Whole-Brain Strategy #12 - Woodmam

Connection Through Conflict: Teach Kids to Argue with a “We” in Mind

We might wish we could somehow help our kids avoid all conflict, but we can’t. If they’re going to be in relationships, they’re going to face quarrels and disagreements. We can, though, teach them some basic mindsight skills so they’ll know how to manage conflict in healthy and productive ways, and respond when things don’t go perfectly as they interact with others.

Once again, each new disagreement is more than just a difficulty to survive. It represents another opportunity for you to teach your children important lessons so they can thrive, in this case relationally. Handling conflict well isn’t easy, even for adults, so we can’t expect too much of our children. But there are some simple skills we can teach them that will help us all survive individual conflicts, as well as help our children thrive as they move toward adulthood. Let’s look at three of these mindsight-building skills.

See Through the Other Person’s Eyes: Help Kids Recognize Other Points of View

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re working at your desk and your seven-year-old daughter approaches. She’s clearly angry. She announces that her younger brother, Mark, just called her stupid. You ask why he might have said that, and your daughter is adamant that there’s no reason—he just said it!

It can be difficult for any of us to see things from someone else’s perspective. We see what we see, and often only what we want to see. But the more we can use our mindsight to view events through the eyes of another, the better chance we have of resolving conflict in a healthy manner.

That’s a tough skill to teach children, especially in the middle of a heated argument. But if we ourselves can remain aware of what we’re actually saying, we have a better chance of teaching the lessons we want. For example, your inclination might be to say, “Well, what did you do to Mark? I’m sure he didn’t just call you stupid out of the blue!”

But if you can remain calm and aware of what you want to teach, you might go at the conversation a bit differently. First you’d want to demonstrate an awareness of your daughter’s feelings. (Remember, connect first, then redirect.) This will decrease your daughter’s defensiveness and prepare her to see how her brother feels. Then you could aim for the goal of creating some empathy in your daughter.

Granted, we won’t always get through to our kids. But by asking questions about how another person feels, about why someone reacted as he did, we can encourage empathy in our children. The act of considering the mind of another requires us to use our right hemisphere and our upstairs brain, both of which are part of the social circuitry that allows us to enjoy mature and fulfilling relationships.

Listen to What’s Not Being Said:

Teach Kids About Nonverbal Communication and Attuning to Others

It’s great that we teach our children to pay attention to what people are saying: “Listen to his words. He said he didn’t want to be sprayed by the hose!” But an important part of relationships is listening to what’s not being said. Usually kids aren’t naturally skilled at this. That’s why, when you reprimand your son for making his little sister cry by dipping his pretzels into her yogurt, he responds, “But she likes it! We’re playing a game.”

Nonverbal clues sometimes communicate even more than words, so we need to help our children use their right hemisphere to get good at understanding what other people are saying, even if they never open their mouth. With the mirror neuron system already working, all kids need is for us to help them make explicit what their mirror neurons are communicating. For example, after winning a big soccer game, your son might need you to help him notice that his friend on the other team is in need of some cheering up, even if he says he’s fine. As evidence, you can point to the friend’s body language and facial expressions—the drooping shoulders, the lowered head, the downcast face. By helping your son make these simple observations you’ll increase his mindsight, and for the rest of his life he’ll be better equipped to read others and tune in to their feelings.

Repair: Teach Kids to Make Things Right After a Conflict

We know the importance of apologizing, and we teach our children to say they’re sorry. But kids also need to realize that at times, that’s only the beginning. Sometimes they need to take steps to right whatever they’ve done wrong.

The situation might call for a specific, direct response: repairing or replacing a broken toy, or helping to rebuild some sort of project. Or a more relational response might be warranted, like drawing the other person a picture, performing an act of kindness, or writing a letter of apology. The point is that you’re helping your kids demonstrate acts of love and contrition that show they’ve thought about another’s feelings and want to find a way to repair the rupture in the relationship.

This connects directly to the two whole-brain strategies above, about empathy and attuning to others’ feelings. To sincerely want to make things right, a child must understand how the other person is feeling and why that person is upset. Then the parent can more profitably bring up the question “If it were you and your favorite thing were broken, what would help you feel better?” Each new movement toward considering someone else’s feelings creates stronger connections in the relational circuitry of the brain. When we break through our children’s defensiveness and their reluctance to accept responsibility, we can help them be thoughtful about others they’ve hurt, and make an effort toward reconnection. We help them develop mindsight. Sometimes a sincere apology is enough, especially when combined with honesty and sincerity: “I did that because I was feeling jealous, and I’m sorry.” But kids also need to learn what it means to go the extra mile and take specific steps toward reconciliation.

Let’s return to Colin, the seven-year-old whose parents felt he was too selfish. We wish we could offer Ron and Sandy some sort of magic bullet, a cure-all for egocentrism and other developmental frustrations they encounter with their son. But obviously we can’t. The good news, though, is that simply by loving Colin and helping him see the benefits of relationships—beginning with his interactions with his parents and brother—Ron and Sandy are already helping him understand the importance of considering and connecting with others.

Beyond that, by emphasizing the “connection through conflict” skills we’re discussing here, they can help him continue moving toward considering the feelings of others. For example, when Colin redecorated his room and removed his brother’s belongings, this presented a teachable moment, which his parents could use to help Colin learn a lot about being in relationship. Too often we forget that “discipline” really means “to teach”—not “to punish.” A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences. When we teach mindsight, we take moments of conflict and transform them into opportunities for learning, skill building, and brain development.

In that moment, Ron could ask Colin to look at his brother, crying as he picked up and straightened out his various paintings, and notice the nonverbal evidence of how hurt Logan was. This could lead to a thoughtful discussion about how Logan viewed the scene—the crumpled paintings, the thrown-aside trophies. Simply getting Colin to actually see Logan’s perspective would be a pretty big breakthrough with long-lasting benefits. A mere time-out might or might not teach Colin not to remove his brother’s things without permission, but it wouldn’t generalize into a mindsight skill.

Finally, Ron and Sandy could discuss what should happen to make things right, including having Colin apologize and work with Logan to create some new paintings to hang on the shared wall in the room. By choosing to use the situation for growth and teaching, rather than avoiding it as an unpleasant obstacle, Colin’s parents could convert some fairly intense conflict into a thrive moment and help both of their sons learn important lessons about what it means to be in a relationship. The key is opening up mindsight’s lens to make the perception of each boy’s inner world available for inspection.

Mindsight permits children to sense the importance of the inner life of thoughts and feelings. Without such development, behaviors become just interactions a child responds to from the surface, something to “deal with” as an automatic reaction without reflection. Parents are a child’s first mindsight teachers, using challenging moments to engage a child’s own circuits of reflection to view our shared inner worlds. As children develop these mindsight skills, they can learn to balance the importance of their own inner lives with those of others. These reflective skills are also the basis for how children learn to balance their own emotions while understanding the emotional lives of the people around them. Mindsight is the basis of both social and emotional intelligence. It allows children to learn that they are a part of a larger world of relationships where feelings matter and connections are a source of reward, meaning, and fun.
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