Teaching Children to Resolve Conflict Respectfully

About the Author - Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Centre and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department.

At home, child care, or school, children occasionally become embroiled in conflict or a battle of wills with peers or adults, it is inevitable. As ironic as it sounds, it’s even desirable. Some bickering and conflict in childhood helps children discover positive ways of resolving disagreements. When learned well, the skills will come in handy at home and at work throughout life.

If respectful conflict resolution isn’t mastered during early childhood, the skills are much harder to learn, they rarely become second-nature to an adult.  The consequence is reflected by domestic violence and assault crimes that shatter our neighbourhoods.

In each developmental stage, children gradually expand their capacity to balance their personal rights, needs, and wants with those of others. As children learn to do that, they develop constructive social skills as well as their own character.

Key to teaching children to handle conflict is helping them identify their emotions. They must also, (and this is the hardest part) learn to control how they express and act on their emotions. To become socially responsible, it’s critical that children exercise choice and decision-making power over their behavior.

“Helping children develop conflict resolution skills isn’t mysterious or complex . . .”

There is another challenge in conflict resolution. Children must learn to interpret others’ emotions which requires recognising that everyone has feelings and desires. Being sensitive to others and juggling differing perspectives and points of view is very challenging for young children. It takes time and practice.

Here are some tips:

  • Model a rich “feelings” vocabulary. From infancy, begin putting words to emotions. Pair words with facial expressions, it helps children understand feeling. “When you squirm, I can tell it’s frustrating getting your nappy changed. Hold on for just a minute longer." Encourage toddlers to empathise by translating others’ body language. “That boy is upset, he is crying because someone grabbed his toy from him. He wants it back." With pre-schoolers, introduce words to name feelings associated with conflict such as:  frightened, anxious, mad, scared, angry, worried, nervous, afraid, frustrated, confused, lonely, tricked, ignored, left out, embarrassed, mad, and unimportant.

  • Set the standard and enforce limits. As children grow, share your beliefs and goals and affirm everyone’s right to be safe - emotionally and physically. When children are old enough, lay down ground rules for solving disagreements. Identify behaviours that are, and are not, acceptable: “It is unacceptable to throw toys.  Tell me what’s wrong.”

  • Be a good example. Tell children they can feel any way they wish, but they must control what they do. Illustrate the behaviour you expect. If you don’t want children yelling, name-calling, or belittling others, change your own ways first.

  • Encourage language as a problem-solving tool.  Ask children to tell you what they want or need.  Emphasise using language, rather than grunts, shoves or hits.  Remember, 18 month-old children can understand more language than they can speak. Model using language to get along with others: “Tonya, I want to build with blocks, too. May I sit by you, please?”

“Children must learn to interpret others’ emotions.”

  • Help children cope with feelings constructively. Be on hand to help children interpret their emotions: “You seem really angry. It’s frustrating when someone gets a toy you wanted first. Crying didn’t help.  Is there another toy you can play with while you wait for that one?”


  • Show children how to address problems without aggression. Focus on behaviour, not name calling, and on what can be achieved, rather than blaming or shaming. Family educators encourage parents to use “I-Feel” statements and to teach children to use them as well. Here’s the format: I feel ---------------------------------when you -------------------------because------------------Next time I would like you to …………………………… Example: I feel frustrated when you grab at the book because it might tear. Next time, please wait for me to ask you to turn the page.

  • Offer choices to toddlers. Because they are just learning about emotions and language, toddlers need more help sorting things out in conflict. They can even distract themselves with their own tantrums. Interpret first. “Screaming isn’t working. Here are two things you can do.” When given a clear choice, toddlers are better able to calm down, focus, and follow through. They will also need more reminders about their choices.

  • Take a stand against physical aggression and name-calling. Whenever aggression occurs, nip it in the bud: “I won’t let you hit Tom, you will have to think of another way to solve this.”

  • Resist solving problems for pre-school children; instead guide with questions, coaching them in the basic steps of problem solving. Give each child a chance to speak. Ask questions that encourage them to analyse the situation and options. “What is the problem?” “What have you already tried to solve it?” “How did it work?”  “Is there something else you can do?” After brainstorming possible alternatives, analyse the pros and cons of each solution together.  By voting or verbal agreement, select and carry out a plan.  If the problem recurs, go back to problem solving.

  • Offer feedback and appreciation. Comment on productive problem solving. “I heard  you and Andy arguing over the red crayon. That was a good idea to reassure him you would give it to him next.”  Or: “I heard you telling Trisha you were angry she knocked down your block building; that was good self-control.”

  • Explore ways to make amends. After conflict most children go on about their play, but sometimes children need help knowing how to mend fences. If it’s true, children can say they are sorry but there are other ways, too. I often ask, “If you want Mary to stay friends, what would make her feel better?” Sometimes a child says, “I am sorry,” other times they give a hug, draw a picture, or give a flower. Authentic amends is what’s important, not just lip service of “I am sorry.”