My husband and daughter will confirm for you that I am far from an expert on handling conflict. My training as a teacher, though, has taught me some better ways of handling disagreements. While it definitely won’t resolve all of the conflict issues in your home, it may eventually make them more pleasant to deal with when they do happen. (These are listed in no particular order.)
1. Teach your child physical violence is never an option. I have found most parents will teach their boys to never use violence against a girl. Some will even discourage their boys from using violence at all. It is the rare parent who will teach their girls this lesson. If you talk to men for very long, you will find one of their pet peeves is that women are always “playfully” hitting them. When they get really honest, these same men will tell you many women’s punches and slaps (mainly to the arms and legs) are not all that gentle. It is a bad habit for any of us. When someone is angry with us, it doesn’t deescalate the situation at all to touch them in any hurtful way. I am not a fan of going into long detailed discussions about why we don’t hit after a toddler has decked someone. A very firm “We never hit!” with whatever consequence you deem necessary is sufficient at that age. If your children are still hitting when they are older, it may be time for a serious discussion of why that is not a wise choice for settling conflicts.
2. Forbid the use of the words “I hate you!” We do not allow them to be said in our house no matter how angry someone gets. I realize a child really means he is extremely angry with me at the moment those words are uttered. I inform the child he can say “I have never been angrier with you in my life” or “I am so frustrated I could scream” or any other respectful expression of frustration and anger. I am so passionate about this because I think as adults people often say things in anger that can have long lasting consequences. “I don’t love you any more” and “I want a divorce” are two that come to mind. Often once the door is opened, it becomes too easy for someone to walk through it. This is the first step in teaching your child to control her tongue when she is angry.
3. Teach your child to give himself a cooling off period before re-acting. A child’s reaction to a perceived wrong is often immediate and out of proportion to the offense. Teach your child to walk away immediately when something makes him want to punch a wall. Counting to forty may not be enough time, but a few minutes will either reveal new evidence (Mom dumped your messy drawer on your bed, not your brother) or give the angry person time to realize maybe the offense wasn’t that bad. It also gives the wrong doer half a chance to try and right his wrongs before he is “punished” by the “victim”. Once again, if we had practiced this more as children, perhaps “road rage” and other adult impulse reactions wouldn’t be quite so bad.
4. Give your child acceptable physical outlets for working out anger. If the hormones from an immediate stress reaction to anger get too high, they need an outlet. Also, there are some times when it just may be impossible to vent your anger to the person who has wronged you. Going for a run or punching a boxing bag will allow your child to work out those feelings in a healthy way. The stress release will also hopefully keep her from becoming obsessed about revenge. When our daughter was small, we bought an inflatable “Bozo the Clown” (You can still buy them.) It is about four feet tall and bounces back when you punch it. It is perfect for a toddler and works well into childhood. When frustrations mount for any reason, Bozo often gets a workout. He has gradually deflated in our house as our daughter is now a teen. We keep him around though because he does come in handy! (Be sure to stress to your child that throwing objects and hitting walls are not acceptable. All of the physical activities should involve some sport or variation of a sport and use appropriate objects. “Kick a soccer ball outside, not the wall.”)
5. Teach your child to analyze her anger and the conflict. This is the hardest step. I still struggle with this myself. If your child can learn to do this though, conflict resolution will be so much easier. When a conflict arises, the first step is to decide why what happened made her so angry. Was she especially tired and this was the last straw? If so, the perceived problem might not be so bad after a good night’s sleep. Did she really understand what the person meant and not just what the words were? Was the other person speaking out of character because he hadn’t slept well? Is she really mad at someone else who commits this offense all of the time, but is taking all of her frustration out on the one time offender? Is this the same argument, with the same person that is argued on a regular basis with no result? What does each party in the conflict really want? What is the best solution to the problem, not just the best solution for her? Teaching your child to start asking and answering these questions before speaking or reacting can make her a candidate for a future job as a diplomat!
6. Don’t forget the scriptures. The Bible has so many things to say about how to act (or not act) in anger. Often when I am tempted to spout a diatribe, I have to keep repeating to myself all of those scriptures about being slow to speak. Memorizing a few helpful scriptures is a good way to keep God’s way in the front of your mind when problems arise.
7. Teach your child appropriate ways to air his grievances and set his boundaries. I think it is perfectly acceptable for a child to require a sibling to ask permission before borrowing her things. Help your child learn how to word her boundaries in a loving but firm way. This skill is especially important as your child begins dating relationships. Work with your child to help him find an appropriate way to handle grievances. When a sibling does borrow something without permission, what is an acceptable way in your house for handling the situation? It is also important to help your child learn how to handle school conflicts. These are really just tests for workplace issues in the future. How can they handle conflict with a teacher (boss) in a respectful but firm way? What are the best ways to deal with a mean girl or a bully? You might not know the exact answer yourself, but I am sure you can at least share some things with your child that definitely won’t work!
Conflict is a part of life. Families who spend a lot of time together may even have a little more conflict. It is easy not to argue when you don’t see or interact with each other. Conflict often arises because boundaries are crossed by accident or on purpose. Teaching your children how to handle inevitable conflicts though, will do a lot to improve their future relationships. While you are teaching your child, I am going to go continue to work on these areas for myself!