Not a parent or teacher is immune to the instant request to be judge and jury when children find themselves in the midst of an unresolved conflict. You can feel it coming as they race towards you with set jaws, furrowed brows, and outraged voices exclaiming how woefully each feels they’ve been wronged.
So whose side are you on? Both children want to know this. In fact, at this point, little else matters to them. As a mother of young children, I jumped right in and tried to help them articulate the backstory: What had they decided upon for the game? Who did what when? Can one see how their actions made the other feel? The web got stickier and stickier and the more we tried to untangle it, the stronger their feelings of injustice grew.
Fortunately, I just happened to come across an article that helped me understand how best to help them not only resolve their conflicts but develop skills they’d be called upon to use for a lifetime. The crux of the technique is to take the adult out of it. In fact, the article asserted that children don’t really want you to resolve the issue, they just want to know at this moment who you love more.
That got my attention!
The technique is simple: The children sit down together in a spot that isn’t super comfortable (no couches or beds - we used a tile step that went into the kitchen or a picnic table outside). Together they figure out how to resolve their conflict and come to you once they’ve come up with a solution. Initially, the step to relay their solution to you is important because you do still need to decide if it sounds fair. Over time, though, with enough practice they learn to recognize this for themselves.
The first time we tried it there was a long period of silence. Neither boy wanted to give in, and both continued feeling like they were 100% right (and the other 150% wrong). After this period of stewed silence, they came to me and said it was useless. I shrugged and told them I was sorry to hear it and directed them back to the step. As sitting there became acutely dull, they decided to act. The anger abated, and they figured out a new plan with mounting enthusiasm. This time they came running to me to quickly relay their solution so that they could get back to playing. I realized then and there that my former protracted inclusion in their squabbles had been a hindrance, not a real part of any solution.
If you decide you’d like to give it a try, here are some helpful guidelines to help children resolve minor conflicts and disagreements:
- Let them know you believe they can do this. Over time, as they learn to resolve conflict, this message becomes something they can see in themselves.
- Stay within earshot the first few times - not only can you curtail any domineering behavior, but knowing someone is listening can help the children move forward.
- Don’t interject! A friend’s children kept asking her for advice as they tried to resolve the issue. It just prevented them from working on it themselves. She drank a magic potion in front of them that temporarily made her voice disappear.
- If they come back to you with a solution that doesn’t sound fair, tell them so and send them back to work on it some more.
- Children learn to resolve conflict in the moment.
- When they come to rely on themselves in problem solving, children develop autonomy.
- Children develop empathy when they can really listen to how another feels .
- Other family members are not dragged into conflict, thus reinforcing children to take ownership of their problems.
- Working through a problem together deepens the children’s friendship.
You’ll also find that over time they no longer need to go to a special spot to resolve conflict. They’ll do it together in the moment because they’ve learned what’s important in the process. Your part is to give them the parameters, but once they find success they claim the process as their own.