It is not easy to know how to support our children through challenging moments — but luckily we have a lot of practice… daily. Our children demand attention, melt down at dinnertime and fight with siblings and peers. Little ones who are still not talking find other ways to express their wants and desires. And if we can’t understand what they mean, they will show us physically or by screaming. It is difficult to be present in these moments and know how to help empower our child to work through a conflict. It can sometimes seem our children are asking for our help at the same time they are pushing us away. What can we do?
I recently met with a group of parents to discuss how to support young children during moments of conflict. I opened the talk with a simple exercise — Standing up, hold your hand in a fist and “stir” an imaginary pot in clockwise motion. Continue stirring and slowly lift your hand up over head. Now look up and see what direction you are stirring.
Sometimes our ability to support children during conflict moments is strengthened by a change of perspective.
It helps to begin sharing our experiences with one another. When parents shared the examples listed above, there were many heads nodding and words of compassion. We have all been left frustrated and at a loss at times with our children.
Why are conflict moments with children so challenging for adults?
Most of us, as parents, want our children to be happy and worry when they struggle. Our childhood, past relationships and inner work affect how we respond to conflict. Our own beliefs about conflict and its resolution has an impact. For example, if we believe that all conflict is bad and that the goal is a peaceful home all the time then we will respond very differently then if we believe that conflict is an unavoidable and necessary learning opportunity. We can sometimes take it personally when our children argue or not listen to us and that can lead us to feel we are not appreciated. We recognize that our children know our emotional triggers and we react instead of respond in these stressful moments. Other reasons conflict is challenging for adults are our level of anxiety about young children and safety during conflict, our choices on interventions in disputes between children, and our concerns about other adult’s thoughts or expectations during times of conflict.
Another main reason conflict situations are hard for caregivers is they happen suddenly and we don’t usually have time to prepare for a response. But, even if we did, in a complicated conflict situation there is no perfect solution.
Conflict situations are not only hard for us but, obviously, are challenging for our children, too.
Why do children experience conflict so easily and so often?
There can be many different reasons depending on the child but some include normal, developmental growth. This includes:
- Moments of tension that happens during the socialization process as they integrate rules into their own will.
- Executive function skills that are still developing.
- Working Memory: Can she remember the rule?
- Inhibitory Control: Can she follow the rule even when it isn’t what she wants to do?
- Mental Flexibility: Can she apply different rules in different settings?
- Foundational senses which are not completely integrated.
It is not only children who are working on these skills. These are life-long processes that we are all developing. We can explore our own challenges to develop a better understanding and empathy for the hard work our children are doing. For example, let’s consider the sense of touch. This does not only refer to the ability to determine if something is hard or soft, cold or warm. It is our first understanding of who we are and how we meet the other. There is a connection between tactile and social tact. Our sense of self does not end at our skin but includes our personal space. This generally includes the space created if you hold out a bubble in front of you with your arms. Most of us have experienced when someone else invades our space.
At the parent evening on conflict, parents walked around the room holding their personal bubble with their arms. They noticed what happened when they approached or walked into the space of another person’s bubble. You can take note of this in your own life by observing what happens when people encroach on your personal space. Do you cave in your space to accommodate another person or do you hold firm and protect your space? We can also notice how we hold our space around our children. Do you repeatedly allow your child to invade your space: climbing on you while you are trying to talk on the phone, crawling over the chair and sitting on your lap at dinner, waking up with your child’s face right (and I mean right) in front of your own face? (These are all of my personal examples with my own children. 😉 ) Do you model respect for personal space by expecting your own space to be honored? This doesn’t mean that your children or other people can’t enter into your personal bubble but that you choose when to invite people (either outwardly or inwardly) into your space. It is a very different gesture when we inwardly invite our child into our lap and offer ourself to them.
There are times that our children’s challenges seem to flare up. Kim Payne calls these moments “soul fever” and suggests that we respond in these moments in a similar way as when our child has a physical fever. It can sometimes be our reaction to want to push our child away when they are “acting up” by yelling, drawing firm lines or sending them to their room. What happens when we instead bring them close, slow down, stay home, simplify our rhythm and offer them care? I know it may not seem practical or even possible. But just as a home day and extra sleep allows a sick child to heal much quicker, simplicity, warmth and care can offer a child with soul fever much needed space and time to find inner balance again.
So, understanding that conflicts are going to happen, how can we find ways to respond instead of react?
One thing we can do is consider the expectations and rules that we have for our children. Often parents experience it as a failure when a child doesn’t follow a rule in the home. But moments of negotiation can support the child’s socialization process, as well as her sense of competency and belonging in a family. The dance is knowing when the negotiation must end.
We can also strive to approach conflict with an OPEN gesture.
Observe: Is it a real conflict? Can it be solved without our interference?
Proximity: Look over to the children to let them know you are aware of their situation. Come closer with an open, nonjudgmental gesture. Be available to comfort each child.
Examine: Verbalize what you see is happening. Ask questions (to the children or inwardly to yourself) to get more information. Don’t assume you understand the situation right away.
Negotiate: Give advice or provide just enough help to allow the children to solve their own problems. Interfere immediately if a child is in physical harm.
This is not a formula — we can’t always go through this approach in this specific order. The key is creating a “no-blame” space to discover what help is being asked of you through curious observation.
We can also strive to follow these 4 steps to discipline adapted from the work of Kim John Payne, Ronald Morrish and Gordon Neufeld:
Connect before you direct — Keep time on your side.
Stay close, stay calm — Hold a inward, loving image of your child.
Insist — Stand in parental resolve with warmth and kindness.
Follow through — Show your child this is important.
One way to build up our ability to stay close and stay calm is to practice what Kim Payne calls the Compassionate Response Meditation. This practice allows us to recall an image of our child in a moment of archetypal health and breathe it out into the world as well as holding an image of our child in a moment of crisis and lovingly breathe it into our heart. We can look for inspiration on how to best support our child as we hold both of these images together.
It can also be helpful in these moments to have a mantra that we say to ourselves inwardly. Parents at the meeting on conflict offered these ideas:
One parent added that in moments of conflict with her child her inner voice often shouts, “Oh shit!” I love this one because despite all our consciousness and hard work — we will all have moments when this is our first reaction to challenges with our children. So I wondered how can we utilize this inward panic. It was my husband that came up with a great phrase to go along with it:
I like that phrase it offers me an image of holding my child or bringing my child close, that it is about coming together and, while it is not always easy, it does help to simplify things and remember what is essential. So, yes — Oh SHIT! — Simply Hold It Together.
The most important way to support our children in working with conflict is by offering fundamental care to both our child and ourself. This includes providing warmth and love, a healthy rhythm in the home, good nutrition and enough sleep. (And remember — not only for your child but also for yourself.) It is not a quick fix but it is a deep and lasting investment in the overall health and resiliency for you and your family.