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Using Your Words: Conflict Resolution for Kids

By Beth Proudfoot, LMFT

We often instruct young children to “use their words” instead of lashing out at others. Which words, though, should they be using? As with many parts of parenting, the best way to teach conflict resolution is by example. And the best time to teach is when you’re in the thick of it yourself! When you find yourself in conflict with your kids, here are three advanced ways to use your words to resolve problems.

1.        De-escalate: “This seems to be a problem. Would it be okay if we sit down and talk about it for a minute?”

Whether the kids are fighting over the remote control or arguing with you about the non-negotiable they’ve just tried to negotiate again, naming what’s happening as a problem immediately gives everyone a bit of distance. It’s not a person, it’s not a right or wrong, it’s a problem which could be solved. Asking for permission is also a key to de-escalation. If the child is not ready to talk about it, the best course may be to walk away or send them to a different room or activity until they are ready.

2.        Name the feelings: “When this kind of situation comes up, it makes me feel frustrated.”

Once we’re sitting down and really using our words, the first step to solving the problem is to name the feelings everyone is having about the issue. We used to teach people to use “I” statements which included a “you.” No matter how kind the tone, though, as soon as one says, “When YOU did this” the other person is going to feel blamed and go on the defensive. Let’s keep the basic formula but modify it a bit: When this happened…I felt…because….” Avoid talking about being angry, which tends to also make people defensive, and name your underlying feeling instead: hurt, disappointed, frustrated, etc.

Ask each person involved in the conflict to share their feelings this way, and to paraphrase or just use a feelings word for what the other is feeling.

3.        “This has happened before and I’m wondering if we can make a rule so it doesn’t happen again. What do you think would be a good rule?”

Avoid “always” and “never.” It’s the situation that’s the problem, not the person. Keeping the focus on the future and giving everyone a chance to come up with creative ideas will lead to actual problem-solving. Remember that there are no bad guys here. No one needs to be punished. There was a problem. Which got solved! Yay!


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