Working Out Conflict with Children

I just finished helping 5-year-old Janie and almost 5-year-old Olivia work through a BIG conflict at my home-based school, so it was a good time to reflect on how we resolve conflicts between friends. I hope some of these ideas will help families and teachers with the conflicts that inevitably come up between friends and siblings at home and at school. As you can see from this story, figuring out what happened can sometimes take a little time.

What Happened

Janie wanted to play with the robots at the puzzle table but Olivia wanted Janie to join her in the pretend area. It took a while to get to the bottom of it. After rest, instead of getting up, Janie stayed on her mat and mused about how she had “started something that would break someone’s heart.” That caught my attention!

Janie had remembered an “accident” she made recently when she said, “I won’t be your best friend anymore” as a threat to Olivia. Today, Olivia used the same threat on Janie to try to force her to come into the pretend area instead of playing at the puzzle table.

Janie was feeling guilty for having started this mess and was remembering the talk she had had with her mom about when this “shoe” was being invented. Now the “shoe was on the other foot” and it felt bad. Whew! Janie is 5, and her conscience is surely growing; Olivia’s too.

Working It Out

The lessons learned by children as they work on positive conflict resolution will be with them for a lifetime, so I was happy to take time to help Janie and Olivia work it out, even though it took a while. After some clarification, we all agreed not to use the “I won’t be your best friend” threat again. With just a little encouragement and quiet waiting on my part, they came up with a mutually agreeable choice about what to do next—playdough! This idea inspired them to quickly pick up their rest mats with light hearts.

Helping children learn to use constructive words to solve problems is a long-term process. It requires adult patience and lots of practice with children.

Guidelines for Helping Children Resolve Conflicts

When children begin to fight, the source of the conflict is not always clear. It is not always the one who screams—or the one who hits—who has created the problem. Typically, when two children have a conflict, both of them have had a hand in creating the situation, but neither one knows how to work through his/her frustrations. I begin with that assumption.

It is most effective to help the children work it out together rather than trying to decide for yourself what started it. This process does not go quickly at first, but once each child knows how these discussions will work, the discussions become easier, faster, and less frequent. Sometimes children will even work out their disagreements without an adult!

Follow these steps toward simple conflict resolution:

  1. Sit down together, have one child on each side of you or facing each other. (This works with children about ages 3 and up.) Ask the children, “What’s happening here?”
  2. Help them tell each other (not you) what happened. Encourage the children to look into each other’s eyes and tell their own side of the story, one at a time. They do not need to agree; they just need to listen to each other. Listening helps develop empathy.
  3. Help them clearly see that each one hurt the other. Summarize what you heard, emphasizing the role each one played in creating the problem and the results. 

  4. Ask both children to play a role in making things better. Both children can think about how to help each other feel better and how to prevent the conflict from happening again. Do not force apologizing, but mention it as a good first step. Focus on fixing the problem beyond apologies.
  5. Encourage children to try out their plan. Explain that as soon as they put their plan into place and play without further fighting they will both enjoy being with each other.

Make your discussions age-appropriate:

  • Toddlers need an adult to do most of the talking.
  • Three- and four-year-olds can tell each other what made each one hurt or angry but need help with brainstorming solutions.
  •  Five-year-olds can usually go through the steps with just a little guidance. They have enough words and experience to arrive at their own solutions.
  • Older children just need to be reminded to sit together and talk it through, as long as they have been guided through the process a few times before by a patient adult.

Remember that assigning blame or punishment is never the goal (although taking responsibility for one’s part and making restitution is always helpful). The keys to success are to focus on solutions at all levels and to help the children talk directly to each other as appropriate for their developmental levels.

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