Four Essential Steps to Guide Your Child Through DisagreementsOct 18, 2023
Parents play a crucial role in shaping their children's social development and helping them navigate the complexities of relationships. One common challenge is when our children have disagreements with their siblings or friends. From the first time you gently correct your infant for hitting to when you find yourself breaking up a heated argument between your teenagers, you have a choice of how you want to handle the situation and what you want your children to learn from the experience. This post will explore how to talk effectively to your kids about these conflicts. I’ve always approached these conversations as a form of social skills training, a type of treatment psychologists use to help people feel more comfortable and effective in their communication and interpersonal skills. I used to lead group therapy for psychosis focussed on social skills training, and boy, has that experience come in handy with a house full of little ones. Read on to learn how I’ve adapted this method into a four-step process I use with my kiddos to help resolve disagreements.
- Gather the Facts
When your child comes to you after a disagreement, it's important to create a safe and non-judgmental space for them to express their feelings. Encourage them to share what happened, allowing them to vent their frustrations and emotions. Active listening is key here - give your child your undivided attention, maintain eye contact, and validate their feelings with phrases like, “I can see how that would make you feel angry.” This attention will help them feel understood and supported.
If playmates disagree and both parents are present, each child will typically turn to their parent for support before the group meets to discuss what happened. If you are supervising a playdate alone, you might offer your child’s friend a chance to speak first if they seem comfortable with that, but they may prefer that your child talk first. Focus on being an objective listener.
For siblings, you’ll need to identify one sibling to share their story first, perhaps based on age or whoever looks the most upset, then give the other sibling a chance to respond. These conversations go best when you gently remind your children to take slow, deep breaths to help them stay calm. Also, encourage them to use neutral, descriptive statements without negative valence to avoid reigniting the situation. For example, “Let’s just say Tommy called me a name, and then I got angry and hit him back” rather than “Tony was being a jerk, so I hit him.” Having kids in the same space but not directly next to each other during this cool-down phase is helpful.
For young children still developing their verbal skills, you may need to interpret what happened, like, “Something happened to upset you, and you hit Tony?” or “You didn’t like it when Tanya grabbed your toy, and then you hit her. Is that right?”
These situations are an excellent opportunity for you to model calm, non-judgmental behavior, too, as you gather information and help to improve the situation. Reacting too quickly and jumping to conclusions about what happened does little to solve the problem and can worsen the situation.
- Reflect and Analyze
After your child has shared their side of the story, it's time to guide them towards reflection and analysis. Ask open-ended questions to encourage critical thinking, such as, "What do you think caused the disagreement?" or "How do you think your actions affected the situation?" Such questions help your child develop self-awareness and take responsibility for their part in the conflict.
Younger children may need prompts with options like, “Did that make the situation better or worse?” or “Did that make Trevor happy or sad?”
- Present Alternatives
Once your child has analyzed the situation, presenting alternative ways to handle the disagreement is crucial. This step is akin to “corrective feedback” in social skills training. Explain to your child that they can learn better ways of resolving conflicts, just like learning a new skill. Offer suggestions on how they could have responded differently, emphasizing empathy, active listening, and compromise. Encourage them to think about the potential outcomes of these alternative approaches. For example, “If you asked Troy for the toy back and he said no, would that have been a good time to ask Mom for help?” Or “Would it have been a better choice to walk away and hit a pillow than to hit your brother?”
You can bring this point home by modeling the alternative behavior for your child. You can say, “Here’s how I would do it.” Perhaps you mask a look of anger with clenched fists, saying, “We can talk about this later. I’m feeling really angry, so I’m going to walk away and hit a pillow so I don’t hit you.” Then, physically turn and walk to the nearest pillow and punch it. After watching you demonstrate the behavior, they’ll feel more comfortable doing the next step.
- Role-Play and Practice
Behavioral rehearsal is a key element in social skills training. Engaging your child in role-playing scenarios reinforces alternative approaches to resolving disagreements. For example, you can say, “Let’s try that. Pretend that Troy just took your toy, you asked for it back, and he said no. Now say, Mom, can you please help me with a disagreement Troy and I are having?” Then, have your child say that back to you. Saying the words will markedly increase the odds of your child actually using them the next time the situation arises. The more you use this social skills training technique to resolve disagreements, the more quickly your child will get comfortable with this part of the routine and understand that the role-playing portion is essential and that this conversation won’t be over until they practice the alternative approach to resolving disagreements.
Similarly, you can ask your older child to imagine his brother has just called him a name, turn away, and punch a pillow. It may feel silly doing it, but this role-playing step is critical to solidifying the corrective feedback in their minds and bodies. This hands-on practice helps children internalize the skills and prepares them for future conflicts. Celebrate their efforts and provide positive reinforcement when they demonstrate effective communication and problem-solving during the role-play.
Where’s the Apology?
You may be wondering where the apology is in this strategy. You didn’t miss it; it’s not there. I do think it’s essential for children to learn how to apologize effectively. I’ll have a post dedicated to teaching kids how to apologize to friends and siblings coming soon. In the meantime, check out The Power of Apologizing to Your Kids for an introduction to my Acknowledge & Amends technique. The reason I have not included an apology here is that kids make a lot of mistakes as they grow and develop. It’s all part of the learning process. Frequent apologies can become tedious and detract from the ability to learn from the experience.
Moreover, disagreements are often two-sided. Rather than having each kid apologize to the other, I think there’s infinitely more benefit to be gained from a calm and productive discussion aimed at improving social skills to prevent future disagreements. By all means, toss an apology into step 2: Reflect & Analyze. Or use your judgment throughout the day with your kiddo and use different strategies based on different situations - an apology here, some social skills practice there, or a combination of the two. Parenting With Psychology is all about loading your parenting toolbox with valuable parenting tools and helping you find the best match for your unique parent-child dynamic.
Talking to your kids about disagreements with their siblings or friends offers an opportunity to teach them valuable social skills. By creating a safe space for conversation, guiding them through reflection and analysis, presenting alternative approaches, and practicing these skills through role-play, you empower your child to navigate conflicts with empathy and effective communication. Nurturing social skills is an ongoing process, and with your guidance, your child will develop the tools needed for healthy and fulfilling relationships. Change takes time, so be patient. If a disagreement happens in your family this week, try out these four steps to see how smoothly the experience of resolving the disagreement goes and how ready your child feels to tackle the next one with more skill.
Social skills training is the first-line response in the Consequences category in my 5 C’s parenting framework (see The 5 C’s to Amazing Parenting). Remember, consequences don’t have to be negative. They’re not always a form of punishment; they’re simply any environmental response or reaction to your child’s behavior. To view more posts in this category, use the category search menu on the right of your screen. Keep up the good work on your amazing parenting journey!
P.S. Social skills training is just one of the powerful tools I teach in my full Parenting With Psychology courses. To get more of a taste of the psychology-based tools I teach in my full course, check out my free Bootcamps. Find a Bootcamp specific to your child’s age and save your spot today to continue learning your amazing parenting journey.