Conflict and bullying are pervasive among school-aged children. At some point in their schooling, the majority of young people will be affected directly or indirectly by physical or social aggression. When parents, teachers, and caregivers see a child in distress, they often feel powerless to help. They aren’t sure what to do about peer conflict or how to help children help themselves.
Since releasing Stand Tall in 2008, I’m frequently asked for advice on how to deal with bullying and classroom dynamics. Often times, parents are so upset by what’s happening to their child that they let their own emotions interfere with their ability to model healthy conflict skills.
However, there are a number of simple, positive things that adults can do to educate children about how to handle conflict and build positive relationships.
1. Avoid Rescuing
Although it can be difficult to watch a child’s distress, remember that learning to cope with the emotions associated with conflict and bullying is an important life skill. After all, children will eventually become adults who need to handle what life dishes out. Children who don’t learn to deal effectively with conflict as youngsters miss out on developing valuable inner resources for managing the inescapable conflicts that arise in the workplace and in relationships.
I’m not suggesting that kids should be left to handle conflict entirely on their own. What a child experiencing the stress of bullying and conflict needs most is a calm, caring adult who can teach them practical, positive skills for coping with negative emotions and relationship challenges.
Dr. Robin Berman, author of Permission To Parent, says one of the best things adults can do is empower children to work through difficult situations and emotions by actively listening and offering their emotional presence. You don’t have to solve your child’s problems, but you do have to be an “emotional grown-up.”
Children are smart. They often already know what they need to do. Active listening helps them to find their own solutions—an important life skill.
2. Listen and Label Feelings Correctly
If a child tells you that they are being bullied, listen and let them know you believe them. The experience of feeling heard and understood is invaluable for a young person. Empathize with them and help them problem-solve when the time is right.
An upset child often needs help to understand what he or she feels. Is it anger, sadness, confusion, or humiliation? Naming emotions is the first step to managing them. Perhaps it’s a combination of several emotions.
Proper labeling of emotions opens the door for discussing effective coping strategies. For example, manage anger using deep breathing techniques and time away from the situation until the child calms down. When the anger subsides, the child might realize he or she also feels embarrassed or sad.
3. Practice Discernment
Name calling isn’t necessarily “bullying.” Help kids recognize the difference between common rudeness, thoughtlessness, spite or momentary anger and classic bullying behavior. “Bullying” is purposeful and repetitive and involves the abuse of physical, emotional or social power.
In recent years, references to bullying in schools and communities have become vastly overused. The result is a rush to over-protect children instead of equipping them to manage conflict effectively. Because of the “cry wolf” syndrome, the most vulnerable children often get dismissed and they miss out on the adult support they need.
4. Understand Conflict is a Part of Life
No one is born knowing how to resolve conflict. In fact, many of us reach adulthood without the ability to effectively manage challenging relationships.
Keep kids out of “victim” thinking. Teach them that disagreements are normal. It’s okay to have differences of opinion, but a key social skill is learning to communicate opinions with tact and respect.
Adults should gently coach children how to disagree without arguing and how to apologize after they’ve behaved badly. Knowing how to repair damaged relationships is a key relationship management strategy.
5. Teach and Model Positive Relationship Skills
Talk to children about the qualities of positive relationships, such as kindness, compassion, tolerance, courtesy, and cooperation. Model these behaviors, too. Help kids observe healthy relationship qualities around them.
I’ve long been a fan of The Virtues Project as a tool for teaching children about positive values. Use The Virtues definitions to help kids reflect on what values such as courage, consideration, acceptance actually mean. Defining and understanding the human qualities required to build and maintain positive relationships helps set behavioral expectations and keeps kids accountable for their words and actions.
Help children set healthy boundaries with others. Too much “together time” with even the best of friends can create normal friendship friction. Irritation or annoyance, however, look very different from a “falling out.” Help kids understand that time away from a friendship can be a healthy thing. Spending time with family, other friends or time alone doesn’t have to mean a friendship is over. Bullying often results from unresolved friendship “breakups.” Adults play a key role in teaching young people that time apart can actually bring friends closer together.
Most importantly, equip young people to distinguish the difference between conflict and cruelty or manipulation. Kids who develop inner strengths learn to effectively manage conflict and create healthy relationships.
Need a book open up the conversation growing inner strengths? Read more about how Stand Tall is used in classrooms and by therapists to help kids develop positive social and emotional skills.