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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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