“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”- Theodore I. Rubin

You may have heard the terms “conflict resolution” and “problem-solving” thrown around in the adult world, but when it comes to disputes between children, adults sometimes believe that the goal is either to prevent problems, or to “let them work it out themselves.” Adults refer to “siblings squabbling” or kids “having a hard time sharing” but it is assumed that with maturity these minor issues will resolve themselves. Not so! First of all, no matter how unimportant the argument may seem to a grownup, it might be huge for the child. Also, the qualities of flexibility and generosity are like muscles that can be strengthened. If a child already has these mastered (some temperaments are naturally easygoing and empathetic, or maybe they have a strong sibling at home), that person might need to flex the muscle of confidently standing up for him or herself in the face of a more strong-willed, persuasive peer!

There are ways to avoid unnecessary conflicts, such as having more than one of an especially compelling item, or remembering to give each child positive attention before troubles begin. However, the more people get to practice solving problems, the more they will be able to effortlessly move through difficulties because they will easily be able to “see” solutions. And the best part is, you don’t have to know what to do, they will figure it out! This takes pressure off of the adults to “fix” anything, and the child’s budding independence takes away some of the charge around getting negative attention for the having of problems, focusing instead on how capable children can be in handling the situations they’ve created for themselves.

Consider using a Problem-Solving Chart. It can be the size of a regular piece of paper. At school we have several, laminated and velcroed around the room to be grabbed whenever needed (running to go get it dispels some nervous energy as an added benefit). The chart has simple stick figure pictures with the steps to solving a problem, and is read aloud by the adult when children are too young to read it. Eventually they will have internalized the process. If one child is a toddler or has limited language, the adult may have to be that child’s voice at first.

Our steps are:

  1. Get Together
  2. Take Turns Talking and Listening
  3. What Will Help?
  4. Decide What Works
  5. Do it!

The fact that you’ve already completed step 1, Get Together, before anyone has said anything, is a relief. Step 2 is where the most help is needed in the beginning, to make sure they are not talking over one another in an effort to persuade you or the other child of the “rightness” of their position. Direct them to look at and tell each other, not you, about the problem. Let them know that you are not going to solve it. Your job can be to restate what they said (“So, you feel like you should have it because you were using it and dropped it by mistake?”), and to be a sympathetic ear for both sides (“Oh, that IS upsetting when that happens. I wonder what your friend/brother/sister was thinking? Let’s find out.”). And it’s okay to sit for a moment with the problem and its resulting feelings before moving to the next step. Step 3 is Brainstorming, Step 4 is Choosing, Step 5 is Trying It Out. As the children get older, they will want to do this themselves, without you or the chart, but this provides structure until habit takes over.

What are some other points to consider? You don’t have to do all of these things! These hints are just to fine-tune your skills, or answer questions.

  • “Oh, great! A problem to solve!” I mean it, this is a good thing. Can you imagine saying that earnestly? Children can read our emotions no matter what we say. So, if we are feeling annoyed about kids arguing or fighting, they will know that we are internally rolling our eyes (which we all do from time to time)! Start by telling yourself (this will get easier as you get more comfortable with the process) that this moment is an *opportunity* to improve relationships. Like falling off a bike or skis is a necessary step to finding one’s balance, these experiences move us on to the advanced course in perspective-taking and creative thinking!
  • “The name of this problem is…” Slowing down the action is helpful, creating a pause, giving it a container. For example, “This problem is called, ‘Too Many Kids, Not Enough Trucks’”… or silly is even better. “This problem is called, ‘The Mystery of the Missing Puppy and Who Took It’” or “This problem is called, ‘You Always Get to Be the Mom!’” Humor helps to diffuse tension.
  • “Let’s all take a deep breath.” What if a child is visibly upset, but refuses to take a breath? That happens! You can say, “Okay, well, I am going to take a breath and think for a minute before we talk. All that yelling made me feel worried and I need to calm down!” Model the pause and lend them your calm even if the children are too angry to heed your advice in the moment.
  • “I’m sorry.” Apologies help, especially when someone gets hurt, but they are *not* required and they don’t necessarily solve the problem. It’s nice when an apology is clearly heartfelt, and you can ask the upset child, “Did that help you feel better?” But forced apologies are like a “get out of jail free” card (“SOR-RY. Can I go now??”), they don’t offer much consolation. “What can I do to help you feel better?” is much more comforting. “I won’t do that again” can be a useful phrase as well.
  • “‘No!’ is not an idea.” We take *all* the possible ideas before we move on to choosing a solution. Saying no to every proposal is like pulling the wheels off of a car that’s trying to roll forward. If there are any kids around who are not directly involved in the problem, they can make suggestions (better it come from another child, then they get to feel good about helping). In the beginning, young children may need you to elaborate on a simple idea: “Share.” “Take turns.” Yes, let’s do that, but how? Who will have the *first* turn? This is where the players may have to get flexible! Maybe the person who waits longer gets a longer turn. Maybe someone has a substitute for the desired item while that person waits. Or not. Occasionally problems don’t get solved. Losing interest and walking away can be a solution.
  • “You decided to be flexible!” Recognize when a child chooses to be the one who waits, the one who has less, the one who compromises, the one who chose to be kind and give up a little of what s/he wanted. Whatever you shine the light on grows, so if you want kids who cooperate, let them know that you value that quality. Also, it doesn’t hurt to notice aloud that when someone decides to give up being first, or having the most, the other person is happy, and the problem is over. Most kids don’t want to spend too much time arguing if they can get more time to play instead.
  • “I remember last time your sister let you… I wonder if this time you might…” If one side is always the one giving in, make note of that. Does that child feel like they need to give up in order to continue being part of the game? Any time you can help kids remember when someone else was kind to them helps them see that person in a more positive light this time. And it’s okay to point out, “That’s not fair for you to say you won’t play unless he does what you want.” Your words may not change what’s happening, but sometimes the child with less power in a social dynamic needs an ally.
  • “After there has been hurting, there should be helping.” If someone is physically hurt, we can get them an ice pack. If something gets broken, we can help fix it. If there’s not an obvious thing to do, or the behavior resulted in destruction they can’t fix, you can invent some other job or chore for them to be helpful, even if they’re helping an adult rather than the person they hurt. That child may need some grownup time, and you are allowing that child to get back into everyone’s good graces! It’s not likely that anyone will start behaving better when they are feeling badly about themselves.
  • “That doesn’t work for me.” Sometimes adults veto child solutions. “Even though you are saying that’s okay with you, I (as the adult) don’t feel comfortable with that solution because…” But use this sparingly, if you really think it could be unsafe. Sometimes kids need to try out a solution that’s seemingly only fair to one side to know what that feels like for the next time. It’s fine to support the younger child (“It seems like Older Brother is getting many more pieces than you, are you sure that’s okay?”), but it doesn’t have to look perfectly fair or equal to you if both sides agree.
  • “Let’s have a ‘redo’ of what happened.” If a problem is happening over and over, especially if it involves physical aggression, try “acting it out” like you’re in a stage play. You can act out the part of whichever child seems reluctant. One child grabbed from another and got punched? You can play the one who hit. “Okay, so grab this toy out of my hand. Ooooh, I’m mad, I’m thinking about hitting you! But I won’t. I’m going to say, ‘I’m not done, give it back.’ Oh! My words worked! Thank you! You can ask me for this toy before you take it.” It helps children to remember for the next time, and to move on in the moment, to be able to physically experience a better way of communicating that did not result in yelling, hitting or tears.
  • “What should I do?” Use problem-solving language yourself, whenever possible. “Hey, I am having a problem, and I could use some help. I feel frustrated because there are toys all over the couch, and I need a place to put this laundry for folding. Do you think you could help me? Oh, thank you! You solved my problem. I’m so glad that in this family, we help each other!” Maybe your problem is that dinnertime or bedtime is too wild, and you need their ideas to make it easier and more pleasant for everyone.
  • “I’m getting the fancy dress for all day and that’s it.” They can’t agree on what to do, one or both sides are refusing to compromise. You can say, “Hmm. We seem stuck in this problem. Will a timer help? Should we give this toy a time-out and come back to this later?” or “My solution is to change the game. If you can’t agree on a solution, I will have to decide for us.”
  • “Our Plan for… [Our Favorite Toy]” Visuals! Agreements, plans, with simple pictures, in a place where everyone can see it (taping it to a wall or on the fridge, at their level).
  • “Strike when the iron is cold.” Talk about a recurring or tricky problem when you’re not in the middle of it, when everyone is rested and fed and in a reasonably good mood. Make a plan, write it down (put it somewhere you’ll remember) and when the problem arises, you can say, “Oh, hey! Remember? We have a plan for this! Let’s go look at it!”

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”- Mahatma Gandhi