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Helping kids resolve conflicts

Conflicts can erupt between siblings or friends easily—about who sits where, whose turn was longest, who started it, or a million other reasons.

Parents often wonder what role they should play in these conflicts, and there’s a wide range of opinions—from “Stay out of it and let kids resolve things for themselves,” to “Step in and be the referee.”   But what parent wouldn’t be excited to know that how they handled these squabbles might make a long-term positive difference for their child by helping them learn how to resolve conflict for themselves?!  Well, you can!  This method does just that.

I read a great article by Elaine Shpungin, Phd a year or so ago about a method of conflict resolution for kids.  As I was reading it, my lightbulb went off because although she credits Dominic Barter’s “Restorative Circles” as her source, it immediately reminded me the Imago Dialogue, a conflict resolution model typically seen in couples counseling. I think this is because there is a common wisdom underlying many different kinds of conflict resolution: people need to be heard.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Kid A comes to you and complains about Kid B.
  2. You and both kids get together to talk for a moment.  You encourage and support Kid A in telling Kid B “What I want you to know.”  I also like to have the child add a feeling statement like “and this makes me feel…”  The listener is just listening—no arguing or even having to agree—just listen.  This step works best if the statement is fairly brief.
  3. After Kid A says her thing, then Kid B is asked to repeat it back so that Kid A knows she was heard.
  4. Kids switch roles, and Kid B gets to tell Kid A what he wants her to know, and Kid A repeats it back.
  5. Steps 3 & 4 can be repeated if necessary, but be careful to stay on one topic.
  6. After both kids have been heard, they work together to brainstorm a mutually satisfying compromise. That’s it!

Here’s a recent real-life example:

Michael finds me and complains that Jenny and Alexa are excluding him from their play.  I go with Michael to find the girls.  I ask the kids to hang out for a moment to talk.  I ask Michael what he wants them to know.

Michael says: “You aren’t letting me play and I want to.”  (“And how does that make you feel?”)  “I feel sad when I get left out.”

Me: Jenny, Alexa, what did you hear Michael say?

Jenny & Alexa: You want to play and we aren’t letting you.  You felt sad.

Me:  Michael, did they get it? Michael: Yes.

Me: Okay, girls, what is it that you want Michael to know?

Jenny: You were grabbing all of our checkers and you weren’t supposed to.  You were only supposed to take the red ones.

Michael: You want didn’t want me to grab all the checkers.

Me: Girls, did he get that right?  (yes.)  Okay, What is a compromise that you could all agree on from here?

They kick around a couple of ideas and come up with a modified game where he can play with them but in a calmer way.  Peacefulness reigns until the end of the playdate—which was actually only about 15 minutes, but still, I was pleased.

Consider trying this with your kids.  Don’t worry too much about the details (although, thankfully, there aren’t that many!) but just concentrate on helping both sides feel heard.  You can read the original article linked above for more information.  I’ve also found that the more I do it, the more confident and comfortable everyone is with the process–which makes sense because they are learning a new skill.  And this skill, one which many adults struggle with, will help them throughout their lives.