A Proven Way for Kids and Teens (and Adults) to Deal With Conflict

A Proven Way for Kids and Teens (and Adults) to Deal With Conflict

Growing up comes with plenty of intense emotion – sometimes good, sometimes not so good. The emotional exchanges that come with the territory provide important opportunities for kids and teens to learn and experiment with ways to relate to the world. 

One of the ways life seems particularly intent on teaching its lessons is through relationships. We want our kids and teens to develop their own curious, independent minds and to find their independence. It’s all part of the healthy transition into adulthood. With this healthy transition comes conflict – healthy doesn’t necessarily mean easy. As with anything difficult though, the opportunities to grow, learn and flourish come as part of the package.

Stopping the triggers for arguments can be difficult – we don’t always see them coming. There is, however, a way to lessen the fallout and teach a valuable skill that will hold kids and teens strong in their relationships and their life moving forward.

The skill is called ‘stepping back’ and involves mentally stepping back from your own point of view and looking at the situation as an observer, rather than as a participant. Research has shown that it’s an effective way to deal with negative emotion and conflict.

The Research.

In a recent study, researchers asked 226 participants aged 11-20 to recall a recent situation that upset them (such as an argument). The degree to which participants had ‘stepped back’ was assessed by asking, ‘When you saw the fight again in your imagination a few minutes ago, how much did you feel like you were seeing it through your own eyes versus watching the fight happen from a distance (like watching yourself in a movie)?’, and ‘When you saw the fight again in your imagination a few moments ago, how far away from the fight did you feel?’

Those who were able to step back from the experience when they reflected on it experienced less emotional distress than those who didn’t. Those who stepped back:

  • thought about the experience differently,
  • were able to reflect about the situation in such a way as to gain meaning and insight;
  • were less likely to replay the situation over and over in their minds (rumination – thinking about things over and over has been found to be a risk factor for depression);
  • were less likely to blame the other person.

Mentally stepping back from an upsetting situation is a healthy, adaptive way to deal with arguments and conflict. The power of this strategy increases with age. The older someone is, the more effective the stepping back is in diluting high emotion.

Previous studies have shown that children as young as the fifth grade are able to effectively use self-distancing strategies to control their emotions.

Stepping Back. It’s like this …

Imagine you have your face pressed up to glass. It’s cold, hard and clear and you’re squeezed so tightly against it that you can’t see anything else. You know that somebody else is looking at the same thing as you but they aren’t describing what you’re experiencing. Like you, they’re using words like ‘cold’ and ‘hard’, but they’re also describing it as ‘yellow’ and ‘metallic’. As in ‘not glass’.

Tempers get flared because neither of you can understand why the other is doing this. Clearly (according to you) this thing you’re pressed up against is glass. It’s clear and see-through and seriously, how can anyone think otherwise. According to the other person though, you’re missing something because clearly what you’re both looking at is yellow metal. Hard, yes. Cold, yes. Clear, no. Glass, definitely not. You roll your eyes and wonder about the sanity of the fool who could possibly confuse clear glass with yellow metal. Or maybe this other someone is just being difficult and spoiling for a fight.

Then you both take a step back. Maybe two steps back. Ahhh, now you get it. You were both squeezed up against the same yellow car – but you were seeing it from different perspectives. Because you were both so close up, there was no way to see the big picture and each other’s point of view was lost.

All conflict is like this.

Stepping Back – How do I do it?

Stepping back can be hard to do in the heat of battle. In the midst of intense emotion, there’s a strong tendency to believe, with gladiatorial heart, that we are right and that others misunderstand, are mistaken or are straight out wrong.

Timing is important. Asking anyone to step back when the battle is volcanic probably won’t work so well. Try this instead:

  1. Let the other person know that you want to keep talking but that you want to take some space to pull your thoughts together so you can talk about it and hear each other more effectively. It’s important to let them know you’re coming back and not just walking away. 
  2. When you are able, come back together. Begin with something like this, ‘Can we try something? I think both of us are a bit right about this, and maybe both a bit wrong, but I want to understand things better from your side. I’d also like to see if you can see things a bit clearer from my side. Can we think about what’s just happened as though it’s a movie? Can we take a step back and think about it as though we’re watching it as it happens and not acting in it?’
  3. Next, be the one to lead the conversation about what you’ve learnt from doing this. Be vulnerable and open and you’ll invite the same. Talk about what you saw happening for both of you in the situation when you watched it from a distance. What new meaning did you discover? Did you come to any awareness about the intentions, experience or feelings of the other person? About your impact? About the way you both might see the situation differently? About the the things you didn’t see as clearly before? How do you understand the experience from the other person’s point of view?

The establishment of independence from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood, often brings conflict – it’s completely normal. As the adults in their lives who love them, this conflict can be difficult to understand and even more difficult to be on the other side of – breathtakingly so. It’s an important part of growing up though and brings with it the potential for insight and wisdom about how to relate to the world effectively. It’s all part of them shaping themselves gently towards adulthood, with independent minds and healthy relationships built largely from what they’ve learnt from you along the way. When they get there – which they will – it will be worth it.

10 Comments

Jade

This is a neat perspective. I usually use the word “empathy” in situations like this, but I really like that you used the phrase “stepping back.”

It’s not always easy to know what empathy “looks like” in practice. So, this is a great visual cue. I’ll definitely try to use that language more.

Reply
Amanda Ricks

The whole concept of “stepping back” is a wonderful tool I think that could and should be applied to all ages and all conflicts and discussions. So often in our desperate effort to make sure that we’re being heard we fail to see the whole picture and the other person’s position.

Reply
Jay Dewey

Private schools have begun to discuss, even practice, the teaching of leadership skills in school. Have you any opinions on this, any guidelines for schools and/or teachers, what about parents?

Reply

Great article….I have been talking to my local school district about incorporating lessons as such in their curriculum but I’ve been told it’s the parents job to teach this. In today’s world where we have “snowplow” parents it is becoming more difficult to teach life long lessons that will give our children more coping skills and emotion management.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thank you! I so agree that it would be great if this could be taught in school. I know teachers already have such a massive job to do but I think it could make such a difference. You can be the best parent in the world but there’ll be times when kids will hear things differently (and more readily) from someone else. Takes a village!

Reply
Krista

This is an excellent article. I am glad to find such useful, thoughtful articles on your email newsletter. I hope working some of the suggestions on how to step back into our daily conflicts will enhance some of what we’re already practicing in our busy household.
Thanks

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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