from reality for a few years, but at some point they will realize that disagreements are pretty standard, and at that point they will have lost valuable years of practice. Why not start young?
2. Teach your child to determine for themselves whether each conflict necessitates a conversation. Some offenses are not a big deal, and we have to learn to brush it off. I tell my kids to “believe the best” of their friends — every collision is not an intentional affront. This part is delicate because we don’t want to shame them or invalidate them if something that WE think isn’t a big deal is a big deal to them. You can teach them to ask themselves some probing questions to see how important it is that they have a conversation with their offender.
3. Tell your child to talk to the offender themselves first. When they were first learning to talk, I taught my kids to say “please stop!” firmly but lovingly to big siblings or cousins who were frustrating them. By 4 or 5 years old my kids could tell someone “It hurt my feelings when you _______.” Being able to identify how you feel and being brave enough to say so is an invaluable and necessary skill. Talk to the person first.
4. If that doesn’t work, come get help (from a trusted guardian). If the offender doesn’t respond to my kid confronting him, my kids have permission to come recruit me for help. If I am not there, they can ask a trusted friend or teacher. My help is NOT correcting the other kid. My help is in paving the way for a reconciliatory conversation. If a kid comes for help, I first make sure the initial conversation has taken place by asking “Have you talked to [the offender]?” If they have, I go over and get down on kid level. Often just my presence is enough to strengthen my child to speak up again, (or perhaps an adult presence is convicting the offender?) Either way, if I need to grease the wheels of this conversation, I would say
Me: Offender, can Johnny talk to you please? Johnny, can you tell him what you told me?
Johnny: I don’t like you hitting me. That hurt my feelings.
***Almost every kid we’ve encountered will say sorry at this point***
Me: Johnny, Offender is sorry, will you forgive him?
Johnny: I forgive you
OR if Offender does not say sorry
Me: Hey, Offender, it’s not ok to hit. Do you need to apologize to Johnny?
A kid may or may not apologize at this point, but that’s all you can do. Teach your children that it was strong and brave to lovingly confront an offender regardless of their response. It is healthy for toddlers, school-aged kids, young adults and on to be able to recognize their emotions, grow their courage to confront an offender, and believe their parent loves them enough to help protect them from an offender if necessary.
5. (If necessary) Widen the circle. It is rare that a conflict can’t be resolved between kids with the steps above. But in the event of a serious or persistent offense, find the Offender’s Parent and lovingly explain to them that you need some help in stopping a behavior. I personally have been the parent of the Offender many times, and when my kid offends, I am so sorry on his behalf! Another parent coming to me with the assumption that I want to train my kids to be loving and kind gives me the opportunity to help train My Offender in a different way of relating. I am grateful for those opportunities! Approach in humility and ask the parent to step in to help with their child. Sometimes a repeat offender needs to be avoided because they can’t be trusted to play nicely in the sandbox. Sometimes a parent is convinced their child is flawless and won’t assist in the conflict resolution. On these rare occasions, I urge my kiddo to grant them forgiveness regardless, and move on.
The thought of widening the circle might be intimidating, but the process teaches kids that no one is too scary or too worthless to confront and our family values all children/people. So while you might avoid a child after you ask them to stop hitting a few times, you don’t avoid the conversation that comes after bad behavior. While it feels more awkward the first few times to say — “go tell him that hurt your feelings” as opposed to “ignore it,” once they get the hang of it they can have these crucial conversations without your guidance. The truth is, by leading our children through conflict as opposed to around the edges of it, we are absolutely growing future leaders.
Bonus: Another phrase I use with my bigger kids is “Is there something you are doing to frustrate your Offender?” They usually say “No!” (#indignant) but almost always when I prompt my kid to approach the Offender and ask if he is frustrated by something mine is doing, the answer is yes. I would NOT have this be the first question I ask when conflict arises. I believe it’s not the right first step because you run the risk of invalidating your child; he may begin to feel as though he is always assumed to be in the wrong. But it’s a good follow up question.