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Conflict resolution is an art rather than a science, because each situation presents so many unique variables. Each individual’s temperament, perceptions, baggage, etc. all come into play. Should we hash it out? Insist? Give in? Or just walk away? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

So we can all use as much practice as we can get, especially young children. Beyond exposing our children to everyday social situations — play dates and trips to the park — how can we help children learn to manage and resolve conflict?

In short, by allowing them to experience it with our support. Providing this support means learning when and how to intervene. Here are some of my intervention do’s and don’ts:

1Don’t resolve conflicts for them

It’s a big challenge to let go of our adult wish to tie a neat bow around our children’s disagreements and avoid their emotional outbursts. But our interventions can prevent children from learning much of anything other than that they are dependent on us to fix these situations, incapable of handling conflicts themselves.

Resolving it for them includes demanding that toddlers share or take turns, as well as offering ideas and suggestions like, “How about you both hold onto the pail and carry it together? There you go!”

The challenge for parents is to allow children to safely engage in conflict and resolve it their way, rather than letting our discomfort or impatience get the better of us. The more we say and do for our children in these situations, the less they will learn to handle themselves. Trust and patience must precede learning.

2. Don’t neglect to protect

Some misinterpret “respectful discipline” as simply telling children not to hit, bite, etc., rather than physically intervening. Children need both. They need us to be ready to prevent these harmful behaviors if possible, blocking or holding children’s hands and calmly shadowing children who have demonstrated these behaviors in the past (or seem in an out-of-sorts mood that day).

3. Don’t shame or lecture by pointing out the obvious

One of our goals should be to help children build confidence to deal with conflicts, but much of the expert advice commonly given strips confidence away. A friend shared this exchange she’d had with her toddler’s prospective teacher:

When I asked what the teacher does when there’s conflict, she said something along these lines of, “I show the child – look at John’s face, he is hurt, do you see how he looks? Do you see how your actions hurt John?”

As I told my friend, this type of response is one of my pet peeves. It’s heavy-handed, shaming and underestimates our children’s awareness. Kids are even more sensitive than we are, and beginning at birth it is next to impossible for them not to register the feelings of those around them. Hitting or pushing has much less to do with “John”, much more to do with what’s going on inside the “perpetrator”. Generally, these are momentary impulses beyond a young child’s control, and our job is to help toddlers with these impulses, not rub their noses in the consequences of their actions.

4. Don’t speak in exclamation points, use an angry tone or expression

Again, this creates shame, erodes confidence and fuels the undesirable behavior by giving it negative attention.

5. Don’t take sides

Taking sides creates “bad guys” and “helpless victims”.

Which brings me to the do’s

1. Make “remain neutral” your mantra

2. Acknowledge both sides (sportscasting)

3. Protect children by preventing hitting, pushing or repetitive toy taking calmly and confidently, and shadow a child who seems to be having a difficult day.

If children seem to be caught in a pattern of hitting, biting, pushing (or other limit-pushing behavior), they need our help and protection, not our scolding.  They might be:

  • Tired
  • Hungry
  • Seeking the firm limits they are not getting at home
  • Angry, frustrated, overwhelmed
  • Releasing stress
  • Feeling over-excited, overstimulated, out of control

If we don’t catch the behavior in time to prevent it, firmly and matter-of-factly remind the child, “You want that toy, but I won’t let you hit” or “I don’t want you to hit.” Leave it at that.

4. Let infants and toddlers take toys, because this is on their short list of “playing together” possibilities.  Only intervene to protect an older toddler’s more elaborate projects or when a child seems stuck in a pattern of toy taking. (For more on this, please read What to Do About A Toddler Toy Taker.)

5Keep an open mind – This means allowing children to do it their way, which will be different from our way most of the time. Trust is our biggest challenge.

6. Wait rather than putting a time limit on conflict, even if it seems intense. If no one’s getting hurt, it is healthy for children to release these feelings.

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