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

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

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
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
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
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.

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
.
But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
.
We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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