Many of our children’s conflicts appear to come out of the blue but certain conflicts are almost inevitable given our children’s ages and development skills. Many of our children’s regularly occurring conflicts reflect specific child development issues that are common among children everywhere.
For example, last week, as my eleven-year-old son and I waited for our allergy shots at the nearby medical clinic, we couldn’t help but notice how two young mothers were struggling to manage the strong emotions and behavior of their collective group of five young children.
When we first arrived, there was already one little girl-- who appeared to be about three years old—crying and screaming on the clinic floor while the mothers tried to subtly force her into good behavior with either quiet threats or bribes. The little girl was fairly unresponsive until she got to follow her mother into the doctor’s appointment.
Following our appointments, my son and I happened to be leaving the clinic at the same time as the whirling group of kids and moms. As we approached the group, we encountered this same girl screaming and pounding her fists on the ground just outside the elevator doors. Before I heard exactly what she was screaming, I turned to my son and said, “I bet she didn’t get to push the elevator button.”
Just as we came up to the girl close enough to hear her words, she yelled out, “He got to push the magic button!” As I had expected, her littler brother had pushed the elevator button before she had had the chance. She was obviously furious that her brother had stolen her chance to push the magic elevator button.
What Conflicts Can I Potentially Anticipate?
After having mothered five preschoolers who often competed with each other to push elevator buttons, I knew what to expect from the little girl at the allergy clinic. For her age and experience, pushing elevator buttons is exciting, and even magical, as she said herself.
While my children have moved beyond the desire to be the first to push the elevator buttons, there are other conflicts that naturally arise among my 8 to 14 year-old-children, like who gets to use the Chromebook first, or who gets the last of the “good” kind of ice cream left in the freezer. These are every day, recurring conflicts that I can choose to manage in the moment or anticipate beforehand and plan for by developing family rules and norms around certain conflict “hot buttons.”
How to Anticipate Certain Common Conflicts Among our Children
As parents, we are much more effective in anticipating and preparing our children for certain potential conflict situations when we understand the developmental constraints and advantages of our children in certain age groups.
In terms of early childhood conflict resolution potential, we benefit from understanding the following child development basics for the general child groupings of preschoolers (3-5) and school-aged children (6-12). In this section, I rely heavily upon the research of Dr. Sandra V. Sandy in her article: Sandy, Sandra V. 2014. “The Development of Conflict Resolution Skills: Preschool to Adulthood.” In Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, edited by Coleman, Peter T., Morton Deutsch, and Eric C. Marcus, 430-463. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
In addition to understanding child development basics for the average child, we benefit from then focusing on the specific conflict hot buttons and behavior of our individual children.
Studying Out Your Own Child/Children
Taking lessons from the powerful book The Explosive Child written by Dr. Ross W. Greene, I have gradually developed the habit of coupling my knowledge of child development milestones with personally studying my own children’s conflict behavior.
While some conflict hot buttons are common to many children in certain age groups, I have also found it very helpful to do a mini research study of my own child who may be struggling. If I take two to three days to write down every time there is a conflict, I begin to notice patterns. Rather than continuing to believe that my children are conflicting about everything all the time, I begin to notice that an individual child’s conflicts usually center around two to three main topics.
By doing the research to identify the two to three recurring conflict topics, I’ve created an opportunity for collaboration with my kids about rules, values, and guidelines in our home. Rather than hope the kids will somehow grow out of their particular conflicts (which they sometimes do over time), I take a proactive approach to developing plans with that specific child.
How to Prepare for Anticipated Conflicts
While Dr. Ross Greene goes into the specifics of making conflict resolution plans with our children about how to improve their behavior in certain hot button situations, the basic idea is simple:
Rather than try to create a plan for our child during the specific conflict episode, we allow for our children’s feelings to de-escalate. Once our children’s feelings are calm and they are able to consider alternatives (usually at a later time), we brainstorm and talk with our child about different approaches. We want to tap into our children’s growing need for independence by putting them in the position to make plans about how they can more constructively react in certain conflict situations.
Even when a conflict has already passed, research has demonstrated the benefit of even reviewing past conflicts and figuring out how we could have behaved more effectively. This goes for both children AND adults! While we can forgive, we may benefit more by not fully forgetting a past conflict but reviewing our past conflicts as the stepping stone for improving.
What if They Don’t React How I Expect?
Even when children may understand a rule or principle, they may not always have the capacity to live what we teach them. Like the young child learning to crawl, then cruise, then finally walk on their own, they will fail many times while trying to improve.
Oftentimes with conflict resolution skills, we are impatient with kids because we know that they hear our words and understand the rules. However, they are not always able to translate that intellectual understanding into constructive behavior consistently. It takes time (and developmental growth) to master conflict resolution skills.
While we will talk more creating family rules and adjusting family rules to accommodate individual needs, generally, we do better when we are proactively seeking to teach and guide our children rather than ignore their ineffective behavior. Rigorous child development research has demonstrated the power of parents actively teaching effective principles in ways catered to their children’s developmental capacity rather ignoring bad behavior and hoping that their child will somehow socialize without deliberate teaching and instruction.
If these thoughts strike a chord with your parenting philosophy and approach, I invite you to consider reading my book: Raising Mediators: How Smart Parents Use Mediation to Transform Sibling Conflict and Empower Their Children, which goes into these principles and ideas in greater depth.
Emily de Schweinitz Taylor