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Resolving conflicts peacefully

By Genevieve Simperingham ~

Resolving conflict that arises within the family is perhaps the biggest challenge for parents at home or teachers in the early childhood setting.

Why do children manipulate, threaten, rebel, act aggressively?  When children act in these ways, they are generally acting out learned behaviour based on how they have been treated or what they have witnessed that has affected them. Unhealthy behaviour comes out when a child has lost the feeling of a warm, loving connection with his or her parent or the adult who is looking after her. Unhealthy behaviour can always be viewed as a signal to connect, slow down and listen. When a child acts out, they will no doubt be experiencing some fear, and, even though it may not show on her face, she iis likely to be feeling unsettled and less secure. It helps if the adult can see the child's behaviour as their shield and weapon and, rather than fighting back, can instead peek behind the shield to find the hurt and scared child who needs to feel loved, seen, guided and cared for again.

Parents are always way more effective in responding to off-track behaviour when they can look beneath the behaviour to their underlying feelings and unmet needs that drive the behaviour. Even if the underlying feelings and needs can't be identified, a parent's response tends to be much more effective when they can always assume that the off track behaviour is a signal for connection, active listening and empathy, even when, especially when, the parent needs to assert a limit or boundary to stop dangerous or invasive behaviour. It can help to ask some of these questions:

When conflict arises, there is nearly always an element of misunderstanding involved. Any misunderstandings need to be identified and acknowledged for true resolution to occur.  When conflict arises, more information is needed from all parties before misunderstandings can be cleared up.  No matter how obvious the right and wrong of the situation is to the adult, children need and deserve to have their side of the story heard.  Ponder on how the conflict can be resolved in a way that identifies and resolves the underlying emotional hurts and misunderstandings? To gain some clues to some of the possible feelings that may be driving certain unhealthy behaviours and some of the unmet needs that may relate to those feelings, see my feelings and needs chart.

The intention to resolve:  A child displaying out of balance behaviour always needs help rather than conflict. For the parent or caregiver to constructively help a child who is acting out, the adult needs to intend to truly resolve the problem at an emotional, as well as cognitive, level. To resolve conflict in any given situation, the parent must have an INTENTION to resolve the conflict rather than just making it stop.  When parents react to conflict from their own frustration and anger, generally their intenion is to simply make children stop acting in the way that they are acting and to make children see that how they are acting is not healthy. Parents appeal to the child to see how their behaviour is negatively affecting others without showing care or consideration for the inevitible difficult feelings that are driving the behaviour.  In the parent's attempt to just make their child stop doing what they're doing or to make them do what the parent wants them to do, parents respond in ways that children experience as blaming and punishing. E.g. parents may enforce a time out or withdraw their attention: “I’m not going to look at you or talk to you until you change your behaviour.” One of the biggest learnings a child gains is that when they make a mistake or do something their parent doesn't like, they lose their parents love and connection. They will hence grow to expect a breakdown in the relationship and a withdrawal of love, respect and connection when conflict arises in relationships, as a child, an adolescent, an adult. This does not lend towards the development of healthy communication and relationship skills.

Once a parent or teacher decides, “I really want to resolve this conflict”, then his attitude and hence choice of action and communication will be a very different one, generally one that is driven more from compassion and understanding and less from frustration and feelings of powerlessness.  The parent or teacher, despite feeling hurt and even wanting to hurt back, needs to be the one who decides that it is possible to help both, or all, to resolve the hurts in the air and come back to peace.

Their side of the story: The intent to resolve the conflict will include the intent to give space to everyone to tell their full side of the story, and for each person to feel heard and respected, understood and acknowledged.  Even if you don’t agree with your child’s version of the story, you can acknowledge how she sees it and how she feels about it.  “I can see that you felt that I was being mean and that I told you to put out the rubbish because I wanted to punish you. I can imagine that you must feel very upset if that’s how you saw it.  Are you ready to hear my perspective?” 

As an example:  A father and his daughter experience a huge disagreement, that feels upsetting and frustrating for them both.  He has steam coming out of his ears, and neither is listening to the other one.  He feels like shouting at her, and he just doesn’t know how to deal with the problem that’s arisen.  He then sees the need to calm down and to show some care for the hurt feelings that have arisen through the conflict. He begins to acknowledge his daughter's feelings, even though he’s not feeling very empathetic just yet: “Hey, I know it’s hard for you when I get angry at you. I know it’s hard for you when you get in trouble again and feel blamed and fear punishment.  It’s not nice when arguments happen, is it?” Speaking kind words helps him start to calm down, he starts to actually see that she's upset and can again feel for her, rather than just feeling threatened by her upset.

Speak your intention:  A good way to share your intent is to say, “Let’s start to come back to peace with each other.  I can see you're finding this really hard and I really do care; I’m ready to listen now.”  The child may open up and start to show his more vulnerable feelings or he may continue to shout at you or stomp off.  Then you might say, “I can see that you’re really upset, and I’m ready now to help you.  I can see that you’re feeling really hurt (or frustrated or angry or lonely or sad) and that's understandable, I don't like it when I'm spoken to like that either.” 

Taking some time to calm down:  When tensions are very high between yourself and your child, you can give him some space to have a big cry or to stomp off if he insists on separating from you in that moment.  Also, if you’re still angry and haven’t yet reached the intent to resolve, then just sit down, close your eyes and let yourself feel what you’re feeling.  You can tell him “I’m just taking a minute to calm down”.  This will generally bring the parent some release, perhaps some tears, and generally allows you to regain clarity.  Even if you’re not ready to apologize, you can acknowledge his feelings; “I can see that you’re really, really upset and that it’s very hard for you when you know that I’m angry at you.”  

Feeling rejected by your child:  Even when a child insists that she doesn’t want to be anywhere near you, remember that it’s the angry and impatient parent that she needs to get away from. It’s the loving and caring parent that she needs to help her feel loved and cared for again, to help her remember her positive qualities. 

Who should say sorry first?:  Parents often expect the child to say sorry first, but we must remember that it’s harder for children to manage their emotions and it’s something that they constantly need our help with.  If you’re ready to say sorry for your side of things, this will generally diffuse the conflict very quickly and make it much easier for your child to feel safe and balanced again. 

Should we insist that our child apologize? :  Rather than pressurizing children to say they are sorry regardless of whether they feel sorry or not, if you instead listen respectfully and acknowledge THEIR feelings, they generally will come to the feeling, and hence the expression of remorse themselves much earlier.  If you can see that it’s hard for them to say sorry because they’re feeling guilty, blamed or misunderstood, you can make it a little easier by asking without threat of criticism, “Do you feel ready to be sorry yet?” and they can either answer “I’m sorry …” or “I’m not ready to be sorry yet”, which is a good honest answer.  Remember that children want to be in harmonious, loving relationships, and they just need your patience and support to reach that happy feeling again. Your tone of voice will communicate to your child whether you're expressing your resentment or your support.

Warm physical contact:  When you have the intent to resolve hurts with your child, a gentle touch on the arm, shoulder, back or a gentle stroke on the face communicates peace in a very powerful way and will assure your child that your words are genuine. 

Acknowledge their perspective:  Acknowledge what it is that they wanted to do or not do, say or not say.  “You really wanted to play with a friend this afternoon didn’t you?  I know it’s very frustrating when you want to play with your friend and you’re not allowed to.  I really do care about your feelings and want to help you.  Would you like a hug?  Look at you getting all those big feelings out of your body.  You just needed to have a big cry and let all those bad feelings out of your body.”

When one child hurts another child, it’s normal for the adult(s) involved to want to make the child see the error of their ways and to point out all that she did wrong, thinking that the child will feel remorse when she knows she’s hurt the other child.  However, the child who hurts another child out of their anger, fear, frustration or powerlessness, knows immediately that she has hurt the other.  However, if, despite feeling blaming towards the child, the adult can acknowledge the offending child’s feelings and give her the message that the adult cares about everyone’s feelings and wants to help them both reach resolution, this approach is much more likely to lead to a successful resolution and the expression of genuine remorse. The adult's ability to forgive and still care for the child despite the fact that she’s hurt another actually models forgiveness, remorse and the concept of staying in or returning to the relationship even when conflict arises—an amazing skill for life that most adults today had little modelling of as children.

Why do children tell lies?  Children generally tell lies when they are afraid of getting in trouble.  When parents use punishments, children live with an undercurrent of fear and the need to protect themselves from feared rejection and criticism. The child needs to act in ways that help them to maintain a strong loving connection with their parent.  If the parent's love isn't unconditional, the child's honesty can't be either. Children who are afraid of getting in trouble, face a very difficult dilemma: If they tell the truth, they risk getting in trouble and losing their parent’s connection, or they can tell lies, which avoids the potential breakdown of the connection, but makes them feel bad and guilty and leaves them with the fear of being found out and hence losing the parent’s connection and care.

We can help our children learn when we resist the urge to make them learn! It's ironic that parents view their child lying to be a show of disrespect when the underlying motivation generally relates to avoiding their parent's criticism and maintaining the loving connection with their parent. Children rely on and feed on their parent's belief in them and it's hard for a child to believe in themselves when they feel the weight of their parent's harsh criticism.  It's appropriate for a parent to talk things through with a child when misbehaviour, lies or purposeful manipulation comes to light, these things can be seen as an opportunity to explore what the underlying feelings and needs may be and to support their child as they learn from their own experiences, including their parent's related feelings and perspective. When a child's lies or other manipulative or aggressive behaviour comes to light, remember that your child is now challenged to stay in positive relationship with themselves, to maintain their self-esteem as they feel guilt and other challenging emotions, they need us to be with them rather than against them at such times, they need our support in learning from their experiences. When parents on the other hand take a high and mighty attitude of using the experience to "make their child learn", if the parent reinforces the "learning" by setting some dreaded consequences or dictating what their child "should do" to rectify the situation, it's likely that the parent is instilling shame in their child and giving them the feeling that when they make mistakes or take a wrong turn, they lose their parent's love, care, empathy and support. The parent is also instilling the message that they don't trust their child to be able to learn from the experience and rectify things without being forced to do so. Out children tend to live up to our positive expectations of them, they also tend to live down to our negative expectations of them. Show them that you believe in them and trust their overall goodness and willingness to learn and change no matter what.

Guilt is healthy, shame is not. There's a big difference between guilt relating to making a mistake and debilitating shame relating to being shamed for making mistakes. If your child looks like they don't care about the consequences of their lies or other actions, it's likely because they feel emotionally guarded, shut down and defensive. How can you relieve your child of shame and fear at such times and assure them that you are here to support them and help them learn rather than punish or "make" them learn. Children and even teenagers who know they have nothing to be ashamed of or nothing to hide, will own up to all sorts of mischief.  This is the kind of openness, innocence and trust in their parent's support that needs to be protected and nurtured in young children to help them learn the habits of open and honest communication through the more tricky adolescent years and all through their lives.
Battle of Wills:  When you view your relationship with your child as a battle of wills, you are both in battle with each other more often than not.  The perception that your child is battling you can evoke hurtful feelings for your child.  Children act out because they don’t know what else to do with their big difficult feelings.  When there’s a battle of wills, you are consciously or unconsciously choosing to battle back.  In becoming more self-aware in your interactions with your child, you begin to see that you always have the choice: Do I fight with my child? Do I help my child?  It’s hard for us to admit this even to ourselves, but resentments towards our child can build up all too easily when we feel stressed and unsupported in life, when we lack confidence as a parent, it’s easy to resent our child for facing us with the challenges that we find so overwhelming.  Amitting to ourselves that resentments have built up, that we’re in a mind set of blaming our child is often the first step towards resolving the difficulties.  Parents report again and again, and I’ve experienced it myself so often, once these resentments are brought out into the clear light of day and gain some listening and gentle acceptance, the issue with our child often just dissipates nearly instantly.

What do children need when they are angry, frustrated and sulking? Angry, frustrated, and sulking children ALWAYS need their parents’ or caregivers’ help and understanding. 
When children are acting out, caregivers can assume the following:

Setting Limits: Children have an inbuilt fairness monitor.  They find it very difficult to accept limits if they believe the limits to be unfair.
When parents or caregivers can set limits for children while staying warm and connected, listening respectfully and allowing children to express their feelings in response to the limits, then children will generally accept and respect the limits. They may well need to show their emotional response to the limit, e.g. anger, frustration, disappointment or sadness. But if adults allow them to express and release any related feelings, while keeping the limit set, you allow them to get the frustrated feelings out of their body and mind, which allows them to naturally transition back to a more balanced state.  Children can only acts as well as they feel: “It’s the bad feelings on the inside that prevent them from solving problems in the outside.” Patty Wipfler.

It is important to clearly express both clarity about the limit and empathy at the same time, e.g. "The tv is definitely not going on today, and I can see that you've got really big, big hurt feelings about that. I care about all those feelings, and I'm listening. Good on you for having a big cry and getting those feelings of frustration out."

Children whose parents and caregivers set limits in a calm and confident manner, stay connected, allow and supporting any consequent emotional release and stay open to listening

Children know that it’s not fair to get in trouble for breaking a rule that they didn’t know existed.
They know that it’s not fair to get in trouble when they were genuinely doing their best.

HOW you express the limit will largely inform children about whether you are being.  If the limit is expressed with a tone that communicates arrogance, sarcasm, anger, or annoyance, or if it is expressed with a tone that is patronizing and demeaning, they will see your limit as a punishment, which nearly always elicits either resentful compliance or rebellion. 
But, if the limit is expressed clearly, calmly and with respect and acknowledgement of their feelings, they will nearly always respect it. 
They may need to give you more information and attempt negotiation.  If they are listened to respectfully and they are confident that you have thought it out calmly and fairly, they will nearly always accept the limit.

If they express anger, disappointment, or grief, this does not necessarily mean that they do not accept or respect the limit.  They may need to express those feelings before they can feel happy and calm again.  Parents can acknowledge those feelings and give children the message that they care and accept their children’s feelings, which will help them go through a natural healthy process of dealing with the grief and frustration that limits can bring.

Our intentions direct us on one direction or another.
  Let’s explore the difference between responding to conflict with the intent to resolve as opposed to the intention just to stop the current behaviour. Parents who use traditional approaches to end conflict often punish or threaten to punish in their attempts to end conflict with a child or between siblings.  Such an approach can involve time out, withdrawal of, or a threat to withdraw something of value to the child like going to a friend’s house or t.v. time or imposing consequences, e.g. "unless you stop arguing right now, you will both have to do an extra hour’s house work!"  Parents often say "time out works!", and depending on the parent's intention it may work well. Yet if the aim is to teach problem solving, communication skills to use when differences arise, self-discipline, empathy and integrity, we need more sophisticated relationship skills. Time out can work to teach obedience, but not respect.

The approach that you take in responding to conflict in the family will determine whether the conflict gets truly resolved or just stopped and whether the cause of the root problem becomes identified and resolved.  All too often parenting approaches focus on stopping the behaviour in the moment without necessarily changing the patterns in the long-term. If the method of discipline results in the child feeling distressed or rejected, they are inhibited from gaining positive learning from the situation. Children struggle to access the logical reasoning part of their brain when they're upset. Children learn well when they feel emotionally safe, cared for and guided. There's a big difference between fostering obedience and self-discipline. A child who is taught to be obedient relies on external fear based pressure from authority figures to keep them on track. A child who experiences respect, care, listening and empathy even when their parent sets limits, boundaries, needs to correct behaviour learns to develop self-discipline that's based on their own moral compass and trust in their integrity.

When parents or teachers use the model of conflict resolution shared here, they typically will see the following results:

If these results sound appealing, you might like to explore a non-punitive approach to disciplining your child and responding to conflicts in the family.
One of the problems with ending conflict by coercing children to behave in more appropriate ways by enforcing the parent’s will on the child is that the conflict may well still exist even when you think it's all done and dusted. Children who feel coerced generally harbour resentments and a desire to rebel. Yet, if the child doesn't feel safe to show those feelings, they often simmer beneath the surface and lead to an accumulation of resentments, anger and general discontent. When this is the case, the conflict generally resurfaces in the near future. The conflict may surface as rebellion, defiance, lack of cooperation, refusal to listen, conflicts with a sibling, resistance to eat or sleep or when big frustrations build up, they can result in a tantrum.

Parents ask, “What is the alternative? How can I make children learn if I don't enforce a serious consequence that will make them stop and think? I can't just let them away with being naughty?”

The short answer is clear calm communication. What do adults do when someone acts disrespectfully towards them, cross their boundaries or otherwise upsets them? If they respond in a mature way, they sit down and talk the issue through, make sure that each person's perspective is heard and respected and work towards coming to an agreement. Ideally they can problem solve together. This is exactly what works best in most cases for conflicts involving children, even for pre-verbal babes and toddlers, even if they don't understand every word, they absolutely receive the communication that you're hearing them, respecting their feelings and needs, working to patiently attune to and listen to them, working to care for and meet their needs. Feeling respected, guided and cared for is very reassuring for them, which allows them to come back to responding positively towards you/ others and truly learning from the situation.

If children can still feel cared for and respected even though they've done something wrong or upset their parent, they will generally live up to their parent's expectations of being a caring and responsible young person.  
Dealing with conflicts out there in the world.  Children who have learned to expect anger, rejection, judgement, withdrawal of love, shouting, punishments or enforced consequences (also experienced as punishment) will tend to become very stressed when conflict arises outside the home with others, and may become scared of similar responses from others.
However, children who live in a family culture where conflicts are resolved through calm communication will be more inclined to stay calm hence logical, better able to express their feelings honestly and better able to listen to the other person's feelings, be they a child or an adult.

Punishing teaches a child to punish: One of the many disadvantages of punishing children is that punishing teaches and encourages punishing.  The parent or teacher creates an undesirable consequence for misbehaviour because they feel fully justified in doing so.  This gives the message that creating an undesirable consequence (i.e. punishing) is the correct action to take when a person feels justified in doing so.  When children are angry, their emotions inhibit their logic, especially if they carry a backlog of unresolved anger.  When children are angry, they easily feel justified in hurting another. 
Let’s look at an example. Assume that Ted’s little brother Matt snatches a toy from Ted and Ted reacts by hitting his little brother. From the outside, it may be obvious that the little brother’s action should not have elicited such an angry reaction from Ted.  But if Ted has a build-up of unresolved hurt and anger inside of him, small offences can hurt deeply and cause huge over-reactions.  Every time a child is punished, he is deprived of the teaching and support that he needs.  The child’s negative self-image, which is part of the core problem, is further affirmed. 



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