Conflict parenting Relationships

My Fave Parental Trick for Resolving Conflicts

I have tried many strategies for resolving disputes between my children, but for the longest time I remained frustrated, because I felt like my children usually walked away not really understanding their siblings’ point of view

My mother-in-law once told me that the thing that brings her the most joy is watching her children get along well with each other. My children are not yet fully grown, but even now, I must admit, my heart does a little leap of joy when I observe my children laughing together. 

Inevitably though, my children also fight. Apparently for young siblings, quarrels occur on average 3.5 times per hour. When children can resolve these disputes on their own they are practicing important skills, but when the conflicts become larger than they can manage (i.e. yelling, hitting, etc.) adult intervention becomes necessary. 

In an attempt to follow an emotion coaching model of parenting, I have tried many strategies for resolving disputes between my children, but for the longest time I remained frustrated, because I felt like my children usually walked away not really understanding their siblings’ point of view. The ability to understand another person’s point of view is an important component of empathy so I have been very keen to help my children develop this skill.

Eventually, I realized that the only way I could be sure my children understood the other point of view was to have them describe it to me. However, because language is such a powerful tool, I discovered that it was through the describing that my children came to really understand the other person’s perspective (at least a bit). 

Here’s a composite example of how this has gone at our house.

Usually I wait for them to ask for my assistance, because as I mentioned before, it is a great life skill for them to work these things out on their own when they feel like they can. Once they ask for my assistance I proceed as follows:

Step 1: I ask each child to tell me their side of the story. My kids know my rules for this: they don’t get to interrupt the other person’s retelling and they will always get a turn to tell their side of the story. But, full disclosure, sometimes I skip this step altogether, because step 2 is really my favourite part!

Step 2: I ask each child to describe what happened from their sibling’s perspective. This was so tough for most of my children initially. They would say things like, “Then they got mad at me for no reason, so they hit me.” I always stop and challenge them at moments like that. “Why was your sibling mad? What else do you think they were feeling?” To really help them experience empathy for their sibling, and especially with younger children, I insist that they “pretend” to be their sibling and describe the experience from a first-person perspective. Instead of saying, “Her feelings were hurt,” they might say, “My feelings were hurt when you said you wouldn’t play with me.” I often ask follow-up questions like, “Why did that hurt your feelings so much? Has that happened before?” Then they have to dig even deeper to understand the other perspective.

Step 3: I ask each sibling to tell me if their sibling accurately described how they felt. Usually I have already asked enough probing questions during step 2 that they answer in the affirmative. 

Step 4: Often by the time this process is over the kids are no longer angry with each other. Sometimes a punishment, like a time out, is required, but sometimes it is enough for the kids just to end with a hug. We always end with a hug! 

To be clear, I do not do this with my kids every single time they fight – I tend to save it for the more major blow ups. I would say I end up using this strategy (sometimes with modifications) between one and six times a month. However, if someone had children who were fighting A LOT, I suspect that using this method A LOT for a couple weeks would work wonders towards decreasing the amount of fighting. 

The other thing I love about this method is that it works great with adults too! Recently I received a phone call from someone who was very upset at someone else’s behaviour. Eventually I asked the caller to take me through what they thought the other person was thinking at each step. Many times I asked, “What do you think their intention was at that moment?” The phone caller concluded that the person they were upset with had not actually meant any harm. 

So, try it with your kids, your spouse, your friends. It is never too late for any of us to expand our empathy skills!

2 replies on “My Fave Parental Trick for Resolving Conflicts”

This is so great, Sarah! I think it’s important to teach our kids to feel empathy for others yet it’s something I don’t consciously work on. I’m going to try this!

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