Kids, especially siblings, have a knack for fighting with one another. Hunger, jealousy, and exhaustion are usually the triggers for bickering in my house. Tempers flare, hurtful words are said, everyone starts tattling and sometimes things are thrown. A snack or some quiet time can usually even things out, but as our kids get older, their conflicts become more personal; relationships with friends, teachers, coaches, and siblings have more emotional risk. They want and expect more out of relationships, but when conflicts arise so do anxiety and fear. Resolving problems or talking out disagreements takes skill and work, but it’s imperative that we teach our children how to deal with confrontation—even if you are conflict-avoidant.
Personally, I dive head-first into confrontation. For me, it’s better to clear the air and take care of lingering anxiety and fear than to stew on something. I want to make a situation better as soon as possible. I am a talker and want to relieve the feeling in my gut to validate my sense of hurt or to try to explain myself or apologize if I suspect I hurt or offended someone else. Perhaps just reading this makes you anxious. Conflict makes you sweat, panic, or lose all train of thought. That’s okay. But now think about your kids. How do you want them to navigate life? I don’t want my kids to age with lingering feelings of victimization and self-sacrifice; I want them to fine-tune assertiveness and strong communication skills now, so that they feel confident handling their own business later.
Solving our kids’ problems for them is not the answer. We want and need our kids to tackle conflict on their own, but we can guide them through it. One of the first things I tell my kids to do is use “I” statements when trying to work their way through conflict. My kids are really good at blaming me or their siblings or anyone else for what they are feeling. While another person can affect our moods, another person isn’t going to respond particularly well if they feel under attack, even if they are in the wrong. When conflict is present, I try to teach and model phrases like, “I feel [this emotion] when you do or say [this].”
It helps to remind kids to breathe and make a plan too. What does your child want to say? What is the desired outcome? It’s important to consider possible consequences of the confrontation. How might the other person react? What if the situation isn’t resolved?
When we are faced with conflict or confrontation, we often feel fear. Let your child know that fear is a natural feeling and that it doesn’t always equate to being unsafe. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable.
In an episode called In The Heat Of The Moment on the podcast Hidden Brain, Julie Woodzicka talks about all of the steps we go through before an actual interaction or confrontation. If someone hurts us or if a situation is unfair or doesn’t feel right, we have to decide if what we are feeling is worth giving words to; we have to decide if something is “confrontation worthy.” Then we have to figure out how and when to confront the person or situation. The final piece is the actual confrontation.
Confronting someone can be mentally and emotionally exhausting; it’s important that we give kids that confirmation. No one said resolving conflict would be easy, but it’s worth it.
When we and our kids avoid conflict, more conflict is created. If we hide our true feelings, we place someone else’s feelings over our own. We become resentful and angry. Frustrations build. This damages relationships and prevents vulnerability and intimacy. We are not taking care of our needs or giving ourselves the recognition we deserve by shoving down emotions or pretending they are not valid. If a conflict is avoided for long enough, the problem usually gets worse and not better. The same goes for our confidence and mental health. Stress-related illnesses stem from repressed feelings.
Conflict can be terrifying, but the benefits far outweigh the dread. One of the biggest benefits to confrontation is that it can lead to a solution. My oldest daughter was feeling frustrated about a homework assignment and was anxious about presenting it to the class. She didn’t think it was her best work, but was afraid to ask her teacher for more time. I encouraged her to think of a plan to present to her teacher and asked if she wanted me to email her teacher to see if we could stop in a little early before school to discuss the plan. She reluctantly agreed. She preferred that I just explain the situation in the email, but I told her it was her job to do that. I did agree to sit with my daughter during her meeting with her teacher.
Even though my daughter was nervous, she was able to vocalize her needs and practice her blooming communication skills. She also had to practice emotional self-control. Compared to the night before when she was a hot mess of mixed emotions, she kept her cool and stated her case for a new assignment. Her teacher listened and negotiated a new plan that worked for both of them. I could see the weight leave my daughter’s shoulders. She didn’t get exactly what she wanted, but the new idea was better. Conflict allows us to be heard while forcing us to listen. We can talk to our kids about this but they also need to see conflict and its resolution.
Don’t be afraid to have a disagreement or tense conversation with another adult in front of your child; these should not be screaming matches, but life is full of confrontation, negotiation, and hopefully reattachment. Let them see this. It will show them that we are all worth having a voice, and if we use it to speak our truth, everyone wins.
Conflict is part of life and with practice it won’t be so frightening; it will make us more successful.