How to help kids cope with friendship conflict

The Year 4 girls love a game of handball at lunchtimes. They’ve put a strict system of rules in place, but on Friday ‘Elise’ was King and had returned a very close lineball, which some called out. According to the rules, if there is a dispute or everyone agrees that it is too close to call they give the player a ‘replay’ or second chance. In the replay, Elise returned a shot that clearly landed outside of the court.

Knowing that Elise rarely made it to King and that she was really upset because she believed the original ball was in, two of her closest friends wanted to give her another chance. Others said no. An argument broke out about how fair it would be. The whole situation got worse throughout the afternoon as the division amongst the girls played itself out in class.

Arguments or disagreements between two or more children erupt because of differences of opinion, behaviour or values. Whether a conflict is resolved quickly or escalates into something worse depends on how each child responds emotionally and behaves as a result of that emotion. For instance, do they stay calm or get angry, offended and upset? Do they listen and empathise, or shout, call names, and get aggressive?

WINNING THROUGH CONFLICT

School conflict is one of the major training grounds for adulthood. It’s when children develop their approach to conflict and their belief system about how relationships should work. Conflict can result in a win-lose or a win-win outcome:

  1. Win-lose. When there’s a winner and loser in conflict, it creates its own set of problems and often ends, long-term, in an actual lose-lose for everyone. Children who always win become more and more dominant, resulting in short term friendships that lack depth because the relationship is very one-way and causes resentment. On the other hand, children who always compromise lose confidence and lack the skills to assert what they need. Most school conflict should not result in a win-lose.
  2. Win-win. Compromise means that everyone gives a bit to get a bit. Children who learn compromise, are good at negotiating friendship. Fairness and rules are very important in this process. Cooperation, however, is a step further in a win-win approach that can result in even better outcomes. It requires a bit more work: looking more deeply at issues and getting more creative about solving them. This teaches valuable life skills.

LIFE SKILLS THAT HELP WITH CONFLICT

As parents, our own approach to conflict has a huge influence on how our children will approach it. However, whatever our own history, we can all recognise unhealthy patterns of behavior and help our children learn a better way. It requires social-emotional literacy (a topic we talk about at BAC a lot) and, like most life skills, it’s learned and doesn’t always come naturally!

Kids Matter suggests six steps and accompanying skills for effective conflict resolution.

STEPS

SKILLS TO LEARN

STEP 1: Manage strong emotions

Use strategies to control strong feelings

STEP 2: Verbally express own thoughts and feelings

Identify and communicate thoughts and feelings

STEP 3: Identify the problem and express own needs

Talk about their own wants/needs/fears/concerns without demanding an immediate solution

STEP 4: Understand the other person’s perspective

•  Listen to what the other person needs/wants

•  Understand the other person’s fears/concerns

•  Understand without having to agree

•  Respond sensitively and appropriately

STEP 5: Generate a number of solutions to the problem

•  Think of a variety of options

•  Try to include the needs and concerns of everyone involved

STEP 6: Negotiate a win-win solution

•  Be flexible

•  Be open-minded

•  Look after own needs as well as other person’s needs (be assertive)


 HOW CAN I HELP AS A PARENT?

Helicopter parenting, where we smooth the way and solve our children’s problems, doesn’t help kids learn social-emotional literacy in the long run. Neither does a hands-off approach. Somewhere in the middle is best. Offering good advice helps them through the tough times whilst also teaching them how to think for themselves. Keep these three things in mind:

  1. Help them work through strong feelings. Kids Matter says that when children feel strong emotions like anger or rejection, it can be very hard for them to think reasonably or fairly. Give them a chance to name their feelings and voice their hurts and they will calm down. With balance restored, they can then begin thinking about how they might solve the conflict.
  2. Don’t solve their problems. As parents, our protective instincts often prompt us to jump in and tell our kids what they should do – or sometimes even act on their behalf. Resist. This is a learning process. Kids Matter suggests that you coach your child through the steps for conflict resolution (above), encourage them to think creatively about solutions and praise them when they come up with good ideas. This gives them confidence in their own emerging skills, which is what we want because the goal is for them to learn how to deal with conflict, even when we’re not around.
  3. Listen without judging. Listen neutrally when your child tells you about their playground conflict. Ask questions, like what they wanted, felt and thought at the time, as well as what their friend might have wanted, felt and thought at the time. In this way, we model a calmer approach to conflict and what it looks like to hear without blame or judgment. If they can listen to their friend’s point of view at the time conflict occurs, they will learn to solve conflict before it escalates, and come up with solutions that suit and value everybody.

IS MY CHILD'S FRIEND A BULLY?

We need to be vigilant about spotting bullying; however, it’s equally important to remember that conflict is a normal part of human relationships and that not all conflict arises from bullying. In fact, most incidents of conflict are not cases of bullying.

Please refresh your memory from Mrs Entermann’s recent blog which talked about what bullying consists of so that, if the behaviour does involve bullying, harassment or assault, we can act. Make an urgent meeting with your child’s class, roll teacher, or head of school to bring into play the College’s behaviour management program that is highly effective in dealing with bullying, restoring positive behaviour and repairing broken relationships.

GREAT RESOURCES FOR PARENTS

  1. Guide children through the steps of conflict resolution
  2. Find out more about active listening
  3. Discover tips for better communicating
  4. Help kids cool down and stay calm
  5. More about bullying
  6. Find out more about your adolescent's friendships: Bagwell, C.L. (2011). Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence. New York, NY: Guildford Press.
   

AUTHOR: Debbie Cosier is a former teacher and now works as an education writer and editor. See more on her website.