Interpersonal conflict in families is unavoidable, especially when it comes to siblings. Contrary to what some of us were taught to believe, the sign of a healthy relationship isn’t the absence of conflict. Good relationships are actually marked the presence of healthy conflict – conflict that involves assertiveness, empathy, and repair.
It is a rare and special thing when two siblings naturally and effortlessly fall into best friendship. If this is the case for your kids, celebrate! For the rest of us, it’s important to remember just how hard it can be to share your life with someone that you didn’t choose, and who, in many cases, is very different than you are.
Handling conflict well doesn’t come naturally. It’s a skill that we have to actively teach our kids, just like riding a bike or reading. This requires a delicate balance between teaching and giving them opportunities to learn. A great analogy for to remember when teaching your kids about handling conflict is to think of yourself as a coach and your kids as players on a team.
Look for the skills they already have and build upon them. If you have a particularly empathetic child, help them learn words for their emotions and the emotions of others, and help them learn how to name them in conflict. If you have a child with a good memory, teach them a rhyme to help them remember how to handle conflict. A current favorite in our house goes like this:
“You think what you think,
And I think what I think.
Even if I’m right,
There’s no need for a fight.
I can stand up,
And I can walk away.
Then I can come back,
When I feel more okay.
When coaching kids in conflict, remember that practices are just as, if not more, important than the game. Practice your conflict resolution skills outside of conflict. For example, you can practice deep breathing before bed or talk about where you feel your anger in your body. Or you could practice compromise by letting your kids plan a meal that has to follow certain guidelines (ex: the meal needs a fruit or vegetable, a protein, and a grain). Or you can even roleplay with your child, asking them what they could say or do whenever they feel their anger to help calm down, or if someone hurt their feelings.
As you coach your kids in conflict, remember that you’re practicing for “game time,” so don’t be discouraged when conflict arises. Go into coaching mode when the conflict arises and watch from the sidelines to see how your kids’ skills are progressing. You can limit your intervention more and more as they get better at solving their own problems. Don’t be afraid to let your kids get frustrated and fail as they continue to refine their skills, but try not to let them get to the point of someone getting hurt. Intervene if your kids start to get physical in their confrontation with one another or if one of them appears too upset to be able to calm themselves back down.
For your kids to learn how to do conflict well, they also need good role models. Have you ever seen a kid game mimic a victory dance or move that they learned from watching someone else play a sport? Our kids are always watching, and that includes watching you handle your own conflict. There are certainly discussions that are better to have privately, but it’s good for your kids to see you engage in and repair from conflict. This helps our kids learn that conflict is normal. If you end up displaying messy conflict in front of your kids, it is especially important for you to debrief with them afterwards. Let them see you apologize to the other person, and then talk to them about the things you did and didn’t do well. This step requires a lot of self-awareness and humility, so don’t worry if you don’t do it perfectly. You will all keep learning and growing as time goes on.
Learning to coach well with you,
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