Why Teach Conflict Resolution?

When I first became a teacher, I felt overwhelmed when my students were in conflict. I thought I needed to help them resolve the issue peacefully, so I would sit with them, intervene, and monitor them. The problem with this approach was, I was crippling them from learning their own conflict resolution skills. They began to rely completely on me to help solve their problems. By constantly intervening, I robbed them of their independence. 

The longer I taught, the more I realized that it was my duty to explicitly teach and model conflict resolution skills to my students. They would then be empowered with the tools to manage conflict on their own. Once I did this, the classroom culture changed dramatically. I was amazed to see how capable children were of identifying their feelings, self-regulating, and arriving at amicable solutions. With your guidance, children can learn these same skills at home to practice healthy conflict management skills with their siblings and parents. Read on to learn how!

Parent Reflection on Conflict Resolution

Your approach to conflict can stem from your own childhood. Take a moment to think…

  • How was conflict handled by your parents? 
  • Do you find yourself using a similar or different approach? 
  • How often do you give your children a chance to navigate conflict on their own?

It can be challenging to loosen the reins when our children are having challenges. Before you’re able to do that, it’s important that your children have been taught the foundational skills to be successful on their own. How often do you pause and explicitly teach your children positive and productive language or ways to calm themselves down? While children can learn a lot from observation, it’s essential to also name, model, and practice these skills as well. 

Modeling Healthy Conflict Resolution Skills

Research shows children learn attitudes and beliefs through reinforcement and observation of others’ behaviors. Children are most likely to imitate models who are warm and nurturing, high in social status, and similar to themselves. Parents and older siblings who are viewed as loving, competent, and powerful are especially influential role models for children. For this reason, it is crucial that parents and older siblings model healthy and effective conflict resolution skills. 

Children also learn about conflict management by watching the way their parents engage in conflict with each other. Studies show that parental conflict (characterized by anger, hostility, and aggression) threatens children’s sense of security. This leads to worry about the stability of the family. When parents argue constructively (characterized by affection, problem-solving strategies, and compromise), children feel a sense of security about the family.

When we model for children how to resolve conflict, they bring these skills into their own relationships. This means that it is okay for children to see you in conflict with your partner or other children, as long as it is in a productive manner. Hiding conflict behind closed doors isn’t the answer, though many tend to think it is. 

Explicitly Teaching Conflict Resolution Skills

In addition to modeling healthy conflict resolution, we must explicitly teach children these skills. Many times, children don’t willingly behave poorly; they merely haven’t mastered the skills yet to behave well. They don’t know how to regulate their intense emotions or communicate their needs. Instead, they follow their instincts. They kick, scream, punch, or talk back. Children don’t want to behave poorly and have outbursts; they just don’t know what else to do. That’s where adults step in to teach them healthy tools. If you want to learn more about this, check out this video on skill vs. will. 

Step 1 – Stopping the Conflict

Children must learn to speak up for themselves when a situation makes them uncomfortable. When conflict arises, children should state that they do not like what is happening and put an end to it. This step is crucial before children can self-regulate, talk about their feelings, or resolve the conflict.

A child might say something as simple as, “Stop. I don’t like that.”

Practice this with your child before conflict arises. Teach your child that standing up straight and talking in a firm, calm, and confident voice can make all the difference in how one is perceived.

Step 2 – Cooling Down and Self-Regulation

Before children are ready to resolve a conflict, they must first take time to cool down and self-regulate. We can teach children about the brain to help them understand why this is important. When we become upset, two parts of the brain are majorly involved. 

The amygdala is in charge of our emotional reactions. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of our decision-making skills and the ability to think logically. When we become upset, we first react with our amygdalas. Our brains need time to settle down before our prefrontal cortexes can kick in! Once we have calmed down our firing amygdalas, we are ready to solve a conflict calmly and efficiently with fully functioning prefrontal cortexes.

How to Cool Down

There are many ways children can cool down. We recommend children take a break from each other to cool down when a conflict arises before trying to resolve it. During this break, they can then take a few moments to check in with their feelings and practice self-regulation skills, such as deep breathing, squeezing a stress ball, running in place, drawing, or journaling. Once they feel calm, they are ready to return to each other to share feelings and find solutions. This cool down process may take just a few minutes (or even a few seconds of deep breathing). Depending on the intensity of the situation, it could take longer. 

In my classroom, I found it particularly helpful to designate a cozy “Cool Down Spot,” full of self-regulation tools, for children to go to when cooling down. I would highly recommend this for your home as well! Encourage your child to participate in the process of setting up the cool down spot. 

teepee for self-regulation

Items you might include in your Cool Down Spot:

Check out the video, Just Breathe, by Mindful Schools to learn just how impactful deep breathing is for kids. 

For silly deep breathing exercises for kids, take a look at our video with demonstrations.

Step 3 – Expressing Feelings 

After self-regulation, the children involved (or parent and child) will come back together to talk. Each child should have the opportunity to share feelings. We suggest using I-Statements to express feelings. An I-Statement focuses on your own feelings, rather than jumping to blame how someone else wronged you. 

An I-Statement might sound like this: “I felt _______ when you ________. I wish you would please __________.” 

Step 4 – Coming Up with a Solution Together

After the children have expressed their feelings, they are ready to come up with solutions. We recommend having a poster up in your home with ideas for how to solve conflicts. This is included in our Conflict Navigation Product, or you can make your own as a family. 

Empowering Children to Solve Conflict On Their Own: When Should Adults Intervene?

When children solve conflict on their own, they feel empowered and independent. Most conflicts amongst children can be solved without adult intervention. However, when children are in danger or are physically hurt, then adults must intervene to ensure everyone is safe. You might also find that children become so heated with emotions, they need assistance to take a break, calm down, and come up with solutions to resolve the conflict. If you must intervene, know that you can walk children through healthy steps to conflict resolution, so they still have the opportunity to learn and practice. 

It’s important to remember that typical social conflict amongst kids is different from bullying. Bullying happens when a child targets another child and repeatedly picks on him/her (either physically or emotionally). Bullying causes great distress to children and requires intervention from a parent or teacher. 

When Consequences Are Needed

While we suggest first giving the children involved an opportunity to solve a problem on their own, we know that sometimes parent-given consequences are necessary. We recommend natural consequences. Natural consequences are tied to the child’s behavior, rather than being a random consequence with no connection to the behavior. 

Here are some natural consequences we recommend:

 

  • “If you break it, fix it” – For example, Jonathan knocks over Cody’s lego creation, so Jonathan helps Cody put it back together

 

  • “If you hurt someone, help make it better” – If Cindy pushes Marcus to the ground so he falls and scrapes his knee, Cindy must help Marcus clean the scrape and put a band-aid on it. 

 

  • Loss of a privilege: If a child cannot play kindly, the child is not allowed to continue playing the game until he/she can demonstrate how to play safely. 

Reactions You Might See from Your Child

As you transition from parent-led to child-led conflict resolution, you will probably find some resistance from your child. It’s much easier for kids to have their parents stop a conflict and figure out the consequence, so anticipate some time for transition. As with many elements of parenting, there will be ups and downs: occasions where kids feel empowered and are successful in their interactions, as well as outbursts of anger and frustration. Don’t give up! It can be hard to navigate conflict as a fully formed adult, so have some grace for your little ones. 

This Takes Practice!

Remember that this is not a topic you can teach just one time and then expect your children to be experts! Children need consistent practice in this skill, and they will likely need your support in the beginning. When you explicitly teach, model, and guide children in these steps, you help solidify the skills as a habit. The more practice the children get, the more able they will be to use these skills independently! 

We’re Here to Help with Our Conflict Resolution Product!

In our Conflict Navigation Product, we provide all the tools you need to kickstart the process for your family! 

In this digital download, you’ll find… 

  • An informative welcome video to guide you through the resources and our approach to resolving conflict
  • A detailed, 14-page guidebook for parents, including research on child development and conflict, instructions on when and how to get involved with conflict, and more
  • A 14-page child activity book to help build an understanding of why we get frustrated and get involved in conflict as well as strategies for calming and navigating conflict
  • Four posters you can print and post around the house to visually reinforce how to manage conflict (black & white, as well as colored version included)

Recommended Parent Books on Child Conflict

Recommended Picture Books on Conflict & Self-Regulation

Works Cited

Borba, Michele. Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-about-me World. First Edition. New York: Touchstone, 2016.

Koss, Kalsea J, et al. “Understanding Children’s Emotional Processes and Behavioral Strategies in the Context of Marital Conflict.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3065512/.

Whiteman, Shawn D, et al. “Theoretical Perspectives on Sibling Relationships.” Journal of Family Theory & Review, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 June 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3127252/.