What’s the one piece of consistently bad parenting advice “experts” often give? To let kids figure out how to resolve conflicts on their own. Allow two five year olds to work out a conflict without any adult intervention and I can promise you they won’t be using godly conflict resolution skills. In fact, I often wonder if much of the acting out we see in adult conflicts is a direct result of the lack of intentional instruction most kids have in the area of conflict resolution.
Parents should absolutely intervene in their children’s conflicts. Not to resolve the conflict for their kids, but to begin teaching their kids how to use godly conflict resolution skills. You may be wondering what that looks like with young children who probably won’t respond well to lectures on the steps of godly conflict resolution.
You’re right. A three or four year old isn’t ready for a law school class on dispute resolution or an hour long Bible lesson on the topic. You can, however, begin teaching the youngest of children some basic skill sets that can be built upon in age appropriate ways as they get older.
- Use your words. Young children have limited vocabularies. Even the most verbal of three year olds will often find they don’t have the words that make them feel as if they have adequately expressed their frustration in a disagreement or conflict. As a result, they may hit, pinch, bite or kick because those acts of aggression feel as if they match the intensity of their feelings better than their words. Don’t try giving a toddler a twenty minute lecture on the value of using words over biting. Just firmly say “No! We use our words, not our (fists, teeth, etc.).” Later, when the child is calm, you can suggest verbal ways to express their anger that feel better to them. You can even make them funny, as in “I’m so mad I could spit nails!” Sometimes adding that bit of humor can even make them laugh when they are upset. For kids who are still struggling to verbalize anything, try suggesting they growl or roar like a tiger or lion when they are really upset to express their frustration instead of biting, etc.
- Recognize a conflict before it escalates. With young children, this will actually be helping them to recognize the signs they are starting to get angry or frustrated. What signs do they notice right before a conflict starts? Perhaps they make a fist or bite their lip. Maybe they have a funny feeling in their stomach or feel like they want to scream. Teaching them metacognition skills – being aware of their thoughts – is helpful when they get a little older. When they are aware they are beginning to think angry thoughts, they are more likely to be able to pull back before saying or doing angry things.
- Put yourself in “stop” mode. Conflicts tend to escalate because the people involved start reacting, rather than thinking before they speak or act. Teaching your kids to say “Stop!” when they begin feeling angry or disagree with someone and give themselves a minute or two to think before saying or doing anything can slow or stop escalation. This one will take lots of practice. Try to catch your kids before the arguing starts. When you hear the first signs of disagreement, remind them to stop…until they can do it independently. You can use a timer or if they can count, encourage them to count to a fairly high number before they respond.
- What does each party in the dispute really want? After they master the previous steps and are doing them fairly consistently, it’s time to teach them how to frame the conflict. Start by using the “Stop!” time to ask them what they want and what they think the other person wants. As they get older, this should evolve into looking for deeper needs. For example, an argument over a toy may actually be that the child is grumpier than usual because it’s time to eat or because they are actually upset their siblings just take their things without asking first. Solving surface issues while ignoring the deeper roots, is why even adults feel frustrated when a conflict is supposedly resolved. On some level, we realize the deeper issue hasn’t been addressed. As they identify what they think the other person wants, teach them to double check with that person to see if they guessed correctly. Sometimes conflicts aren’t really conflicts as much as they are two people thinking they are having the same conversation when they are actually having two very different ones.
- What are our choices? This is the last step before they are probably old enough for more sophisticated conflict resolution lessons. Often, people in conflict think there are only two choices. Generating more options can make it easier to find one both parties find acceptable. This is a step that must be taught after the others are fairly mastered and your kids are a little older. Once they have correctly identified what each party wants, offer to play “personal assistant” and record all of the options they can think of to solve the dispute. They can be serious or silly. The more options they can think of, the easier it will probably be to find one they can both accept. Then help them learn how to talk through their options and come to a consensus on the best one.
Start teaching your kids godly conflict resolution skills as toddlers and preschoolers. You may just find other parents will want to know why your kids seem to get along so well!