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How to help kids cope with friendship conflict

Category: Option E Educating

Debbie Cosier

Submitted by Debbie Cosier on Sun 13/05/18 08:35

The Year 4 girls love a game of handball at lunchtimes. They've put in place a system of rules, but a problem came up one Friday while *Jane was King. She returned a very close lineball, which some called 'out' and others called 'in'. According to the rules, when there is a dispute or if everyone agrees that it's 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 honestly believed the original ball was ‘in’, two of her closest friends wanted to give her another chance. Others said no, they must stick to the rules. An argument broke out about what would and wouldn’t be fair. Throughout the afternoon, things only got worse as the division amongst the girls played itself out in the classroom.

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, can they stay calm and talk it through or do they get angry, offended and upset? Can they listen and empathise, or do they block people out, shout at them, call them names, and/or get aggressive?

Winning through conflict

Apart from the home, classrooms and playgrounds are two of the biggest training grounds for adulthood. These are the arenas in which children develop their approach to conflict and their belief system about how relationships should work.

Conflict usually results in either a win-lose outcome or a win-win outcome:

  1. Win-lose. When there’s always a 'winner' and 'loser' in conflict it ultimately results in lose-lose. Children who always win become more and more dominant and experience short term friendships that lack depth and build up resentment. At the same time, children who always compromise lose confidence and lack the skills to assert what they need. The best way to change a winner-takes-all mindset is through kindness, not harshness or punishment.
  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 requires learning 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 their’s. Even although we may look back and recognise unhealthy patterns of behaviour in our own history, we can still help our children learn a better way. Like most life skills, they’re learned and don't always come naturally!

The following steps and skills help with effective conflict resolution.

(Source: Kids Matter)


STEP 1: Manage strong emotions 

Use strategies to control strong emotinos (see Parent Resources, below)

STEP 2: Verbally express own thoughts and feelings

Identify and communicate thoughts and feelings
STEP 3: Identify the problems 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 parents help?

Helicopter parenting—smoothing the way and solving our children’s problems—doesn’t help our kids in the long run. Neither does a hands-off approach. Somewhere in the middle is best. Offering guidance and good advice helps children through the tough times whilst teaching them how to think for themselves. To do this well, we should keep 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. It’s important to give them a chance to name their feelings and voice their hurts. This will help them 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 children what they should do or even act on their behalf. Resist. This is a learning process. According to Kids Matter, coaching your child through the steps for conflict resolution (tabled above) is very important. 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. By listening neutrally when our child tells us about their playground conflict, asking what they wanted, felt and thought at the time, and asking them about what they think their friend might have wanted, felt and thought, we show them how to listen without blame or judgment. The next step is suggesting that they can listen to their friend’s point of view at the time conflict occurs. In doing so, they will learn to solve conflict before it escalates and come up with solutions that suit everyone and shows that everybody is of value.

What if I think my child’s friend may be a bully?

While we need to be vigilant about spotting bullying, it’s also very important to remember that conflict is a normal part of human relationships and that not all conflict arises from bullying. Most incident-based conflicts are not cases of bullying.

However if the behaviour involves consistent bullying, harassment or assault, please make an urgent meeting with your child’s class or roll teacher, or the head of school. Refresh your memory from Mrs Entermann’s recent blog, which talked about what real bullying consists of and how our College’s behaviour modification approach is highly effective in dealing with bullying, restoring positive behaviour and repairing broken relationships.

Take a browse through some of the great parent resources below and work with us to make this school a kinder place to learn and grow. Remember: #choosekind

*Please note: Jane and the handball example given above represent the common types of conflicts that occur in schools rather than any one situation or particular student.

Great resources for parents

  1. To guide children through the steps of conflict resolution: Kids Matter
  2. Active listening: Raising Children
  3. Tips for better communicating: Reach Out
  4. Helping kids cool down and stay calm: Kids Matter
  5. Bullying:
  6. Helping my adolescent with friendship: Bagwell, C.L. (2011). Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence. New York, NY: Guildford Press.


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