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Solving conflicts between children and adolescents

Suddenly screams are coming out of the kid’s room or a child comes, crying, running to you. This or similar situations are often hard and difficult to handle for parents. When our kids fight, we are caught in the middle. In reality, we have nothing to do with the fight. Yet, most parents use a few simple strategies to quickly end every conflict between the siblings. They think the conflict has to be solved right here and right now! They shout, criticize, separate the children or speak a word of power. That’s all well, simple and fast, yet it resolves little to nothing. Neither have the children learned anything nor have they forgotten about the dispute. The next time around, maybe already within a few minutes, the quarrel starts all over again. No matter what it is about, children fight and that's a good thing. In those disputes, children demonstrate their power, prove their social status in the group and make ownership claims. They do that over and over again and also do it with high intensity. It is essential that children are allowed to engage in “fights” like that. What they are doing is learning how to deal with boundaries and other conflict situations. An experience no child should miss.

Disputes are important experiences for children

If children quarrel, are loud and give their emotions run free, this should not automatically be considered harmful nor should it be interrupted. Of course, this should only be tolerated to a certain degree. In most cases, there is no adverse intention on behalf of the children. Many adults assume they are doing what they are doing to hurt one another not just sorting our different points of view. More often than not it is also not about the toy in question. What they are dealing with are much simpler things, more fundamental issues. Who is on top (leader), who has to submit to who, who can own or do what. If children are not allowed to clarify those basic issues independently, part of their development will be massively disrupted by interfering parents, teacher and other people.

The parents’ motto should be to wait and see if the kids are able to solve the conflict themselves, even this may take some time. No matter if they say things in anger, throw mean things at each other or scream. The question is not how children fight but whether they are able to find solutions independently. Interestingly, it is often the socially active children who quarrel frequently. That gives them experience and a greater repertoire to respond to any particular situation later on in life. Worse than fighting are children who never fight. Those are those young people and later adults which have great difficulties dealing with conflict situations. Ideally, children should be given the freedom to quarrel without adult intervention. However, should the situation indeed get out of hand, the adult still can intervene cautiously.

Intervention – Yes, but please with caution

Sometimes, of course, quarrels get out of hand and verbal assaults are followed by a physical assault. In this scenario, of course, adult intervention would be appropriate and help solving the problem. However, it would not be suitable for the parents to take over control entirely and just rebuke and yell at the children. In this situation, it is important to be thoughtful. The most important thing of all is to remain neutral. Every child expects from his own parents that they are on his side and if they do not, then the next argument is already pre-programmed. If you can maintain neutrality, you are teaching your children justice and fairness. However, only a few parents behave that way most respond to a different agenda.

Most parents are not looking for the best possible solution to the dispute, but rather looking for their own peace. This means they are fulfilling their very own needs of peace and harmony while the children are perceived of interrupting this need. No longer is it about resolving the conflict but to satisfy their own requirements. This means, parents get their break, but the conflict still remains. Before you step in, even if it is hard sometimes, take a deep breath and only intervene if there is no other way out. Even as a mediator it is not appropriate to seize the power of decision making. However, if it was that way, what would children have learnt about how to resolve a conflict? – Disputes do not need solving which is not a good way to get through life. It is more desirable to teach children how to resolve the conflict.

How to resolve a conflict

An argument between two children is best settled when both kids are given the opportunity to take turns speaking up. The adult remains a neutral “middleman” and stays with the children as long as it takes to come up with a solution. This is the only way for children to learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Even better is to prepare children how to argue correctly and how to find compromises. That is not only good for the children, it also gives parents a more hassle-free existence. Simple and logical rules will lead children to do exactly that. The most important issue thereby is, that parents stick to the rules themselves.

Whether you quarrelling with the kids, your partner or anyone else: Children learn from the parent’s role model. If the parents don’t play by the rules, why should they children? It is also important to explain the rules over and over again until they become the child’s second nature. You need to make sure that children not just blindly follow the rules but understand them and the underlying reasons for each rule. When children have the right reasons, they will do almost anything voluntary and without reminding.

Here are the three most important rules for children who argue:

Rule number 1:

Disputes are always only verbal and no physical force is ever used. This means no hitting, shoving, scratching, throwing things and above all no biting. You can take up this occasion to teach your child about the consequences of violent acts. – Do you remember how much it hurt, the last time somebody hit (threw something at) you? Do you remember how badly so and so cried after she was hit?

Rule number 2:

Disputes are always solved one by one. Never is a child to be singled out from a group. This is prohibited under any circumstances and must be unmistakably clear to the children. You can intensify that with previous examples or even through role play.

Rule number 3:

After the conflict is solved, you need to make peace with the other party. The issue here is, that it does not matter who wins or loses the battle. The issue is to find acceptable solutions. More often than not children are quite capable of finding this common ground all themselves. However, should that not be able there is another solution which works particularly well for small children: if they can’t agree on anything put them together in one room. Soon they will find a solution.

Conclusion - Arguing yes, but do it the right way

In general it is important to let kids know that conflicts are a normal part of life. However, never should anybody resort to physical violence. Likewise it is not on, singling out a person and then “attack” them as a group. The situation has to be resolved completely, mutually acceptable compromises have to be found and peace has to be restored. For parents, it is important to remember, to intervene as little as possible. However, in the rare case that children are not able to solve the conflict by themselves, for example, if they get physical, then, above all, you need to remain in a neutral position. Conflicts are basically ok as they help us to find our place in the social setting. Therefore, it is important to give children the opportunity to fight their own battles and likewise find their own independent solutions.

Conflicting children or young people in the youth group

Needless to say, the youth group or the holiday camp is not free of conflict either. It is part of everyday life here as well. Personally I have not experienced any kind of youth work where there is not at least one conflict, argument or disagreement between the young people. I think this is normal and almost a must. As long as the matter does not degenerate into a physical confrontation there is no real reason to intervene. What I usually did was to observe and trying to understand both sides of the conflict; then find the reason, the trigger for the conflict. Then you can step in as a mediator and try to find, through conversations, to solve the conflict. Different views can be exchanged, maybe even reflected on the initial conflict. How little it actually took to escalate into such a quarrel.

It would not be the first time that I experienced fighting children, which afterwards are the best of friends. Here the youth leader has a significant role to fulfil, in terms of observing, meditating, reflecting the trigger and the trivia of most disagreements. The reasons and the background of conflicts are not always apparent. It’s often the little things which eventually lead to a conflict, even a meltdown. It might be that one party felt disadvantaged, less valued while the other party did not get what they expected. It is also not uncommon that the problem is not really the other person but the own emotions. This is not always recognizable for children. Even for teenagers this is still a hard task. However, it is within the power of the youth worker to shed light on the perspectives and causes in an appropriate conversation.

Any dispute leaves visible simmering problems within a youth group (or a school class). These problems offer the chance now to discover, analyse and discuss it the situation together.

If we succeed in solving conflicts through conversations, then all parties have learned a lot. Conflicts are part of growing up and not only that, they are part of life. If children are not allowed to fight out their arguments and disputes, how are they supposed to learn how to settle them?

However: Looking at all the wars, conflicts and quarrels within the world and in many families, children indeed do not have proper role, models.

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