Through days 9 and 10 of the RIE foundations course we examined the ins and outs of conflict. It was both a challenging and moving lesson for me to hear that how we feel about conflict and our experiences with it, are going to have a bearing on what we do in managing children in their conflict.
It was interesting to hear our facilitator, Deborah Carlisle Solomon explain that conflict is an important factor in children building strong relationships with siblings, peers and other loved ones, as long as it is done with emotional and sometimes physical support from the parents or care givers.
She explained that conflict is not something which needs to be feared. Often, our own emotions and feelings about conflict and confrontation influences us to try to pacify or even prevent conflict as much as possible.
But really, for children, conflict, is a chance to become more aware of oneself and the other person; it is a chance to test out the relationship and take it to a new depth of understanding. Time and again, my children engage in conflict with each other and I have seen first hand that, giving them the chance to work through their struggles and engage with each other in such a raw, open and honest way has brought them closer.
There is never a time when, having been trusted to work through their conflict, my children hang on to their hard feelings towards each other in that moment. In fact, the opposite is always true. within just a short time, they are running off together, ready to embark on a new adventure.
The same can be said of conflict between my children and myself. It can be hard for me to set a limit or make a decision that I know will cause an upset with my children. It would be much easier (on me) if I could find a way around and keep the peace but it would also be doing my children a huge disservice not to set those boundaries for them and allow them to experience conflict with me.
When they have their feelings about something they do not like and I hold space for them to express their dissatisfaction about it, it shows them that our love for each other can endure in spite of these storms; that it’s okay if we are not always joyful and laughing with each other, our relationship can weather that.
There are so many different ways for children to experience conflict. Our job as parents is to be an emotional and physical support for children to work through these experiences. Before rushing in to help children in conflict, it is important to practice pausing a moment, reflecting on the situation and respecting a child’s competence before responding if necessary or as Magda Gerber used to say, “Wait and then wait a little while longer before intervening.” For it is in these astute moments of observation we empower children with the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities and feel that within themselves.
When we slow down and accept more, we will often find that children take conflict in their stride.
Of course, there will be times when it is necessary to be close and support children through these conflicts. We learned in class that while It is important for children to feel an emotional security from their caregivers, it is beneficial to avoid altering the course of action. Rather, letting conflict play out until the end, whichever way the children get there, is helpful for children learning about themselves, their limits and the limits of others.
Here are just a few examples of the types of conflicts we discussed in class today and the best way to support children through them so that they have that opportunity to learn about themselves and strengthen their relationship with others.
If children are struggling over a particular toy in a tug-o-war, the first thing to do would be to observe. Depending on the situation, you may move closer at this point but in doing this it is important not be presumptuous or bring tension into the mix. Remember, conflict is healthy.
If it goes on for a little while and one or both is getting upset then acknowledge: “You are both pulling on the bucket.” If more upset happens, it might be necessary to get really close and down on their level to act as an emotional support for the children.
Again, at this point you could observe and decide if they need a little more narration. Clues that they need a little more than just physical presence include the children looking to you as they struggle, a significant escalation in their voices or the struggle becoming prolonged. If you feel like you need to add more you could further narrate: “You’re both really pulling on that bucket. You both want it. It’s so hard.” If it continues, it might be necessary to simply place a hand on the bucket (just resting it there, not actually pulling it away) or even an arm around the backs of the children to provide physical support in case one lets go.
And then, wait and observe.
If a child is skilled enough to pull on something and take a swipe or even just take a swipe without an initial struggle, hopefully we are close enough to block. Often, when we have a relationship with a child, we know the likelihood of this happening and can be ready to prevent it.
It may even be necessary to have a hand out between the children just in case. The hand is simply there to block the connection of the swipe. It is best to place the blocking hand close to the child who is likely to be hit.
At the first attempt at hitting, you can say “I don’t want you to hit.”
At the next attempt, “I won’t let you hit.”
From then, it is a matter of following through on that and NOT letting them hit; putting that barrier in place and showing them you are holding the limit.
There is no need to continue telling the child you won’t let them hit. They should know that from your position. There is also no need to panic about this situation or bring any projected emotion into it. Trust children to play it out in their own time and their own way by providing the safe space for them to do so.
Missing the hit
If you miss the hit (which we often do) move very close and offer support but say little. “You’re both upset. I see that.” And then be there to block the next hit (if that seems likely) using the same format as in the above example.
In all of the above examples, it’s not enough to simply say the words. We need to convey empathy, confidence and a taking-it-in-our-stride attitude in our face, tone and body language. Children are very adept at reading all of these things and sometimes the words themselves hold less impact than the way we hold ourselves and how we speak them. Janet Lansbury has some brilliant podcasts that demonstrate tone that is hard for me to convey in writing.
Conflict can be disconcerting for many of us but when we accept it as a healthy socio-emotional development for all children to go through, it becomes easier to be more accepting and relinquish control. It might help to think of conflict as a gift we can give to our children; a gift that will strengthen their relationships with their siblings, peers, parents and those around them.