We'd been planning a series of articles on talking to 0-5s about their feelings. But the extremely shocking and upsetting invasion of Ukraine made us decide to bring publication forward, and explore the subject of conflict first: both as kids might experience it in the wider world, and on a personal level.
Much as we’d love to, we can’t wrap our children up in cotton wool and stop them experiencing strife, or hearing about it elsewhere. So here’s some guidance for helping your kids express and process feelings about conflict, in an age-appropriate way.
Letting kids express and ‘process’ anger, frustration & sorrow teaches them that uncomfortable experiences are 'safe' & part of life.
No one likes fights, but a set-to with a sibling or friend doesn’t mean the world is ending. Letting kids express and ‘process’ anger, frustration and sorrow teaches them that uncomfortable experiences are 'safe' and part of life. Teaching them some practical skills to manage disputes positively will also be a big help - now and in the future.
The important thing is to respond to fighting in stages:
1. Calm Down
If your child’s majorly upset, you need to take practical steps to help them. Just saying 'calm down' doesn't work when they're literally in a physical state of fight or flight. Instead, encourage them to take deep breaths, sit or lie down somewhere quiet, have a cuddle, drink something cool, stroke a pet, etc. Anything that helps them regain their composure. Then you can talk.
2. Name Their Feelings
It can often be difficult for kids to understand what they’re feeling, especially when they’re very young, but you can help them frame their emotions with a feelings chart, or a game about emotions, or a traffic light illustration. Encourage them to point at the facial expression they identify with, or at the relevant traffic light (red for overwhelmed, yellow for calmer, green for getting-back-to-normal). It helps them get the measure of their emotions and learn that difficult or ‘big’ feelings are only temporary. Once they feel calmer, you can talk about what happened.
3. What’s The Matter?
Again, very young kids might struggle to express the reason they’ve had a fight. But you can help them think about underlying causes (and not just who did what to whom). For example, if they squabbled over a toy with a friend, the problem might be much deeper. Maybe one of them has been spending time with a new buddy and the other feels left out. Try to delve a little and explore other ideas that may surface. But, equally, don’t put pressure on them.
4. Find Solutions
Talk about what could make things better. Maybe think about different options and choose one together. You could role-play a helpful conversation. Encourage them to use neutral ‘I’ statements, like: ‘I felt angry and sad when you scribbled on my book’, rather than: ‘You spoiled my book because you’re really mean!’ Again, when they’re toddlers, they’ll need lots of guidance, but what you’re doing is getting them into the habit of looking for resolution. Sometimes the option you choose doesn’t make everything right again, or straight away. But it’s the fact that you’re trying to find a solution that matters most.
5. Walk The Talk
The very best way to help kids deal with conflict is to set a good example. When you have a run-in of your own, flying off the handle and ranting about it angrily for ages afterwards doesn't help your kids learn good habits of their own! The more they see you stay calm in arguments, express yourself clearly and look for solutions, the more they’ll understand that conflicts can be overcome - and learned from.
When they’re toddlers, they’ll need lots of guidance, but what you’re doing is getting them into the habit of looking for resolution.