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5 tips for helping kids with conflict resolution and anger

Recently, my friend’s four-year-old had a preschool classmate over for a play date. All was copasetic until his pal grabbed a much-loved toy helicopter and took off across the living room. “He can’t play with that!” shouted my friend’s kid. “Yes I can!” yelled the pal, continuing with his flight and accompanying sound effects. Things went downhill from there – with tears, a dramatic flop on the couch and ending with my friend’s son saying, “You are not my friend, and you will never come to my birthday party!”

Our kids will inevitably clash with others – when they’re toddling, it’s over the grabbing of buckets and shovels in the sandbox. But as they get older, the quarrels become more complex and emotional.

Conflict itself is not a bad thing – for most children it’s a healthy part of development. As I mentioned in a recent column on the terrible threes, young kids have bustling brains, but little emotional control. And it takes years for them to develop empathy; not until they’re about four-years-old do most kids understand that other people have their own thoughts and feelings.

So conflict is the product of normal development. But in the meantime, how do we help our kids through this tricky part of growing up?

Before your child gets tangled in a potentially sticky situation, discuss it and come up with a plan. For example, my friend and her four-year-old know that sharing toys at home is hard, so they talk about it. “Jack is coming over, are there any toys that you don’t feel like sharing with him today?” my friend will say. If so, they stow those chosen possessions, with the understanding that the rest of his toys are fair game.

Of course, halfway through the play date, fights can erupt anyway. So my friend tells the other child, “Jack, it’s okay for you to play with that toy. It was our plan to share.” And she reminds her son, “It seems like you’re having some feelings about sharing. But remember, we had a plan.”

If you know your child’s hot buttons, you can sometimes head off conflict by avoiding their particular triggers. For example, if a home-based play date is tough, pick a neutral territory like the park instead. If your child tends to be sensitive when he’s tired or hungry, make sure he’s well-napped and fed before he plays with another child.

When kiddie warfare starts, it helps to step in and change the focus of play completely. This is easier with two-year-olds because their attention is easily diverted with, “Hey, I have an idea, why don’t we all fill the bucket with leaves!” For a preschooler, it can still work, but you may want to explain yourself more fully: “It seems like this activity is hard for you right now. How about we come up with another plan – how about we put on hats and pretend to be firemen!”

Lots of parents think their young children should share – I see it even with parents of one-year-olds at the park. But we may be imposing our idea of sharing on our kids before they’re ready.

A friend’s preschool teacher once explained it this way: “Imagine as an adult if someone said to you, ‘You can read that book for five minutes, then I’m going to read it.’ It would make no sense, right? That’s your activity.” Why should we expect our kids to relinquish their playthings and rotate back and forth?

My son is starting preschool next week and the director of the program, Lisa Perttula, told me that the school has “talking chairs” to help kids negotiate conflicts. When a problem arises, the teachers help the kids sit face-to-face and talk it through. For the two-year-olds, this happens immediately, and with adult involvement, says Pertulla, because attention spans are shorter: “You hit him and now he’s crying. Let’s check in with our friend to see if he’s okay.”

Her preschool teachers, however, avoid the victim-perpetrator dynamic. If a kid gets hit, for example, they help him stand up for himself and say, “I don’t like that,” or “that hurt,” instead of just running off and crying.

Older kids may need some cool-down time, says Perttula. They hold on to ideas and feelings longer so take some time before asking them to talk about the incident. She says at her school she’s watched four-year-olds say, hours after a squabble is over, “I’m ready to talk now,” and actually ask the other friend to come to the talking chairs.

The point of conflict resolution isn’t to make our kids follow a script and simply behave. Insisting on “sorry,” is fine, but it isn’t really a learning experience. A lot of parents have long sit-downs with their kids – talking and talking in the hopes that the child will say sorry or show some understanding. This approach misses the mark – young kids are creatures of the moment, and that’s where learning happens. So when conflict erupts, quickly debrief and move on.

Remember, we’re not trying to raise people-pleasers – we’re trying to help our kids understand their feelings and their relationships. We want to send the message that it’s okay to be peeved when you don’t feel like sharing, or to be mad when your friend is the first to the top of the slide. Kids learn and brains develop through experience, so we all need practice getting angry or hurt and working through it. It’s one of the most important skills our kids will learn – and as we adults know well, it’s a lifelong process.

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