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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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