Sarah plays with a toy ferry boat and cars for a while. She changes her focus and begins to look at a book. Jeff comes over and picks up one of the cars. He drives it around and into the ferry boat. Sarah takes notice and goes over to Jeff. She takes the car out of his hand. Jeff picks up another car and continues to play. Sarah takes that car away, too. Jeff begins to protest and pull at the cars Sarah is holding. Sarah holds on tight to them. She crawls away, pushing the ferry boat with her arm. She curls up in the ball with all the toys under her. Jeff still tries to get to the ferry boat and cars.
How do you respond?
The teacher looks over and responds to the situation. She tells the children to stop their behaviors and moves them apart. She reminds Sarah of the rule, “We don’t take toys from our friends.” And tells Sarah to tell Jeff that she is sorry. She shows Sarah that there is another wooden ferry boat and more cars nearby.
How would you feel if you were Jeff? How would you feel if you were Sarah?
Two parents role played out the conflict situation above and then reflected on their experiences at the last meeting with parents in my nursery class. Jeff felt supported and vindicated. Sarah felt righteous and hung on to her position, even though she felt she was seen as being in the wrong. Other parents observing wanted the teacher to acknowledge that Sarah had the ferry boat first. We talked about how this kind of direct intervention is a very common approach to conflict and wondered if there is another way.
Some of the most challenging times as a parent are the moments our children are in conflict. There are many reasons why it isn’t easy to know how to respond when we are confronted by these experiences. When our children are young, we sometimes expect them to have mastered skills they are still working on – such as empathy, the ability to share, or the understanding of waiting for a turn. We want them to be happy and often worry when they struggle. Our own childhood, past relationships, and inner work also affect how we respond in these moments. We can read, study, and plan – but conflict situations usually happen suddenly and we don’t always have time to prepare for a response. And, even if we could, there is no perfect solution.
But, conflict is a natural and necessary part of the young child’s life. Valuable lessons are learned through these experiences. Children discover how to respond to life’s problems, express their own needs and desires, and recognize the expectations of others. Healthy conflict situations can also add to a sense of community and belonging for the young child, as well as a feeling of competence when they are able to be an active part of the solution.
Our children experience many different kinds of conflict. At our class meeting, parents shared recent conflict experiences they have had with their children. Then, we organized them by types. These included:
Conflicts between children, such as…
- Sharing toys
- Wanting attention
- Aggressive behavior
- Sibling rivalry
- Territorial disputes
- Group-entry disputes
Conflicts between child and parent/ caregiver, such as…
- Testing boundaries
- Power struggles
- Not following rules
- Not listening
- Not getting own way
Child’s own internal conflict, such as…
- Struggle as they try a new skill
- Something not happening the way they want
In addition, we also identified that some conflicts involving our children are more a result of a parent’s internal conflict, such as the adult’s:
- Desire to do the right thing
- Feelings of being judged
- Feelings of guilt
So, how can we help support the young child during moments of conflict?
First, we must handle the immediate situation.
How we handle conflicts depends on many factors, including what kind of conflict it is, who is involved, and how those involved are doing.
Here is one example of how to handle conflict situations respectfully while allowing for the child to be an active part of the solution (only offering the next step of support, if needed):
Is it a real conflict? Can it be solved by the child(ren) independently? Look at this video of young children sharing. Would you have given these children the opportunity to work through their conflict on their own or would you have stepped in to offer support right away?
Look over at the child(ren) to let them know that you are aware of their situation. Come closer to the child(ren) with an open, nonjudgmental gesture. Be available to comfort each child.
Verbalize what you see is happening
Sportscasting can be a valuable tool when supporting children through conflict. It can allow children to feel seen, heard, and acknowledged. And it can help you to stay present in the moment and observe the situation more objectively.
Provide just enough help to allow the child(ren) to solve their own problem. You can scaffold your support, by first offering non-verbal suggestions, such as moving another car near two children both wanting the same car. Other forms of intervention include verbal advice (while being okay that it may not be taken), offering children ideas of what they can say/ do in a situation, redirection and being available for a child to ask for help or come to you for comfort.
Of course, this is just an example and can’t be followed exactly with every situation. We must immediately stop aggressive behavior when a child is in physical harm (such as biting or hitting.) We also have to be aware of our child’s overall needs. For example, if a child has missed a nap, it will be much harder for him/her to be able to solve a conflict without additional support.
Once we have dealt with the immediate situation, then we can find a quiet time to reflect on what happened earlier in the day. There are many ways we can support healthy conflict resolution with our children. Here are just a few of the things we can consider during our review:
- Was this a healthy conflict or unnecessary and overly stressful?
- Are there physical or health related issues that need to be addressed?
- How much freedom does my child have to move, explore, and play?
- Does the physical environment contribute to conflict? Is there a way to change the environment to better meet the needs of my child and family?
- Do I have a consistent, daily rhythm for my child? Should it be adjusted?
- Can I set aside time to observe my child with objective interest? (This is another potential blog post in the making.)
- What are possible conflicts and when might they occur?
- What are my own values, beliefs, and feelings around conflict and struggle?
- Do I have clear expectations and boundaries?
- Do I trust my child’s competence to find resolutions during conflict?
- Do I use a consistent philosophy and process during conflicts?
- Do I remain neutral and avoid taking sides during conflict situations?
Knowing how to work with young children during conflict situations can be very challenging, but luckily there are often many opportunities to practice. 😉 While we don’t usually get to redo our response, we were able to go back at our parent meeting and try again with Sarah and Jeff.
This time when Sarah takes a toy car out of Jeff’s hand and Jeff begins to protest, the teacher comes closer to the two of them and sits down near by with her arms in an open gesture. Jeff picks up another car and continues to play. Sarah takes that car away, too. Jeff begins to pull at the cars Sarah was holding. Sarah holds on tight to them. The teacher comments, “You both want to play with the cars. Jeff was playing with a car and Sarah took it away. Jeff is pulling at the car and wants to get it back.” The two of them continue to struggle over the cars. The teacher comments, “There are more cars over there behind the tables. You can go over there to get other cars.” Sarah looks back to where the other cars are kept. She continues to hold on to her car, but then moves away to where the other cars are kept. She brings back more cars. Slowly, there is an opening for the two children to play with the cars and ferry boat together. Jeff pushes a car through the ferry boat and Sarah gets it on the other side.
Afterwards, participants and observers had a chance to reflect on their experiences. Sarah shared that she felt ready for the teacher to take sides, but when she didn’t, she felt more open to the possibility of not clinging to her position. She felt that she could go get another car or ferry boat out of freedom, not because she was wrong or bad. Jeff felt that it was harder for him this time. He wasn’t rescued and had to continue to assert his own needs and desires. At times, it was frustrating.
This way of working through conflict is not always easier – it can be hard work for both the caregivers and children involved. But, it is good hard work and allows competence, cooperation, and conflict resolution skills to develop in the children. And there are many lessons to learn (or unlearn) for the adults, too.
In the facilitator role, I feel I gain so much from these moments with children. I am amazed at how they solve their own problems — sometimes in ways I would not have considered. And, even more so, how they often let it go once the situation ends (when, as adults, we can hold on so tight to our positions and anger.) As a nursery teacher, I feel this way of working with children helps me stay more present, available, and objective with the children in my care. As a mother, I am often more activated by conflict between my children. This way of working through conflicts is my most important work right now. There is so much potential for growth in my children’s relationship with themselves and others and in my own development, too.
For all of us, young and old, we will experience conflict in our lives – daily. Little conflicts, like someone cutting in line for the swing set (or at the coffee shop), struggle with putting on your own jeans (or realizing they just don’t fit anymore), or not wanting to do what your parent has asked of you (or not agreeing with how a friend chooses to parent their child.) And bigger conflicts, too. They can’t always be avoided. Our ability to feel capable to handle them is a lifetime skill that, ideally, continues to refine and evolve.
For more insights on how to work through conflicts with your children, please read: