Conflict Management for Toddlers
(2021 • 09 • 09)
Conflict management may sound like something you’d cover in a corporate training day, but it’s actually a vital skill for your little one.
Your views, opinions, morals, ideas and needs are constantly differing from those of the people around you. Every day, you engage in some form of conflict - sometimes, you might not even realise it’s happening! Conflict is an important part of daily life so, of course, it’s vital that your little one knows how to get through them unscathed.
What do we mean by ‘conflict’?
For many, the word ‘conflict’ may evoke images of shouting, anger, aggression or even violence. However, while all of these things can occur during a conflict, they are the results of the conflict, rather the thing itself.
When we refer to ‘conflict’ - especially with children - we are instead referring to any disagreement or difference in wants, needs or opinions. For example, a conflict between young children could involve them both wanting to play with the same toy, disagreeing over the meaning of a new word, or wanting to engage in different activities.
Good ‘conflict resolution’ involves calmly finding a compromise or coming to an agreement, rather than resorting to aggression or always allowing others to get what they want, regardless of your own feelings. This is not a natural skill, but something we need to learn and practice.
Should I help my child to avoid conflict?
That really isn’t necessary - or even possible!
Conflict is a natural part of human life, and even an important part of a child’s growth and development.
For one, many conflicts provide learning opportunities. Has your child ever seemed unreasonably upset that you didn’t let them do something dangerous or disgusting? That disagreement may have been upsetting for them, but it also taught them that it’s not OK to throw themselves out of a tree or eat dirt.
These learning opportunities will often, of course, include the development of empathy, learning about social expectations, and understanding fairness and justice. A child may not know that taking their friend’s toy is unkind until that friend gets upset, and conflict arises.
Lastly, engaging in conflict is important for the development of individual autonomy. Having chances to realise that your feelings differ to someone else’s, to express those feelings and come to an understanding are vital for personal growth. In fact, studies have shown that allowing children to resolve conflicts without adult intervention can provide a boost in self confidence.
So will my child learn how to resolve conflicts naturally?
While many children will pick up a number of skills needed to resolve conflicts through the natural course of their education and social development, this is not always the case - we all know someone who’s quick to a fight or bad at standing up for themselves! Instead, actively teaching these skills can lead to a range of important benefits.
For one, a large body of research has proven that good conflict management skills in early life predict better social adjustment, more positive relationships, and even higher academic attainment in later life. Children with these skills are more likely to enjoy good friendships early in life, while those who lack them may even risk social rejection.
Secondly, studies show that the active teaching of conflict resolution strategies will improve the quality of negotiations among children, meaning they are more likely to find positive solutions, and leave happy! In this study, they even found that the overall number of conflicts declined as children learned the new skills.
How do I teach conflict management skills?
I’m glad you asked! Here are a few tips, tricks and activities to try at home:
- Time it right.
You may want to teach your little one how to manage a conflict the moment they enter one. This, however, may not be the right time. When we’re in disagreement with someone, emotions can run wild, and trying to teach your little one new skills at this moment could be difficult, upsetting or even embarrassing. Instead, try talking about conflict when things are a little calmer!
- Define it.
Just as the word ‘conflict’ may have conjured up images of aggression in your mind, the same may be true for your little one. The majority of early conflicts result in screaming and hitting (because young children don’t know any better!), so try explaining to your little one that disagreement is OK and normal, and doesn’t have to result in these negative behaviours.
- Learn about emotions first.
As we’ve already mentioned, conflict can bring up some pretty big emotions, and these can stop us from acting logically or with consideration. Try some activities to help your little one identify big emotions, such as the Emotional Iceberg. Then, work on some techniques they can use to help themselves to calm down, such as taking deep breaths, counting to ten or having a glass of water.
- Use hypothetical situations.
Talking about past conflicts can be upsetting or embarrassing. Try coming up with some hypothetical situations to talk about. You could even roleplay them.
- Try coming up with possible solutions.
Practice makes perfect! Whether your little one is involved in a real conflict, or you’re practicing with some hypothetical ones, try making a list of possible responses. Could you make a compromise? Could you tell the other person they’re stupid? Could you do both activities, but one after the other? Could you smack the toy out of their hand? Could you take turns?
Then, go through and ask your little one how each response would make both themselves and the other person feel, and pick a good one to try out. Remind them that it’s OK to have to try a few different responses before you find the right one! The goal is to make your best effort, not to fix everything.
- Use physical objects.
Small children learn best when they can touch and feel real objects. Studies have shown that having an item associated with conflict resolution skills can help little ones remember them in the heat of the moment. For example, if you have two children, they could have a ring or hoop they both have to hold on to when resolving a disagreement. For only-children, having dolls or teddies involved in hypothetical conversations can help keep the learning grounded in reality.
- Practice using ‘I’ statements.
These are statements such as ‘I felt embarrassed when you did that’, or ‘I felt sad when you took my toy, because I wanted to play with it’. Using statements like these can help us to effectively convey our emotions without (even accidentally) sounding accusatory (e.g. ‘you tried to embarrass me’ or ‘you were mean to me’).
Imaginative play provides the perfect safe space for children to try out their new skills. Together, or with siblings or friends, you can suggest or guide play scenarios involving conflicts. After the play is over, try talking about how the conflict was dealt with by the characters. Was there anything they could have done differently?
- Praise their efforts.
Positive affirmation works a charm! Every time you witness your little one try to resolve a conflict in a positive way - whether it’s real or pretend - remember to give them lots of praise for their efforts, even if things didn’t go their way!
- Give them some space.
Just as important as learning these skills is putting them into practice. If you see your little one getting into an argument, try not to step in and resolve the issue for them. Give them time and space to try and work it out for themselves. If things seem like they’re really going downhill, you could jump in with some gentle suggestions, such as ‘how do you think they feel about that?’
- Be a role model.
Your child is always watching. Whenever you get into a conflict, either with them or another family member, remember to act as you want your little one to. Try to remain calm, use ‘I’ statements, and negotiate possible solutions that benefit both people.
Seeing your little one involved in a conflict - especially if it’s with you - can be very stressful, but we hope the information in this blog will help you and your child to build some positive new skills!
If you have any questions, want to share your stories, or have an Early Years topic you’d like to learn more about, drop us a message via our Instagram! We love hearing from you!
Content Creator at MEplace