Play Right: Conflict Resolution for Kids

From playground quarrels to first crushes, kids are no strangers to conflict. However, because kids tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, it's easy for feelings to get hurt when conflict arises.

Because of this, it's critical for kids to learn the basics of conflict resolution from a young age. When we react with empathy, we can solve problems together as a team, preserve friendships, and get back to having fun. 

Here are five easy conflict resolution skills for kids: 

  1. The 10-second countdown. 

    In the middle of a conflict, it can feel like things are moving so fast that no one has time to think. A good conflict resolution skill for kids to pick up is counting down from ten before they speak. Instead of blurting out something hurtful or aggressive--the product of feeling confused or overwhelmed--that ten-second cooldown gives kids time to take a step back from the situation and find the right way to respond.

    It's important to practice skills like this when kids are calm, not just when they're upset. Practice helps kids remember the procedure in the middle of a high-pressure situation. 
  2. "I feel" statements. 

    One of the hardest things to do in the middle of a conflict--especially if it's with a friend or a loved one--is to express how you're feeling without immediately blaming the other person. Playing the blame game only leads to escalations in conflict, which is why it's so important for kids to have practice discussing their feelings. Practice coming up with "I feel" statements with your kids: things like, "I feel frustrated when I have to do my chores," or "I feel left out when my sister tells me I can't play with her friends."

    From there, you can develop helpful conflict-resolution themes using a simple, easy-to-remember template, like, "I feel _____ because _____ and I want ____." Statements might include "I feel hurt because my best friend raised her voice at me, and I want her to apologize," or "I feel angry because he took the toy I was playing with, and I want him to give it back."

    Addressing why kids are upset, as well as solutions they see that could fix the problem, can help kids communicate during a conflict without turning to name-calling and tears. 

  3. The "Stoplight" method. 

    This is another conflict-resolution method that teaches calm and collected thought before jumping into a disagreement. Start by having your child imagine a stoplight with red, yellow, and green lights. This stoplight acts as a guide for calming down and thinking toward the next logical step.

    While the red light is on, it's time to take a few deep breaths and think of something that makes your child feel calm, like a favorite toy or lullaby. When the light changes to yellow, it's time to think about the problem. Does he need help from an adult or can he handle it on his own? Are there any obvious strategies to solve the problem? What are three ways this problem could be solved? Then, when the light changes to green, it's time to take action. Choose a strategy and put it into action: find an adult to ask for help, figure out a compromise, or walk away from the situation altogether.

    Like the ten-second countdown, it helps to practice the Stoplight method when you're calm as well as when you're upset. Getting a little perspective on a conflict--as well as taking the time to make a plan of action--can help resolve it easily. 
  4. Communication through apology.

    We can always tell when someone doesn't "mean" an apology. A true, genuine apology communicates not just chagrin or remorse, but hope toward finding a resolution. To that end, it's important kids learn how to apologize--not just to say "I'm sorry," but how to craft an apology that truly communicates a road forward from the conflict. 

    A good method to practice with apologies is the three R's: regret, responsibility, and remedy. Apologizing with regret shows that we actually care that we hurt someone, or that a conflict kept us from getting along. When we take responsibility for our actions, we acknowledge that we probably could have acted better in a situation, and make a promise to do better in the future. And when we offer a remedy, we show that we want to move past the conflict and get back to having fun again. 

    A solid "three R's" apology might sound like this: "I'm sorry that I hit you when you took my toy -- I'm sorry that I hurt you. I was upset because I wasn't done playing with it, and I acted out. I'd like to share the toy and play together from now on." This apology shows regret for the action (hitting), responsibility (for getting upset and acting out), and a possible remedy (sharing the toy). What's important here is teaching kids that an empty "I'm sorry" doesn't help to resolve a conflict: a true apology starts a conversation, one that gives everyone an equal chance to speak and be heard. 

  5. Physical problem-solving tools. 

    Many kids are visual or physical learners. You can appeal to their creativity by working together to make physical problem-solving tools, objects they can turn to and use productively to resolve conflicts with their siblings or classmates. 

    For example, you can work together to brainstorm, create, and decorate a "Resolution Wheel." Mark eight sections of a wheel with different ways you can de-escalate a conflict (things like, "take a few deep breaths," "ask an adult for help," "write down what I'm feeling"). Once it's decorated and colored, attach a spinner in the center. Whenever a conflict arises, have your child spin the wheel to decide how best to resolve it. 

    Another physical problem-solving tool could be "Problem Solving Box." Pick a holder like a mason jar or shoebox and decorate it. Then, brainstorm as many problem-solving ideas as you can with your child. Write each one on something small but sturdy--popsicle sticks, note cards, bookmarks, or even rocks. The next time your child faces a conflict with a friend or sibling, have them look through your collection for an idea on how to fix the problem. 

Conflict resolution for kids is much the same as it is for adults--often, the hardest part is getting started. Once all those emotions are out in the open air, it becomes much easier to focus on the real root of a problem instead of calling each other names or turning to violence. 

Kids are some of the most creative problem-solvers out there. By teaching conflict resolution skills from a young age, you can set your children up for success in the classroom, on the playground, and in interpersonal relationships for the rest of their lives.