Teaching Children Skills to Peacefully Resolve Conflict

by Larissa Dann Blog post 10th November 2015 (updated 6th December, 2016).  Adapted from ‘Sorting Sibling Squabbles

At the end of my son’s pre-school year, his teacher came up to have a chat.

“Larissa” she said “Normally, my assistant and I spend a lot of time in the cubby house sorting out squabbles between children.  This year, we spent much less time dealing with fighting children.  We discovered that your son was mediating the arguments.  We watched him say things like “Do you have any ideas about how you both can be happy?” and then the children would get on and play”.

You could have knocked me down with a feather!  At that time, my son was the only child of a single mother.  I was a big fan of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), and was attempting to use these gentle parenting skills with him, as often as possible. The skills included no-lose (win-win) conflict resolution.

This blog helps you develop the peace making capacities of children. 

Resolving Conflict

Imagine two children fighting over a toy. The children are in a relationship with each other, and that relationship is not going so well. Our role is not to step in and judge (which inevitably involves ‘taking sides’), but to mediate, model and mentor.  (Of course, it is also to keep people physically and psychologically safe!)

Here is a step-by-step method of resolving disputes between children, based on the no-lose conflict resolution model taught in P.E.T.   The method is flexible – you’ll find you won’t put every step into practice every time there is an issue.  And sometimes it just won’t seem to work – your children may be overwhelmed, tired, or have needs that can’t be met at this point in time.  Persevere, and try again next time. 

Who will benefit (age range and groups of children)

In my experience, the principles outlined below can be used with very young children through to adults.  Siblings, young friends who visit your house, children in childcare and school can all benefit from this approach.  With pre or newly verbal children, you may need to speak on the younger child’s behalf, as part of the resolution.

The Model

1.  Explain to your children that you will be doing things differently when they fight.

Let children know in advance that when they fight, you will be guiding them on how to sort things out between them.  Explain that you won’t be deciding who’s right or wrong, but you will be helping them to hear each other, and that they will be responsible for solving their own dispute fairly.

2.  Set the physical stage:

Tip 1:  Separate the warring parties. 

Tip 2: Get down to their level.

Place yourself between the young people who are arguing.  Sit down with them.  If we stand, then our towering physical height will suggest ‘power over’.  Children may continue to see us as the Judge, rather than the facilitator.

3.  Try a ‘solution book’.

A physical object such as a simple exercise book, renamed the ‘solution book’ (or even a smart phone or tablet) to write down or draw ideas, can take the focus away from the fight. (thank you to a parent from one of my PET classes for the idea!)

4.  Define the Problem.

Tip 1: Keep your voice calm

Tip 2: Remain neutral – don’t take sides

Tip 3: Only one person to talk at a time – no interruptions

Ask each child to explain their version of what happened, and why they are angry, sad or frustrated.  Start with the child who has been hurt, or seems the unhappiest.  

5.  Adult ‘active listens’ to each child

After each child talks, reflect back both the feelings and the facts that you’ve heard the child say.  Be warned - they may clarify certain parts of the argument!  At this stage, both children will probably be looking at you. 

7.  Summarise the issue for each child.

Before moving into problem solving, I’ve found it useful to summarise the issues of both children.

8.  Invite children to come up with ideas to solve the problem.

Tip 1: Begin with an age appropriate invitation to brainstorm, such as “Do you have any ideas that would help you both be happy?”

Tip 2: Don’t evaluate ideas – allow all ideas to come out first.

Tip 3: Write down (or draw) the ideas.

Problem solving teaches children to be considerate of the needs of others, and themselves.  Preventing each child from evaluating the other’s ideas allows creativity and respect to flow.

9.  Evaluate, choose, then implement the solution.

These three steps usually tumble out quickly once the ideas have been discussed.

10.  Check the result

Coming back to see if the problem has been solved is essential.  You may discover that one person was not happy with the solution, or that the real reason for the conflict was not uncovered, and you can help them start the process again.  

No-lose Conflict resolution – a skill for life.

If we can teach children how to respectfully resolve their own relationship conflicts, then we are gifting them with a skill for life.  They can transfer this skill to the playground; to playing with cousins and friends; to the workplace; to future relationships with their partners; and, importantly, to their relationship with their own children

Further reading:

For examples of no-lose conflict resolution with young children


About Conflict Resolution. Kidsmatter.

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved.

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