Conflict Resolution

More Than Just Sorry: The Art of Conflict Resolution with Young Children

Have you ever felt frustrated when someone mutters, “Sorry!” under their breath, because you knew they were not truly sorry? Or felt conflicted when you see a child walk away from another crying child, yelling, “I already said sorry!” 

Conflict resolution is more than just sorry. It requires action.

Before we can have effective conflict resolution, it is important for us to be aware of some basic principles. First, young children need to develop their understanding of emotions. Adults should teach children different types of emotions and how to recognize them based on facial expressions and body language. It is also essential for children to learn that they have the ability to control their emotions. You can play many songs and games with them to teach them about emotions. Games such as charades, role-playing, or guessing how different characters are feeling in stories are all effective methods to teach emotions. Once they are able to identify and convey emotions, they will be able to express themselves more clearly and develop empathy more easily. Adults should also model talking about their own feelings. 

Secondly, young children need to develop their understanding of cause and effect and realize that other people are affected by their actions. At a very young age, children like to carry out their own experiments. What would happen if I throw this spaghetti? How far can I spit? How would mommy react if I screamed at the top of my lungs? In their minds, they think, “I want this, I will take it.” “I need to do whatever it takes to show them I am upset, even if it means hitting.” As adults, we want to assist them in shifting their mentality toward learning to see things from other people’s perspectives. “How do you think they feel when you…?” 

Sometimes children’s behavior is just their natural instinct, while sometimes they may be testing boundaries. Before having a big reaction, adults should determine if the children’s action is based on developmentally appropriate behavior, or if they are intentionally trying to test boundaries. Sometimes children do not fully comprehend how their actions affect other people yet. This is when it is crucial for adults to verbalize what is happening. For example, little Timmy sees a toy he likes. He pushes little Suzie out of the way to grab it. Your initial reaction may be to yell and feel angry at him for being so aggressive. For a young child, it may be necessary for you to point his attention toward what happened. “Timmy, when you went to grab the toy, you pushed Suzie and she fell down. Look, she is crying. How do you think Suzie is feeling? She looks very sad. Let’s go see how we can make her feel better.” At this point, the adult should calmly bring Timmy over to Suzie. “Timmy, let’s ask Suzie how you can make her feel better. Maybe you can help her stand up? Or give her a hug?” Children need to realize that their actions have caused a negative outcome. Now they need to do something to make the situation better. 

Another common situation occurs when two children upset each other. It is critical for us to empower children to speak up for themselves. If it is not a dangerous situation, allow the children to first attempt to resolve the problem themselves, then step in if necessary. 

When a child comes up to you with a problem… 

Step 1: Ask the child, “How do you feel?” Help the child identify the emotion he is feeling.

Step 2: Ask, “What do you want to do about it?” Or “What do you want to say to her?” Give some practical ideas if the child does not know what to say. (eg. “You can tell her, ‘I didn’t like it when you called me names. Please call me ____.’”)

Step 3: Encourage the child to go resolve the situation. Let him know you will help if the other child is not willing to listen. Observe the situation. 

Step 4: If necessary, step in to help facilitate the conversation. 

Below is a template to facilitate conversations. One technique is to have an item such as an artificial rose known as the “peace rose”. Whoever holds the rose may speak, so the children learn to take turns speaking. After the children become accustomed to this model, they will gradually learn to resolve conflicts independently.  

A: I feel   (emotion)  , when you   (action)  .
B: I hear you say,   (repeat what Child A said)  . 
I feel   (emotion)  , when you   (action)  .

A: I hear you say,   (repeat what Child B said)  .
B: How can I make you feel better?

A: _________ (Adult can give the child some ideas, such as a hug, shake hands, play with me, help me pick it up, don’t do it again, or be careful next time)
B: (Carries out the action that Child A suggested)

A: How can I make you feel better?
B: __________.

At the end, the two children hold hands and say, “Peace!” or “Friends!”

For younger children, the “I hear you say” part may be challenging so it is okay to omit it. For older children and adults, this is an important skill in active listening. It ensures that the two people involved truly grasp the root of the problem. Often, once people feel heard, they begin to feel much better. Avoid saying, “You make you feel…” This puts blame on the other party and often causes them to become defensive. For effective communication, be sure to use, “I feel… when…” statements. 

After resolving the problem, it is helpful for the adult to lead the children in a simple role-play, so they know what to do if the situation happens again. You can try to re-enact the scenario, and allow the children to practice acting or saying the appropriate words. This often leads to a lot of giggles, and it solidifies their understanding of appropriate behavior. 

Sometimes children may not be ready to sit and resolve their problems right away because they are feeling too emotional. It is okay to give them a few minutes to calm down. However, do not wait too long. It may be necessary to let the children know they need to resolve the problem before moving on to the next activity. Allowing them time to take deep breaths or drink some water often helps. 

Another simple way of thinking about conflict resolution is: 1) Say how you feel, 2) Say the problem, and 3) Say what you would like. Then, have the person apologizing respond with an action. Too often when a child upsets another child, the adult just simply asks the child to say, “Sorry”, and they move on. The child learns “sorry” as a magic word, and they do not realize that their actions have consequences. They learn that as long as they say, “Sorry”, they can do whatever they want.  It is important for children to actively resolve their conflicts by talking to each other and finding a way to fix the problems. We want to raise children to become adults who are compassionate toward others and take responsibility for their actions. This begins with teaching children how to manage their emotions and learning to say more than just, “Sorry”.