Almost on a daily basis, in our clinical practice we meet parents who are helped in bringing up their children by their own parents. We also meet children who share their experience, play and activities with their grandparents. We should bear in mind that most children experience their first relationships and connections in their families with their primary carers or persons who take care of them. Such experience is very important because the child transfers it to his/her future experience in adolescence and adulthood. Thus parents transfer their own parents' experience into their relationship with their children.
Many families believe that harmony at any price is better than conflict, but conflict is an integral part of daily life and children need to learn how to deal with it. Children balance their own strengths in conflict and competition and they learn to evaluate themselves and others, try to win and ensure a better position within their families and among their peers.
Conflict as important experience
In a conflict with other children or siblings, the child defends his/her position or clearly expresses an attitude. Conflict is important experience where children learn to express their own needs and wishes and skills of persuasion, to find their place in a group, but at the same time they learn to understand others’ attitudes, and even how to lose and when to retreat. Children have a strong feeling for what is right and tend to respond rapturously to injustice and deprivation.
Conflict often evolves from the child’s response to a permission or prohibition to do something. In such situations a quarrel can break out in seconds, but with an explanation of rules of behaviour it can be duly prevented.
Learning about the boundaries in conflicts
Conflict always needs two parties. When children quarrel, physical confrontations are also possible, as is a possibility that some of the children break something. It is essential that children understand that a possibility of conflict exists, but that not all behaviours are allowed. It is also important that adults set clear boundaries about what is absolutely forbidden in a conflict, that primarily being physical confrontation and breaking things. If such situations arise in conflict, children should take responsibility for the situation so that they bear the consequences of their behaviour, and if something is broken, they should participate in fixing the damage.
The role of adults in conflicts among children
Conflicted children often ask adults to intervene in their dispute. In such situations an adult is only a person who facilitates, but does not make decisions. It is important to let every child tell his/her perspective and reasons for the conflict and that others listen and do not interrupt. It suffices that the adult, having heard how the child sees the situation, asks: “And what now?” The very listening to the other often reduces tension and opens possibilities for better solutions. Adults may also encourage the child to put forward suggestions and thus help disputed children to find a solution together.
Disputed children may be quite persistent in their attempts to prove their opponent that they are right, which can be fairly irritating for adults. It is important that the adult does not “lose his/her nerve”. They should calmly and decidedly separate the children for some time and give them an opportunity to calm down and then return to playing together again.
Developing alternative ways of dispute resolution
Family atmosphere where family members regularly and openly talk about problems and where it is allowed to express feelings including anger some family members feel at other family members can prevent some future disputes. It is important that the child knows s/he has the right to be angry at mum, dad and siblings. Talking about problems in the family contributes to understanding oneself and others and helps the child in developing alternative ways of response and conflict resolutions. It is necessary to talk with children about disagreements.
It is important to teach children to talk about things and situations in which they do not feel comfortable and which they do not like. Many children are incapable of expressing their anger or dissatisfaction, but we can see that something goes wrong observing their behaviour. It is important for the child to understand his/her own dissatisfaction and anger in order to learn how to express them in an acceptable way. Furthermore, it is important that the child learns how to recognise emotions like anger in others in order to develop sensitivity and recognition of others’ feelings, especially anger and dissatisfaction and take a distance so s/he can avoid situations which may lead to a conflict. Parents together with their children can observe others and how they behave and thus help the child in learning how to recognise his/her and others’ anger.
We need to emphasise that parents’ behaviour gives example to their children. If a parent in dispute hurts others and loses self-control, s/he teaches the child the same behaviour. A parent who expresses attitudes and arguments clearly and at the same time expresses and acknowledges his/her own feelings without aggression and without humiliating the other party, teaches the child that conflict can be a healthy part of life. If, nevertheless, emotions prevail, it is important to apologise for one’s own behaviour and thus teach the child that after a conflict, there is a reconciliation and mutual agreement.
Written by: Dr. Renata Zdenković, psychiatrist