Problems in the family or classroom easily escalate into conflicts when one or both parties become upset and speak or act from their upset in a way that the other experiences to be critical or lacking in empathy. The more skills the adult has to deal with their own and the child’s charged emotions, the less likely it is that the conflict will escalate and the more likely it is that the upset will result in greater understanding and clarification of misunderstandings.
When misunderstandings are resolved, instead of frustrations and resentments building up, it’s more likely that both children will experience a deepening of the bond, empathy and trust between them. In fact, when adults skillfully help children through their conflicts, this additionally strengthens the trust and bond between adult and child.
Our intention in responding to a problem is going to largely determine the outcome. In the peaceful parenting model, it’s recommended that parents respond to conflict with the intention to resolve upsets, differences and misunderstandings as opposed to the intention just to stop the current behaviour. Parents who use traditional approaches to end conflict often punish or threaten unpleasant consequences in their attempts to solve problems or end conflict with a child or between siblings. Such an approach can involve time out, withdrawal of, or a threat to withdraw something of value to the childlike going to a friend’s house or t.v. time or imposing consequences, e.g. “unless you stop arguing right now, you will both have to do an extra hour’s housework!”
Some of the benefits of using this model of conflict resolution:
- Conflicts will be resolved emotionally, instead of just made to stop.
- You and your child will more quickly return to a warm connection with each other.
- You and your child will gain a better understanding of what was going on for each other before and during the conflict.
- Your child will receive positive rather than negative messages about how you view him as a person.
- Your message will positively affect your child’s self-esteem and self-image.
- Your child will eventually learn to use similar approaches to constructively resolve conflict when it arises.
- Your child will be better able to deal with his/her big powerful emotions.
- You will strengthen the bond and trust between you and your child.
- Genuine feelings of respect and understanding will be fostered.
- You will have modelled an effective method of resolving conflicts that your child will use in future situations.
Unresolved frustrations generally resurface in the near future. One of the problems with stopping conflict by coercing children to behave in more appropriate ways is that the emotions evoked by the conflict may well still simmer beneath the surface even when you think it’s all done and dusted. Children who feel coerced generally harbour resentments and a desire to rebel, but, if they don’t feel they can show those feelings, they often simmer beneath the surface and lead to a built up of resentments and frustrations. The siblings whose argument ended only because the parent intervened and demanded that it ends will generally end up back in conflict before too long. The new disagreement is often the child’s pretext to start another argument because they are still feeling upset at their sibling from earlier in the day. The conflict could also involve the parent, toys or property, a sibling, a friend and seems to spark up for “no good reason”.
The approach that you take in responding to conflict in the family will determine whether the conflict gets truly resolved or just stopped and whether the cause of the problem becomes identified and resolved. All too often parenting approaches focus on stopping the behaviour in the moment without necessarily changing the patterns in the long-term.
Parents ask, “What is the alternative? How can I make children learn if I don’t enforce a serious consequence that will make them stop and think? I can’t just let them away with being naughty?”
The alternative to imposing consequences is clear calm communication. What do adults do when someone acts disrespectfully towards them, cross their boundaries or otherwise upsets them? If they respond in a mature way, they sit down and talk the issue through, make sure that each person’s perspective is heard and respected and they work towards coming to an agreement. Ideally, they can problem solve together. This is exactly what works best in most cases for conflicts involving children, even for pre-verbal babes and toddlers, even if they don’t understand every word, they absolutely receive the communication that you’re hearing them, respecting their feelings and needs, working to patiently attune to and listen to them, working to care for and meet their needs and it’s very reassuring and soothing for them, which allows them to come back to responding positively towards you/ others.
If children can still feel cared for and respected even though they’ve done something wrong or upset their parent, they will generally live up to the parent’s expectations of being a caring and responsible young person.
Dealing with conflicts out there in the world. Children who have learned to expect anger, rejection, judgment, withdrawal of love, shouting, punishments or enforced consequences (also experienced as punishment) will tend to become very stressed when conflict arises outside the home with others, and may become scared of similar responses from others.
However, children who live in a family culture where conflicts are resolved through calm communication will be more inclined to stay calm hence logical, better able to express their feelings honestly and better able to listen to the other person’s feelings, be they a child or an adult
Punishing teaches a child to punish: One of the many disadvantages of punishing children is that punishing teaches and encourages punishing. The parent or teacher creates an undesirable consequence for misbehaviour because they feel fully justified in doing so. This gives the message that creating an undesirable consequence (i.e. punishing) is the correct action to take when a person feels justified in doing so. When children are angry, their emotions inhibit their logic, especially if they carry a backlog of unresolved anger. When children are angry, they easily feel justified in hurting another.
Let’s look at an example. Assume that Ted’s little brother Matt snatches a toy from Ted and Ted reacts by hitting his little brother. From the outside, it may be obvious that the little brother’s action should not have elicited such an angry reaction from Ted. But if Ted has a build-up of unresolved hurt and anger inside of him, small offenses can hurt deeply and cause huge over-reactions. Every time a child is punished, he is deprived of the teaching and support that he needs. The child’s negative self-image, which is part of the core problem, is further affirmed.
Why do children manipulate, bribe and threaten? When children manipulate, bribe and threaten, they are generally acting out learned behaviour based on how they have been treated. This unhealthy, learned behaviour comes out when a child has lost the feeling of a warm, loving connection with her parent or the adult who is looking after her. The child will no doubt experience some fear, and, even though it may not show on her face, she is now feeling less secure. The adult can see her behaviour as a shield and weapon and, rather than fighting back, can peek behind the shield to find the hurt and scared child who needs to feel loved, seen and cared for again.
Parents can look beneath the behaviour to their underlying feelings by asking themselves some helpful questions:
- Why is the child acting in this way?
- Has the child been made to feel like this?
- Have I or others treated the child in this way and are they trying to dispel those feelings by acting them out on others?
- Is it a cry for help?
- Does the child want you to know how it feels to be manipulated, lied to, bribed, threatened? Why?
- Does she need you to understand her feelings?
- Does she need your empathy?
When conflict arises, there is nearly always an element of misunderstanding involved. When upset happens in any relationship, both parties can become hyper-focused on the details of what is said and done and not said or done. These details often need to be voiced for misunderstandings to be identified and acknowledged for true resolution to occur. Generally, more information is needed from all parties before misunderstandings can be cleared up. No matter how obvious the right and wrong of the situation is to the adult, children need and deserve to have their side of the story heard.
How can conflicts become resolved in a way that identifies and resolves the underlying emotional hurts and misunderstandings?
The intention to resolve: For the parent or caregiver to help a child who is acting out unhealthy behaviour, the adult needs to intend to truly resolve the problem at a deeper level. To resolve conflict in any given situation, the parent must have an INTENTION to resolve the conflict. When parents react to conflict from their own hurt and angry feelings, generally they intend to make children stop acting in the way that they are acting and perhaps to make children see that how they are acting is not healthy. This intention on its own generally causes parents to respond in ways that children experience as blaming and punishing. E.g. parents may enforce a time out or withdraw their attention: “I’m not going to look at you or talk to you until you change your behaviour.”
Once a parent or teacher decides, “I really want to resolve this conflict”, then his attitude and hence choice of actions and communication will be a very different one, generally one that is driven more from compassion and understanding and less from frustration and feeling powerless. The parent or teacher, despite feeling hurt and even wanting to hurt back, needs to be the one who decides that it is possible to help both, or all, to resolve the hurts in the air and come back to peace.
Their side of the story: The intent to resolve the conflict will include the intent to give space to everyone to tell their full side of the story, and for each person to feel heard and respected, understood and acknowledged. Even if you don’t agree with your child’s version of the story, you can acknowledge how she sees it and how she feels about it. “I can see that you felt that I was being mean and that I told you to put out the rubbish because I wanted to punish you. I can imagine that you must feel very upset if that’s how you saw it. Are you ready to hear my perspective?”
Father and daughter get angry at each other. As an example, a father and his daughter have just lost it with each other. He has steam coming out of his ears, and neither is listening to the other one. He feels like shouting at her, and he just doesn’t know how to deal with the problem that’s arisen. He manages to recognise that he needs to calm down and to show some care for the hurt feelings that have arisen through the conflict. He begins to acknowledge his daughter’s feelings, even though he’s not feeling very empathetic just yet: “Hey, I know it’s hard for you when I get angry at you. I know it’s hard for you when you get in trouble again and feel blamed and fear punishment. It’s not nice when arguments happen, are it?” Speaking kind words helps him start to calm down; he starts to actually see that she’s upset and feels for her, rather than just feeling threatened by her upset.
Speak your intention: A good way to share your intent is to say, “Let’s start to come back to peace with each other. I can see you’re finding this really hard and I really do care; I’m ready to listen now.” The child may open up and start to show his more vulnerable feelings or he may continue to shout at you or stomp off. Then you might say, “I can see that you’re really upset, and I’m ready now to help you. I can see that you’re feeling really hurt [or frustrated or angry or lonely or sad] and that’s understandable, I don’t like it when I’m spoken to like that either.”
Taking some time to calm down: When tensions are very high between yourself and your child, you can give him some space to have a big cry or to stomp off if he insists on separating from you in that moment. Also, if you’re still angry and haven’t yet reached the intent to resolve, then just sit down, close your eyes and let yourself feel what you’re feeling. You can tell him “I’m just taking a minute to calm down”. This will generally bring the parent some release, perhaps some tears, and generally allows you to regain clarity. Even if you’re not ready to apologize, you can acknowledge his feelings; “I can see that you’re really, really upset and that it’s very hard for you when you know that I’m angry at you.”
Feeling rejected by your child: Even when a child insists that she doesn’t want to be anywhere near you, remember that it’s the angry and impatient parent that she needs to get away from. It’s the loving and caring parent that she needs to help her feel loved and cared for again, to help her remember her positive qualities.
Who should say sorry first? Parents often expect the child to say sorry first, but we must remember that it’s harder for children to manage their emotions and it’s something that they constantly need our help with. If you’re ready to say sorry for your side of things, this will generally diffuse the conflict very quickly and make it much easier for your child to feel safe and balanced again.
Should we insist that our child apologize? Rather than pressurizing children to say they are sorry regardless of whether they feel sorry or not, if you instead listen respectfully and acknowledge THEIR feelings, they generally will come to the feeling, and hence the expression of remorse themselves much earlier. If you can see that it’s hard for them to say sorry because they’re feeling guilty, blamed or misunderstood, you can make it a little easier by asking without threat of criticism, “Do you feel ready to be sorry yet?” and they can either answer “I’m sorry …” or “I’m not ready to be sorry yet”, which is a good honest answer. Remember that children want to be in harmonious, loving relationships, and they just need your patience and support to reach that happy feeling again. Your tone of voice will communicate to your child whether you’re expressing your resentment or your support.
Warm physical contact: When you have the intent to resolve hurts with your child, a gentle touch on the arm, shoulder, back or a gentle stroke on the face communicates peace in a very powerful way and will assure your child that your words are genuine.
Acknowledge their perspective: Acknowledge what it is that they wanted to do or not do, say or not say. “You really wanted to play with a friend this afternoon didn’t you? I know it’s very frustrating when you want to play with your friend and you’re not allowed to. I really do care about your feelings and want to help you. Would you like a hug? Look at you getting all those big feelings out of your body. You just needed to have a big cry and let all those bad feelings out of your body.”
The adult’s ability to forgive and still care for the child doing the hurting models forgiveness, remorse and the concept of staying in or returning to the relationship even when conflict arises—an amazing skill for life that most adults today had little modelling of as children. When one child hurts another child, it’s normal for the adult(s) involved to want to make the child see the error of their ways, which I agree is an equally important part of the process of resolution. However, it’s counter-productive to critically point out all that the child did wrong, thinking that she will feel remorse when she knows she’s hurt the other child. The child who hurts another child out of their anger, fear, frustration or powerlessness, generally knows immediately that she has hurt the other. Yet they may equally feel entitled to have hurt the other from their place of intense frustration. To see all sides and reach genuine remorse, they will likely to feel satisfied that THEIR feelings and their perspective is being taken equally seriously as the other child.
It’s normal for adults to feel angry at the child who instigated the aggression. However, if, despite feeling blaming towards the child, the adult can acknowledge the offending child’s feelings and give her the message that the adult cares about everyone’s feelings and wants to help them both reach a resolution, this approach is dramatically more likely to lead to a successful resolution and the expression of genuine remorse. Adults and children alike tend to feel overly entitled to hurt others when feeling heavily burdened by their own pain emotional pain, especially when they feel unloved and unliked.
Why do children tell lies? Children generally tell lies when they are afraid of getting in trouble. When parents use punishments, children feel threatened while also still needing to maintain a strong connection with their parent. Children who are afraid of getting in trouble, face a very difficult dilemma: If they tell the truth, they risk getting in trouble and losing their parent’s connection and care, or they can tell lies, which makes them feel bad and guilty and leaves them with the fear of being found out and hence losing the parent’s connection and care. Children who know they have nothing to be ashamed of or nothing to hide will innocently own up to all sorts of mischief quite happily. This is the kind of innocence that needs to be protected and nurtured in young children to help them learn the habits of open and honest communication all through their lives.
Battle of Wills: When you view your relationship with your child as a battle of wills, you are both in battle with each other more often than not. The perception that your child is battling you can evoke hurtful feelings for your child. Children act out because they don’t know what else to do with their big difficult feelings. When there’s a battle of wills, you are consciously or unconsciously choosing to battle back. In becoming more self-aware in your interactions with your child, you begin to see that you always have the choice: Do I fight with my child? Do I help my child? It’s hard for us to admit this even to ourselves, but resentments towards our child can build up all too easily when we feel stressed and unsupported in life when we lack confidence as a parent, it’s easy to resent our child for facing us with the challenges that we find so overwhelming. Admitting to ourselves that resentments have built up, that we’re in a mindset of blaming our child is often the first step towards resolving the difficulties. Parents report again and again, and I’ve experienced it myself so often, once these resentments are brought out into the clear light of day and gain some listening and gentle acceptance, the issue with our child often just dissipates nearly instantly.
What do children need when they are angry, frustrated and sulking? Angry, frustrated, and sulking children generally need their parents’ or caregivers’ help and understanding. At the very least, they need any conflict or pressure to be released to create some space for the upset feelings to be released or resolved.
When children are acting out, caregivers can assume the following:
- They are doing their best.
- They are acting out their hurt feelings that they don’t yet have the skills to manage.
- This is their way of showing you how they feel or how they have been made feel by you or others.
- They need you to teach them what they can do about their big, often overwhelming feelings. They need you to make them feel safe and loved so they can get their big feelings out with big tears and/or words, and show you how they feel.
- Their acting out is symptomatic of unmet needs.
- They need your love and empathy the most when they act the least deserving of it.
- They need your help to feel happy, peaceful and balanced again.
- They need to regain a warm, loving connection with you again.
- They would be more co-operative with you if they regained that warm kind connection.
Setting Limits: Children have an inbuilt fairness monitor. They find it very difficult to accept limits if they believe the limits to be unfair. It’s important that adults only hold the limits that are necessary to hold. When parents or caregivers can set limits for children while staying connected, listening respectfully and allowing children to express their feelings in response to the limits, then children will generally accept and respect the limits. It’s hard for children to be on the receiving end of our limits all the time, so it’s understandable that they may well need to show their emotional response to the limit; perhaps some anger, frustration, disappointment or sadness. If adults allow their child to express and release any related feelings, while keeping the limit set, you allow them to get the frustrated feelings out of their body and mind, which usually helps the child naturally transition back to a more balanced state. Children can only act as well as they feel.
It is important to clearly express both clarity about the limit and empathy at the same time, e.g. “The tv is definitely not going on today, and I can see that you’ve got really big, big hurt feelings about that. I care about all those feelings, and I’m listening. Good on you for having a big cry and getting those feelings of frustration out.”
Children whose parents and caregivers set limits in a calm and confident manner, stay connected, while listening to the child’s feelings that the limit brings forward are much more likely to:
- grow up to feel held, guided and cared for
- grow up to respect limits and boundaries from others
- develop the courage and humility to own and take responsibility
- grow up to be adults who can calmly and confidently assert their own limits and boundaries to others
It’s all in the tone of voice. If the limit is expressed with a tone that communicates arrogance, sarcasm, anger, or annoyance, or if it is expressed with a tone that is patronizing and demeaning, the child will see your limit as a punishment, which nearly always elicits either resentful compliance or rebellion. If the limit is expressed clearly, calmly and with respect and acknowledgment of their feelings, they will nearly always respect it. However, it’s important to examine one’s definition of “respect”.
If they express anger, disappointment, or grief, this does not necessarily mean that they do not accept or respect the limit. It’s important not to interpret an upset response as lack of respect, it most likely is just an expression of understandable disappointment or frustration or anger. They may need to express those feelings before they can feel happy and calm again. Parents can acknowledge those feelings and give children the message that they care and accept their children’s feelings, which will help them go through a natural healthy process of dealing with the grief and frustration that limits can bring.
It’s best to set any necessary limit if the expression becomes aggressive, while still maintaining a connection and offering support; “I can’t let you call me names but you can tell me how angry you feel, I really do care and am here to help.”
They may need to give you more information and attempt negotiation. If they are listened to respectfully and they are confident that you have thought it out calmly and fairly, they are much more likely to respect your limit.