"He started it!"
Conflict and conflicting opinions are a part of life, and younger kids may have an exchange similar to the one above. When my older daughter was preteen, I used to get an eye roll every time (or at least it felt like every time) I would say something that she didn’t agree with. Now, when we have a difference of opinion, we both stop, take a breath, and start over.
Children and teens have an acute sense of social fairness or justice, and because their brains are still developing or hormones are in flux, they often have intense emotional reactions to any exchange they feel is hurtful or unfair. I’m currently teaching a series of mindfulness classes to kids aged 6 to 15, and I’ve been describing their brain function as follows:
We have the smart "thinking" part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, and the "alarm" part of the brain, the amygdala, and both parts are important for our well-being and success. But if the alarm part takes over all the time, trying to keep us safe from perceived threats, we are going to be exhausted and stressed. It’s when both parts of the brain are working in synch that we are at our best.
Conflict resolution happens when both sides of an issue or argument recognize, accept and objectively understand the situation, allow the conflict to be just as it is – a part of life, and when we investigate our inner experience with kindness, and use mindful techniques to calm down the reactive mind. Mindfulness for kids and teens similarly works from the inside out, with the knowledge that we all have the innate capacity for empathy and kindness -- a premise that research now supports.
Providing the important skill of resolving conflicts mindfully to our children's "social-emotional tool box" is setting them up for life-long successful communication. Teaching mindful communication and conflict resolution to kids and teens can have profound effects on their relationships – in the family, at school, and eventually at work and in partnerships – and can result in improved self-confidence for the rest of their lives.
What can we do to help our kids learn the skills of mindful conflict-resolution?
Here are seven steps to try the next time a squabble breaks out at home or school.
1) Help them to calm down
When it's time to intervene, once you’ve taken 3 deep breaths, give children a chance to take a breather by asking them what they need to do to calm down. For example, do they want to
- walk away and take a break for a few minutes
- count to 10
- write down or draw how you feel
What this does: It allows time for a wise response rather than a reaction which stems from hurt coming out looking like anger.
2) Allow: It's ok, we all disagree sometimes
We can help them to accept the situation and honour their feelings about it. And then to "let it go" and "let it be."
What this does: Allows our children to know that people disagree, and helps them not to catastrophize the situation.
3) Describe the problem
Asking "How did this happen?" helps them talk about the conflict and describe how they’re feeling. It’s important to encourage them to use "I" statements and take responsibility for their part in the upset. For example, "I felt left out and mad because he wouldn’t let me have the ball, so I took his bat."
What this does: Kids and adults need to talk about what happened; keeping it inside is never a good idea; life happens, disagreements happen, conflict happens, the idea is to allow our kids an opportunity to talk it out, so they don’t carry it with them.
4) Recognize the emotions: They are very real
After they have a chance for a quiet focus on breathing and body/emotion awareness, we can encourage both sides to "be friendly with yourself" as they begin to recognize what is happening within their minds and bodies. We can even suggest self-awareness questions like, "What am I feeling right now?" And "What could I have said or done to make it better?"
What this does: "How or what would you have done differently?" is an important question. It allows for growth in children's life skills.
5) Sorry is not easy: Learning to apologize
Now that we know "how this happened," a good apology will communicate regret, responsibility, and, if possible, a win-win fix.
Apologizing for a mistake is difficult, but it helps us repair and improve our relationships. For kids and teens, it is never too early to learn how to make a good apology.
Here's a great list of what makes an apology "work." We can teach kids to:
- Use the words, "I'm sorry"
- Say exactly how they messed up (as in, "I called you names and that hurt you.")
- Tell the other kid how they'll fix the situation
- Next time something like this happens, I will ……
- Ask for forgiveness
And we can help them to avoid bad apologies by learning to recognize when they are:
- Using justifying words or behavior
- Blaming the victim ("Yeah, but you did…")
- Making excuses
- Minimizing the consequences. ("Just kidding!")
- Not acknowledging the other's hurt ("You're exaggerating" or "You're lying")
6) Continue mindfully to look for a solution
Empower kids and teens to find their own solutions to their conflict by encouraging them to listen carefully and repeat what they hear the other child say. It’s best if they speak to each other (not you) and that they understand the importance of honesty and kindness.
7) Follow up (and debrief)
Follow up to see how they are getting along and if the solution they came up with is working for them. Even if the kids appear to need a break from one another, make sure they understand that they need to speak to each other in a kind and respectful way.
Mindfulness classes for parents, teachers, and kids in Vancouver
Learn mindfulness skills in our Vancouver mindfulness classes, workshops, and personal coaching sessions. Check out our current mindfulness events. To arrange mindfulness classes for your school or group, contact Shahin.