Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Setting the Stage for Your Child’s Good Behavior: Step #5

Step Five:  Develop Conflict Resolution Skills

Fighting with your child is easy; fighting fairly is not.  One mistake we make as parents is to assume that our children, through modeling or osmosis, should be able to resolve conflicts peacefully with us and others.  The irony is that many adults haven’t learned the vital art of compromise.  You’ve heard the expression, “It’s his way or the highway.” Developing an effective approach to settling an argument requires self-awareness and self-control.  Your child needs to learn to separate feelings from action, and that she may need to give up something to get something else. Conflicts offer children a unique opportunity to improve their interpersonal relationships with others. Through modeling and coaching healthy conflict resolution skills, you help your child express herself more effectively and clearly.

Sarah and her Mom are always fighting.  They seem to constantly push each others buttons. Mom asks Sarah if she’s finished her homework, for example.  Sarah responds with, “I have it under control, Mom. Stay out of it.” And the conflict begins. Mom usually resorts to threatening to take away Sarah’s cell phone. Sarah ends up whining and yelling in frustration. Mom escalates the conflict by lecturing.  Sarah screams back. This really gets Mom’s goat.  She then threatens to take away all privileges, “No computer”. “No TV”. “No video games”. “No cheerleading”. Then, in a total rage, Mom hollers, “You are so ungrateful, a spoiled, rotten brat. You are only nice to me when you want something. I’m never taking you shopping again!” The conflict typically ends with Sarah running to her room, leaving her Mom mid-sentence, and slamming the door of her room behind her.

We often argue with family members when we’re angry or upset about something.  Do you ever wonder if arguing in front of your children might negatively affect them?  Perhaps you think fighting in front of the children could adversely affect their mental health.  Maybe you think if children observe their parents fighting, they themselves will become more aggressive.  There’s no need to worry.

Arguing in itself is not inherently dangerous for your child to observe. It actually presents an opportunity for you, as a parent, to demonstrate to your child how to resolve conflicts successfully – by arguing and coming to a resolution, by working out healthy compromises, and by showing a willingness to change your behavior and consider another’s perspective.

Disputes between family members can teach children that although two people love and respect each other, they do not always agree. It’s important that children see parents as united in basic child-rearing principles and common values, but they also need to see them as unique individuals with their own opinions.

Conflict resolution is an art form.  And it is much more productive when both parties follow certain conflict-resolution guidelines.  In order to help your child master these techniques, make sure you are modeling them at home.  Whether you are arguing with a significant other or with a child, the following principles will help you resolve your conflicts more smoothly.

Model for your child healthy conflict resolution guidelines:

Know what pushes your buttons.

If you are aware of what really upsets you, then you have some ability to control your reactions.  Awareness allows you to anticipate angry feelings that might come up in a specific situation.  This awareness gives you a little bit of distance and time to come up with an anger control plan in advance.

Make a list with your child of the situations that result in conflict.  Help your child understand what pushes her buttons so that she is better prepared for future conflicts.  A hot button for Sarah and her Mom is clearly homework.  Knowing this can help them develop a plan for anticipated homework conflicts.

Plan before you argue.

If you know you are upset with someone about something, ask yourself the following questions before you confront the person:

  • What is my position?
  • What is the other person’s position?
  • What would I like to get out of this discussion?
  • What will make both me and the other person happy?

The more you plan ahead, the easier it is to remain calm and clearly state your feelings during a discussion.

Stick to one problem at a time.

One of the most common obstacles to creative conflict resolution is the tendency to “pebble count”.  Rather than remain focused on the subject at hand, you launch into other issues that you’re disgruntled about.  Don’t do this.  Pebble counting tends to weaken your argument and escalate the conflict rather than resolve it.  If you have planned ahead, you are less likely to resort to throwing in other issues to try to bolster your point of view.

If you notice your child jumping from subject to subject during an argument, help him get back on topic.  Don’t allow yourself to be redirected by irrelevant information.

Try Saying This:

Sarah:  “Mom you never let me do anything that my friends are allowed to do. Remember that time when you wouldn’t let me go bowling because I’d miss my curfew….”

Mom:  “That may be important, but we are not talking about that right now.  Let’s get back to the issue of homework.”

Choose the right time and place.

It’s best to resolve conflicts when there are few distractions.   Dinnertime with five kids at the table may not be the best time to have a productive discussion nor is on your way out the door for work in the morning.  Choose a time when the person you have a conflict with is in a good mood and appears willing to speak and listen openly.

Time is critical when addressing conflicts with children. Right after school, when they may be hungry and tired, is not an ideal time.  Neither is right before bed.  Try to talk when it is quiet and no one is rushing around.  Give your child a heads-up that you’d like to talk. Ask them when the best time is for them to talk.

Try Saying This

Mom:  “Sarah, I don’t like how we left it after our argument last night.  I’d still like to talk to you about your homework.  When is the best time for you and me to sit down and talk about this?”

Sarah: “I don’t know, Mom.  I don’t really want to talk about it at all.”
Mom: “I know that you don’t want to talk about it.  Frankly, neither do I.  But we need to talk about it.  Would you prefer to talk before or after dinner?”

Sarah: “Ugh.  I guess we can talk before dinner.  I want to work on my report after dinner.”

Mom:  “Sounds good.  Thanks.  Talk to you at 6:00 p.m.”

If you notice, Sarah’s Mom was very direct in what she was saying to Sarah. Directness can be difficult, especially for girls who have been socialized to be indirect in getting what they need.  Rather than beating around the bush, Sarah’s Mom was direct and open.  She also didn’t let Sarah off the hook.

Watch body language.

You can tell a lot about what people feel by watching their body language.  Are they sitting with arms, legs, and fingers crossed, and a scowl on their face? Those are not good signs for open communication.  Shelve the discussion until their body posture appears more relaxed and open.

As a parent, you need to be especially aware of your own body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone.  If you notice your own body language is communicating tension or hostility, let your child know.

Try Saying This

Mom:  “This is not a good time for me to talk about this.  I’m feeling too cranky.  I’d like to talk after dinner instead.”

Restate the feelings of the other person.

This lets the other person know they are being heard and are worth listening to.  Don’t be afraid to also ask your child to tell you how he thinks you’re feeling when you are arguing.  Children tend to forget that their parents also have their own feelings during a heated discussion.

Try Saying This

Mom:  “What I hear you saying is that you are upset because I asked you to do your homework as soon as you got home, and you would like a snack first.  Is that correct?”

Sarah:  “Yes. That’s right.”

Come to the table with compromises in mind.

In your pre-planning state, you can already have in mind several actions you can take to resolve the situation.  Make sure these are changes that you, yourself, can make.  If you come to the table with changes only the other person can make, you won’t be successful.  If you show the other person that you are willing to make changes, she is more likely to do the same.

Compromising with your child is not the same thing as allowing your child to control the interaction and dictate its ending.  Give your child some choices, but maintain your expectations.  For instance:

Try Saying This

Mom:  “Sarah, you are in too many after school activities.  You don’t have enough time to complete your homework sufficiently. You may choose two out of the three activities, but you need to drop one.”

Sarah may say that she doesn’t want to drop any of them, but that’s not an option.  You are giving her the choice of which activity she wants to drop.  You are not giving her the option to continue to do all three.

Stick to “I feel…” statements.

When you say, “I feel…” rather than “You did…” or “You are a….,” you are more likely to get cooperation and less likely to make your child defensive and resistant.  Read the following statements.  Which ones sound better to you?

Try Saying This: “I feel disregarded when you ignore what I’m saying.”
Rather Than This: “You never listen to me.”

Try Saying This: “I feel taken advantage of when you leave your papers strewed all over the counter and expect me to clean them up.”
Rather Than This: “You are a total slob!”

Listen. Listen. Listen.

The most important skill to model in an argument or disagreement is listening.  Through listening, you show that you respect what your child has to say and this encourages your child to respect what you have to say too.

Try Saying This

“What I heard you say is…..”   (reflective listening)

“You are feeling pretty discouraged right now.  Is that correct?”  (empathy and perception check)

“You think that I’m coming down on you too hard?”  (perception check)

“I see how frustrated you are.  Let’s sit down and talk about it.” (providing opportunity for discussion)

“So let me see if I got this straight.  You want to do some of your homework tonight and some of your homework tomorrow morning? Is that right?”

“I think I have some understanding of how your feeling.  Can you tell me what your understanding is of what I’m feeling?”

Ask your child to look carefully at the short and long term consequences of solutions to conflicts.  Resist the urge to judge them even when you feel your child’s solutions may be silly.  Judgment defeats the purpose of brainstorming and robs your child of experience of successfully solving the problem.  Conflict resolution is hard work.  Praise your child for making the effort to resolve the conflict in a healthy, thoughtful way.

During a conflict, it’s essential that your child maintain control of herself.  Many children, as well as adults, have an automatic stress response to conflict – they become angry, upset, and excited.  Situations can easily blow up and get out of hand.  When you see your child revving up, help her learn to alter her instinctive stress response to a composed, cool, and collected one.

Putting It All Together

Steps to Being a Pro-Active vs. a Reactive Parent

Step One:  Communicate clearly where your limits and boundaries are.

Step Two:  Praise effort, not outcome.

Step Three:  Actively listen to your child.

Step Four: Pay attention to your own body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.

Step Five:  Maintain your sense of humor.

Step Six:  Choose your words carefully.

Step Seven:  Accept your child’s feelings, not necessarily their actions.

Step Eight:  Communicate realistic expectations concisely and clearly.

Step Nine:  Make sure when you tell your child to do something, you mean it.

Step Ten:  Pay attention to the positive.


Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP


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