Children and Conflict
Conflict is a part of life: the ways in which we react to it, respond to it and resolve it will shape our character forever. Sometimes we feel we have grown personally from resolving difficult struggles. At other times we feel that we’ve failed. In either case, we do best if we manage to understand what’s happened and move on.
Conflicts with others may arise from strong opposing views, differences of opinion or an absolute collision of wills. I’m sure we can all think of instances here. Once, when I was about 12, I declared that I was either going to wear a particular pair of pants or not go out with my family. After firmly and lovingly trying to help me see her viewpoint, Mom gave up and said, “Fine. Stay home”.
My thrill at victory ceded quickly to disappointment as I realized what I would miss. I stuck to my guns anyway, like any self-respecting adolescent, and stayed home. When everyone returned, Mom and I had a long heart-to-heart about appropriate clothing choices. This resolution brought us closer, cleared the air, set limits we both could live with, and set the stage for (the usual) conflicts to come.
In sum, conflict resolution takes place when all parties join in the process of finding a new course of action, probably through compromise, acceptance, forgiveness, increased independence, increased closeness, or clearer insight. Although the process may be difficult or painful, it is unavoidable. Nevertheless, any given lesson may not be fully assimilated in a day, a month or a even year.
Nannies and parents form the front line in this lifelong process of coping. We figure closely in sibling rivalries, issues of sharing and the general shape of household rules. For instance, when older children choose friends inappropriately, recklessly challenge authority, or overreact it falls to us to intervene. Our strategies here make all the difference. The two responses that I find myself most often relying on are:
1. Clear and immediate: physical danger is obvious (Alec sets up to throw a toy car, aiming directly at his sister). But routine challenges to authority and refusal to follow important household rules come to mind as well because there, too, safety may figure. For example, our rules about playing at the rope swing are designed to preserve the fun while protecting all.
2. Patient and objective: given a chance and the knowledge that adults are standing by as observers, children may find their own ways to resolve conflict. We remain as confidants. The following examples may help here.
Three different Children, 3 Different Approaches
Eight year old Alec, energetic and confident, often surprises me with his ability to handle the social difficulties of second grade. He can shrug off most teasing, avoid little spats and brave the taunts of his peers in order, for instance, to sit with his best friend, a girl, on the school bus. Nevertheless, Alec needs lots of guidance in dealing with his sisters, one younger and one older. They can be his best friends or his bitter enemies.
Objectivity on the home front seems to be beyond Alec’s grasp. His parents and I find ourselves committed to providing plenty of consistent guidance and a safe place to share – often to vent – his feelings.
Five year old Marissa, on the other hand, like most kindergartners, openly accepts her peers and gets along with all of them. She is naturally sensitive to disharmony. At home, however, she knows just the kind of bait to dangle before her siblings to lead them over the edge. This is her normal tactic when they have made her feel left out.
While Melissa dislikes conflict, it’s hard for her to put her thoughts and feelings into words. We find ourselves needing to help her choose appropriate responses and verbalize her feelings.
And finally, Cassie, at eleven and entering adolescence, finds herself in a brand new universe of conflict. She explores her options by taking firm stands on many issues. Verbally adroit, she argues like a lawyer. “Let me see if I understand your position correctly,” she may insert. Or, “Have you considered the possibility that….”
Cassie thrills at lively debate but is not sure about resolution. Compromise and forgiveness struggle to find their place in her vocabulary. We find that we have to stay very cool to avoid being caught up in defending our own, adult positions.
Thus each child is different and each poses a challenge to us, the child’s [foreign phrase – ITAL]de facto tour guides. If we want children to adapt to many situations, we must first adapt ourselves. They need more than our guidance, they need us as role models, showing respect for others and for ourselves, finding tools to bring positive outcomes, and accepting our own actions.
Conflict resolution at its best is win-win. Knowing that adults close to them are available to guide and support their childlike efforts, children can develop the tools and resources they need to grow responsibly. Hard lessons now can make for competent, confident adults in the future.