The Peaceful Parenting Approach to Kid’s Conflicts
By Genevieve Simperingham, Parent Educator and Coach.
Assume the child’s doing their best. When children argue, they’re not trying to make life difficult, but rather they’re experiencing a problem, one that’s very big and very real to them. Children much prefer to be having fun. When two kids argue, they generally both feel frustrated, misunderstood, wrongly accused, rejected and overwhelmed, to name but a few emotions. Additionally fearing their parent’s rejection, blame or, worse still, punishment is not what they need. What they do need is help with managing those uncomfortable feelings that build up in their young bodies and support to solve their problems.
A truly respectful and constructive approach that helps arguing children is to become an empathic mediator willing to support each person through it rather than a referee who aims to decide whose in the right and whose in the wrong and dictates a solution or consequence. Until a child experiences, and hence embodies, the direct experience of being treated with respect and empathy during conflicts, they are unlikely to respond to others with respect and consideration during conflicts.
Parents and teachers who adopt this approach are generally impressed with how positive and creative children can be at owning and solving problems when given the right support, encouragement and role modelling. Children soon get the hang of it and start to problem-solve themselves with minimal adult intervention, but trusting that they have the non-blaming and caring support of an adult is the critical factor that gives children the strength to deal with the discomfort and challenges of conflicts.
It’s ok that children disagree, don’t want to share, and feel big feelings.
Every upset between children is a learning opportunity. When adults repeatedly enforce their solutions on children’s problems, children are deprived of the opportunity to even try and work it out. These solutions tend to be aimed at just making the conflict stop, “don’t do that”, “stop fighting”, “give that back”, “go to your room” without helping both children with their frustrations, underlying needs or confusion. It’s normal for children to not want to share (especially when they’re out of balance) or to want what the other one has, and it’s normal for children to be sensitive and get upset. When children pick up that their feelings are unacceptable to an adult, they can feel lonely, confused, blamed, guilty and perhaps even overwhelmed. Ironically, it's the adults inability to accept and sympathize with the child's feelings that can make it more difficult for children to develop empathy and social skills.
"Love accepts what is. Fear looks to blame because things are not going as they "should". Love looks for solutions as it accepts what is. Fear looks for blame, love seeks solutions." - Becky A. Bailey PhD
Conflicts happen in most families on most days. Working with parents, I hear lots of stories of children fighting from the minor to the more extreme. Typical examples are sharing “the live toy”; when two or more children don’t want another child to play with them; and when older children don’t want younger ones tagging along. Let’s explore a fairly typical example.
Angela has two children, four-year-old Bella and two-year-old Fin. Bella wants some of the blocks that Fin is playing with. Bella desperately wants those blocks to complete her little village, Angela intervenes telling Bella that she’ll have to wait until Fin is finished, at which point Bella’s frustration reaches overload to the point of a tantrum. Bella eventually calms down and offers Fin a deal of swapping toys. Fin happily swaps, both kids happy again … that is for about ten minutes until Bella needs more blocks, again offers to swap, but Fin refuses. Bella is in tears again and shouts out “you’re the meanest brother ever!” Now Fin dissolves into tears as well!
What doesn’t help. It’s tempting to tell Bella; “don’t you speak like that about your brother!”, but this will most likely fuel her resentment towards him and add conflict to conflict, either in the present or in future interactions. Most children interpret this intervention as “you’re only caring about him” (sound familiar?). You could try and solve it for them “ok why don’t you take turns playing with the blocks and I’ll time you”, you could think of a clever bribe or threat to encourage your toddler to share, but is this what you want to model? Or encourage them to forgive and forget, “come on say sorry to your brother”, “share nicely with your sister”.
Any of these options may end the conflict in the short term, but they probably won’t help them resolve any frustrations that have built up. It won’t resolve the inevitable misunderstandings, and it won’t give them the opportunity to practice listening to each other, to own their problems or practice solving problems together.
What does help. One of the best ways of helping your child make their way back towards being calm and reasonable again is to express empathy; “hmm it looks like you’re really frustrated my girl, you really wanted those blocks didn’t you” Empathy heals and helps children feel acknowledged. To listen and reflect back what you hear shows that you’ve heard and understood their problem and invites them to share more. Receiving empathy naturally gives children the feeling of wanting to give empathy (when they're not overloaded with their own big feelings, which demand more immediate attention).
You may think, “surely I shouldn’t encourage upset feelings”, but actually the more you support them to get it all off their chest, the quicker they’ll get through it. If they don’t get it out, they WILL act it out. Letting the bad feelings out frees children to feel good again. Children gain strength from our acceptance of their feelings. Empathy is mostly expressed through tone of voice, eye contact and body language like a caring hand on the shoulder.
Most of the time you don’t have to fix their problems, you only need to show that you really care. Our children love to gain their own insights and solutions when we give them the space and encouragement through our patient listening, reflecting back and validating their feelings and wishes.
The best guide is always to listen to your own heart and attune to a child’s needs. But if this approach is new, here are some guidelines that may help.
When no solution can be found. For Bella and Fin, it reached the point where there wasn’t an easy solution – they were both upset. It’s hard for child and parent, but it’s understandable and they need to be allowed to be upset. Trust that your soothing messages are being received despite continued cries. Nice messages can be; “I'll be with you while you wait Bella”, “Fin you’re upset that your sister is angry with you”, “I’m looking after you both and caring for all your feelings - what a good cry, you’re getting it all out”. Try to avoid rushing them out of their feelings, the more you resist, the more their hurt feelings will persist.
In such instances, the girl or boy may need to express a backlog of feelings that have caused them to be generally out of balance, the conflict may be just a catalyst, what they need is for mum or dad to share the moment with them and be their loving empathic rock of strength as they get it all out.
The great thing about working out these strategies is that our children give us lots of opportunities to practice!! But with the right kind of intervention, we can support children to work through both their feelings and their problems, giving them the skills and the confidence to be constructive problem solvers for life!
We all bring to our parenting deeply engrained beliefs that we gained during our childhood years. These feelings live on and become easily activated when we feel drawn into conflicts between children. How did your parents react when you fought with another child? Were you supported with your difficult feelings? What subsequent messages did you receive about yourself? How did your parents deal with conflicts between each other? One of the most valuable changes we can make as parents is to re-evaluate the beliefs we bring to current conflicts in the family, leading us to relate in more supportive ways to the feelings and needs that drive conflicts between all family members.
“If their own parents fought frequently, any fighting in a home can bring up feelings of terror and a compulsive desire to end the argument at any cost.” Dr. Aletha Solter
Here's the story of one dad who gained huge benefit from revisiting how he felt as a child when he fought with his sibling. (Shared with permission while some details amended to ensure confidentiality) Brett, father of three children, sought my help because of the tensions between him and his wife around their differing approaches to sibling conflicts. His wife was working hard to support and mediate the kids when they fought, which was happening a LOT! He didn’t really see the point of mediating. But being a loving and dedicated father and husband, he wanted to do all he could to help things improve. He recounted to me, “when my sister and I fought, our parents gave us a warning and if we didn’t stop fighting, they separated us. We each spent time in our own room until we cooled off, then after that we just got on with it and it didn’t do us any harm. Occasionally, we were smacked, but not very often.”
I offered to help Brett remember the same instances from his childhood through his feelings, not just his thoughts (our thinking memory is often very different from our feeling memory).
Brett shared his memory of lying on his bed thinking “this is so unfair!” He remembered, and again felt, a huge ball of frustration in his belly; he felt completely misunderstood and frustrated at not being allowed to explain his side of the story; he remembered the sadness at falling out with his sister and then with his parents; he felt shame, anger, confusion. Brett remembered lying there feeling alone, unloved and overwhelmed. He described the tension in his jaws, shoulders, chest and belly as he let himself remember all those (surprisingly) overwhelming feelings.
Brett then brought his insights back to his kids and said he didn’t want them to feel like that, but he just knew that they did. He could see all the evidence of it and now cringed to realize that they felt like that all too often. He sadly realized that his attitude to conflicts was similar to his parents. He never learned how to work through conflict and now as a parent he just didn’t know what to do when the kids fought. He simply used his age, size and parental authority to make it stop, but nobody was learning how to actually resolve conflicts in a healthy and mature way.
Following his shift in perception, Brett’s approach changed. He is now driven by empathy for his children’s feelings and is more patient, supportive and empathic when conflicts arise. He has noticed when they feel really heard and understood, they are able to calm down, be more reasonable and come up with their own solutions!
The great thing about working out these strategies is that our children give us lots of opportunities to practice!! But with the right kind of intervention, we can support children to develop the skills and the confidence to be constructive problem solvers for life!
A great resource for parents who wish to develop their patience and decrease their stress while exploring and resolving some of their childhood triggers, is Genevieve's Stress Relief for Parents CD. It equips parents with self-regulation skills that they can then share with their children.
If you need support in your journey of adopting peaceful parenting strategies in your family, contact Genevieve about some one on one parent coaching or holistic counselling or both combined.
You might also like to read:
Children need Emotional Safety and Ways that we Shut our Children Down
Can you maintain healthy boundaries? Are you modelling healthy boundaries? What about all this anger? How can I become less impatient and more patient?
You might also like to read "Go away! What to do when your child won't LET you connect" In this one, I discuss some of the issues and potential approaches to take when your child rejects your help, connection or empathy.
Siblings without Rivalry By Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish
Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon
Guiding Young Children by Eleanor Reynolds