Teaching Children How to Resolve Conflicts


By Ron Hindbaugh M.A.


There are behaviors that parents do not want in a young child. They include hitting, biting, shoving, pinching, hair pulling, name calling, kicking, throwing things etc. All these behaviors are aggressive, and they hurt people. Most parents react decisively when they observe these behaviors in children saying something like, "This is behavior that is not tolerated."

To an parent there is no logical reason for such behavior. Children on the other hand become so involved in the immediate conflict that they see their behavior as "fair" or "ok" in this situation. Children view each incident as unique and as a result they have difficulty generalizing. Even when confronted with the fact that such behavior is "hurting" behavior, they continue. In their mind, hitting is justified. How do we help children learn that hitting, biting, kicking, etc. are not appropriate "conflict resolution" behaviors?

If we stop and think about it, as a parent we eventually want our child to learn to share, problem solve, talk positively when problem solving, and be responsible for their behavior. These are all behaviors that we as adults have learned. This means that our child will eventually learn to practice these behaviors also. What the parent needs then is patience and some skills that go beyond being a referee.

Being in a prepared state of mind is the first thing the parent must do. We know our children will act immaturely. By expecting immature behavior we are not disappointed or upset with the child when they misbehave. After all, it's what we expected. We know the skills we want out children to learn. Our job is to wait patiently until the inevitable conflict occurs. When this happens we patiently show the child what to do and what not to do. We speak to them in a very matter of fact way, something like this. "When you do not like what another person is doing you can talk to them about it, talk to me about it, or walk away. Hitting is not a choice. Do you need my help or can you solve this problem by yourself?"

It is important to recognize what the conflict or fight is all about. If you are working with younger children you will soon discover that most conflicts are about things, rights, or territory. Rather than try to discover who is at fault, confiscate the "thing", focus on the "right", or define the "territory" that the conflict is about. When you do this the issue no longer becomes who was right or who was wrong. Rather then waste time on placing the blame; the adult can then help the children figure out how "solve their problem."

In a conflict a parent needs to learn to see two points of view. When you can switch from one point of view to another or see both of the views at the same time then you will be seen as a person who understands, and your child will let you guide him/her through the conflict. Define the problem for the children so they have the foundation they need to start resolving the concern. The parent may say something like this. "John, looks like you want to play with this truck. Is that right? Judy it looks like you want to play with this truck too. Is that right?

Once the problem is defined the parent is tempted to tell the children what they must do to resolve this conflict. If the parent does this the children are robbed of a chance to learn how to solve the problem themselves. The parent can best assist by helping the children discover their own solution to the problem. The parent could say something like this. "How do we figure out who gets to play with the truck since both of you want to play with it? Do you have any ideas?"

The parent gives possible solutions to the conflict only when the children can not think of any. These solutions do not need to be "good" solutions. They should be ideas that the children can expand on and process. When the children think about and modify your ideas they are learning how to solve problems on their own.

When children are given the opportunity to solve their own problems, the solutions they come up with will be ones that they can live with. These solutions may be quite different than what the parent might have suggested. If the parent cannot live with the solution then the process needs to start over until everybody is satisfied.

The process of conflict resolution is time consuming, but if the parent can remain calm and help the children learn how to resolve their own conflicts, it will be well worth it. By taking the time to teach children how to work things out themselves it will save the parent hours of time that they would have spent being a referee.