Conflict Resolution

Here is some information from our workshop on conflict resolution. Although it is long I think it will be helpful. Try this technique and let me know how you're doing with it.

Conflicts are inevitable with young children and some conflict is actually necessary to practice problem solving, empathy and self-control. Constant conflict, however, is draining and disconnects children and parents from each other. As parents we need strategies to reduce and resolve conflicts, while empowering our children and building their problem solving skills and sense of competence. 
What popular culture teaches children about conflict and conflict resolutions stand in stark contrast to the lessons most parents are trying to teach, “Don’t hit, you need to use your words, hitting hurts, and I can’t let you hurt someone.” These common dictates tell children that we expect them to resolve their conflicts without violence. Just as children learn to read and write from being in environment rich with print and opportunities to experiment with it, they learn conflict resolution skills from the environment and from trying out the skills they see.  Preventing children from having conflicts is not the best approach; they need opportunities to experience conflicts and then learn the tools to resolve them.

Young children are just beginning to construct what will eventually become mature concepts about conflict and conflict resolution. Their understanding goes through a long, slow progression and is very different from that of adults. For them, conflicts and their solutions are often seen in concrete terms and from one point of view. We use a very specific conflict resolution technique at our preschool. It was developed as part of a program I participated in at Cedar Sinai Mental Health Clinic in Los Angeles led by Dr. Saul Brown.

Cami Okubo, the principal of Argonne School, observed two children resolving a conflict (using the technique they had learned at our school) she commented about it to the parent of one of the children.  She was told by the parent that they both attended the preschool I was the director of at that time, and that was where they learned to resolve conflicts. Ms. Okubo called and asked if she could come and visit our preschool. I was very happy to take her on a tour of the school and tell her all about the technique we use. After visiting and learning about how we teach children to resolve conflicts she decided to send her son to our school. Our hope is that all of our children leave our school with the confidence and ability to solve problems. 
Some of the important things to remember when going through the process of helping resolve conflicts with your child are: 

STEP 1 - When you speak to your child, make sure you have her attention. When you want your child's attention, get up and walk over to your child, crouch down or sit at face level. Depending on your child's preference, use a loving touch and eye contact. Make sure you allow time for your child away from the current activity.

STEP 2 - Use a calm, non-judgmental voice. Children learn most by what they observe so model self-control, respect, and problem solving skills that you would like them to use. Anger and judgement don't help the situation, and often cause a child to sit down and or become angry and aggressive. Save your loud, urgent voice for dangerous situations, when you truly need an immediate response.

STEP 3 - Most young children need time to process words - a few seconds for the words to sink in, and another several seconds to decide how to respond. I often reminded myself to slow down when I was talking to my children when they were young. I had a tendency to move and talk very quickly forgetting that I needed to slow down the situation if I wanted to effectively solve the problem with them. My third child, my daughter Laura, needed more time than my other two children to process things, she had a language and processing delay. I needed to really slow down and give her time to take in the information that I was giving her, if I didn't she would become confused, mad or upset. Many times I had to stay calm and connected with her and patiently wait for her response.

When conflicts arise between parent and child, there are often situations that can become triggers. It might be getting out of the house on time, making transitions from one activity to another, a change in your child’s routine, or your child can become upset because her agenda does not match yours. The strategy to minimize conflict is to be aware that, as parents, we may control the big picture objective of what needs to happen, "We have to leave the house at 8:30 to get to school by 9", while empowering the child with as much control as possible over how the objective is met (e.g., bringing something fun for the car, leaving early and playing at the park, playing a silly game).

Keep in mind when trying to follow our conflict resolution technique if either of you or your child is tired, hungry, rushed or not feeling well, you may have a struggle about a “surface” issue, for example how the sandwich is cut. When this happens, remind yourself that arguing about the surface issue won’t help - this is not the time to lecture about how Mom can’t uncut the sandwich. What is needed most is empathy for both yourself and your child while you resolve the real issue, the hunger and need for rest, as best you can. An empathetic response such as, “You’re really upset that I cut the sandwich the wrong way, and you are so hungry and tired” might be helpful.

Remember to tell your child what is going to happen, when and why. Children feel more secure when they have some warning time and understand expectations. "Five more swings and then we need to leave." If your child objects use your conflict resolution skills and present the problems. "I want us to leave in five more swings and you don't want to leave. How can we solve this problem?" Let your child feel some ownership and empowerment in solving the problem. She may come up with a number you can both agree on and then you can leave. Sometimes it's best to discuss what is going to happen further in advance and then once again right before the transition, giving them more time to adjust. Give any information that your child may need to understand what needs to happen. "I'm starting to get hungry, so I'm ready to leave soon." You might use a timer as a visual and auditory reminder of how much time remains.

Speak at a level just above your child's speaking ability. If she is stringing 2 words together, limit your information to short sentences with 3-4 words and pause to allow her time to process the information. With a pre-verbal child, use non-verbal cues (e.g. rubbing your tummy) at the same time.

Empathize, listen to, reflect and understand your child's concerns. Join them where they are emotionally. Empathy connects you with your child's feelings and needs, helping them to feel understood, supported and connected. First understand what he wants and needs, then offer empathy. Reflect back what you hear him feeling or saying using his words and tone. "You want to keep playing and it makes you mad that I said it's time to stop." Acknowledge his feelings without lecturing, judging or trying to convince him otherwise. Empathy is different than convincing. Do not use the word "but".

For empathy to be received there has to be understanding and acceptance of where the other person is in the moment. Empathy means acknowledging that you support his needs and emotions without implying that you will "fix" the situation or give up on your own needs. It is a powerful tool for moving through conflict because it maintains the connection, and as you hear your child's needs, you learn to hear yours.

Sometimes it is very hard to offer empathy to a child when we have strong feelings we are struggling with ourselves. In this case, take some deep breaths, and offer yourself some empathy.

Set limits gently. A limit is a non-threatening statement of a personal boundary, without demands, punishment or criticism. It communicates a person's need, how people or objects are to be treated, and or the requirements of a situation. Communicate limits clearly but allow for creative options in how they are accomplished. As an example a limit might be, "I need to keep you safe," or "It's time to leave now."

Phrase your communication in the positive rather than the negative by telling your child what you want them to do instead of what you want her to stop doing. "Please sit down in the chair", presents a clear expectation while "Don't stand up in your chair", is confusing to children. Young children have difficulty understanding negative sentences.

Only ask questions to which you can accept the answer. Broad questions leave open ended actions that defeat the purpose of limits. If you ask, "Are you ready to put your toys away? or "It's time to pick up the toys OK?" you leave it open for the child to say "No". You asked and she was truthful. Many parents use OK at the end of what they think is a statement or a limit. It is not, it is in fact a question. Don't use OK when you want your child to do something. Phrase your limit as a statement, "I want you to pick up the toys before we leave."

Limits can also be collaborative. Over time we want our children to be able to set their own limits, so we can begin by making them part of setting limits. "How many times do you want to kick the ball before we leave?" When you take into account your child's desires you teach your child the value of listening to others.

Sometimes children will react to limits with strong emotions. A child doesn't have to agree that the limit is valid - he should be allowed to feel angry or sad that his life is not going the way he wants.

When presenting choices and brainstorming a solution, you and your child choose the "path" that will get you to your objective, and that will meet as many of the needs of both you and your child in the process.  Giving children some ownership for the solution gets much more buy-in to your limit. Empowering kids gives them an important sense of control over their environment.  Giving children shared ownership of possible solutions is empowering because it is respectful, builds self-confidence, and offers experience in life skills. Remember the goal is long-term problem-solving skills.

In the beginning of using conflict resolution techniques give your children some positive choices that are age appropriate, and, as they get older, encourage then to come up with solutions on their own before you offer yours. For younger children, limited choices are most appropriate as they can be easily overwhelmed by a range of possibilities. Your choices should meet her needs as well as your own, move you toward your objective or fit within your limit, and be positive and non-threatening. "I need you to be safe. Would you like to walk holding a hand or be carried?"  For older children, you can teach them to come up with their own suggested ideas of how to meet the objective. "How can we make going to the dentist's office tomorrow easier?" Try to collaborate on creative solutions.

Sometimes, we need a decision quickly, or your child isn't willing to decide. On these occasions you might say in a non-threatening way, "I'm going to count to three and then you will need to decide, or will choose (one of the choices). After you have said "three", ask for her answer, allow for a few seconds of processing time, and then proceed with your choice.

One of the most empowering solutions to conflict is to turn your objective into play. This meets your child's need for fun and connection and diffuses tension while still meeting the objective.

Although involving children in creative problem solving solutions may take some time, your child learns to consider both sides of situations, as well as how to creatively navigate conflict in respectful ways.

Inevitably, situations arise when your child is unable or unwilling to choose acceptable choices. This may indicate that they choices are too limited or that you still need to work on truly connecting. If it seems your child lacks the resources needed to continue looking for solutions, suggest that this time you will choose. Suppose she runs off when offered a choice between holding hands or being carried. The primary objective is safety, so follow through by imposing your solution calmly, without anger, hurt, or punitive consequences. In the above example you might say, "It seems like you are having trouble choosing. I need to keep you safe if you can't decide what you want to do then I'm going to carry you," and gently scoop her up.

No matter how carefully and thoughtfully we parent, there are likely to be times when frustration, anger or fear moves us to take actions we later regret. Apologize to your child, explaining that you were upset, and that you would like to try again. "I felt scared when you ran across the street. I'm sorry that I yelled at you and said hurtful things." Empower your child by modeling healthy interactions.  

Empathy is so important. If you find it difficult to be empathetic when your child is acting up, remember that empathy is a form of love and love isn't conditional. Each time you model empathetic behavior you demonstrate the power of love and understanding.

Don't forget to offer yourself empathy - parenting can be a challenge and we all make mistakes that we can learn from. Parenting is one of the most powerful ways to learn more about ourselves each day, as we get to know our children and discover who they are.

Conflict of one sort or another is a part of life. Be patient with yourself as you go through this process. Just as being respectful and understanding with your child helps them learn for the future, being understanding and kind to yourself helps you parent more effectively the next time.

The specific technique that we use at school to resolve conflicts is our Conflict Resolution Technique, which is our way of responding to problems. It is a point of view or attitude that comes from a place of wanting to make things work; of giving children the communication skills to acknowledge and validate upset feelings. It's a way of brainstorming ideas and creating collaborative solutions that demonstrates that conflicts need not be avoided - that it is normal, manageable, and can lead to good feelings, strong friendships, and autonomy. When solving problems we focus on empathy, validation and negotiation.  

Conflict resolution is an important technique to master and it takes practice. Don't worry about not doing it right - just try it. You may make mistakes at first but with time you'll become comfortable and proficient. These are skills that children can use for their entire lives.

STEP 1 - Describe the situation - empathize and validate feelings
Say what you see. Put feelings into words. Often it is enough for a child to know that you understand how he or she feels.
Empathize - "You really want to use that truck right now!"
Validate - "It makes you angry when Max says no!"

STEP 2 - Set limits, give reasons
Choose your battles. Give reasons, not a lecture, but a few short sentences explaining why. Ask yourself, "why am I saying no?" Is it because of safety, will my child hurt himself or someone else? Is it a behavior that is clearly inappropriate, despite the fact that your child isn't hurting himself or someone else? "You may not draw on the walls with markers."

STEP 3 - Negotiations
When you first begin putting this process into practice with your child, ideas may have to come from you. Talk through every idea that your child suggests even if it does not sound workable. The solution should be acceptable to both sides, but be careful not to impose your adult views of fairness on your child:
"What can we do about this?"
"What is OK to draw on?"
"How can I help you solve this problem?"

The method at school involves first stopping the action - interrupting the harmful behavior. Undesirable behavior must be stopped before any problem solving can take place. Limits have to be clear. In our preschool, teachers move in quickly separating children when necessary. The following words may be used when approaching children in the midst of of a disagreement. Stop. Wait. What's the problem? What's happening? The teacher then will identify the problem and validate the feelings. The teacher begins the process of conflict resolution by saying what she sees. For instance, "I see two people who both want the truck", or "I saw Sam riding the bike, he got off it to pick up the shovel and that's when you got on it Lisa."

We ask the children to state the problem and then ask "What can we do about it", "Anyone have an idea?" We repeat the words and acknowledge their feelings. Teachers are empathetic. Teachers stay with the problem. They don't make value judgements about the children's ideas. Once a solution has been offered, they ask each child if they think it's OK with them. They will support the children's willingness to take a chance and also acknowledge that it's sometimes hard to figure out an idea that will work for everyone. If a solution doesn't seem to be happening then they will stay with the problem and also involve other children if possible in thinking of a solution. Our teachers will restate the problem as new children approach the situation as this helps those involved by giving them more time to think.

Our teachers allow our children to go through the process, encourage alternatives, and collaborate on solutions. Teachers make sure the solution is OK with all involved children. If one gives up and walks away, they say, "It looks like Joshua is done talking about the problem." We acknowledge that problem solving is important by giving it the time it takes, but when that's not possible we will state that there isn't enough time to keep talking about this now, but we can "finish it later".

In summary, numerous skills are learned through using this conflict resolution technique. The ability to identify feelings, the vocabulary to express them, an awareness of others, an appreciation of another point of view, receptive communication, brainstorming, generating alternatives, risk taking and trying out different solutions.

The goal in this method of problem solving is to find a solution that works for everyone, and to make peace, and not trying to determine "what's fair".

Hopefully this information on conflict resolution will be helpful.  Please let me know if you decide to try it and how it's working.

Fernie Eisenberg, Director

Growing Place Family Preschool and Parenting Center