Learning to manage verbal conflicts


“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can break my heart.” – Robert Fulghum

Raising children holistically means that we believe that all experience is education for the soul. We coach instead of censure. We focus on the lesson learned rather than the mistake made. We shape rather than shame behavior. I am a grandmother who proudly sees her children doing these things as parents.

Earth is a planet of duality. So people will hold opposing viewpoints that often lead to verbal conflicts. We need to help children navigate these verbal conflicts.

In her book Tongue Fu!, Sam Horn gives ideas to guide children to find solutions rather than fault: When young children start fighting verbally, hold up your hand and ask them to “make silence.” Separate the children, explain that their behavior is inappropriate, and ask them to play by themselves until they are ready to treat each other with respect. If a child pipes up with an objection, raise your eyebrows, not your voice. Put your hand up and open your eyes wide as if to say, “You really don’t want to do this, do you?” Your refusal to dwell on why a fight started shows children that actions, not excuses, are valued.

You can tell older children that if they find themselves in a war of words, they can put their hand up, with fingers pointing skyward and palm facing forward, and stop what’s happening by saying, “Let’s not do this.” Then say, “Let’s work together to find solutions.”

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Here’s a story from conflict resolution trainer Jamie Notter you can share to show that it is wise to take time to find out what problem a conflict is really about and avoid rushing to solve it:

One time Jamie’s two daughters came running to him in a panic.

“Dad, this is the last orange in the refrigerator and I need it” the older one said.

“No, I need it!” the younger said.

Before the older one could start the never-ending debate about who needs the orange more, Jamie interrupted them. He went and checked that there were no more oranges in the house. He found out that the neighbors didn’t have any oranges and that the stores were closed. There was indeed only one orange, and they both said they needed it.

So he got a knife, cut the orange in half, and told them to share it. His solution was a complete failure. His daughters each took their half of the orange and ran crying to their bedrooms.

You see, it turned out that the older daughter was baking a cake, and the recipe called for “the peel of one orange.” When he gave her half the orange peel, she thought the cake would be ruined. The younger daughter, on the other hand, was very hungry. She thought that a whole orange would tide her over until dinner, but a half would leave her frustrated.

His daughters had been so focused on winning that they didn’t see that they both could have what they wanted. The peel could have been taken off the orange for the older daughter’s cake before the younger daughter ate it.

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Here are some conflict resolution principles to share with children:

  • Avoid rushing to conclusions or solutions. Ask questions to find out what the problem really is about.
  • Treat others respectfully and practice loving kindness. Avoid even passive violence that disrespects others or ourselves – name-calling, judging, criticizing. Passive violence is when we do this silently.
  • Listen generously – with our heart, as well as with our brain. Avoid the urge to make the other side wrong.
  • Ask God to help us see what lesson we can learn from this experience.
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Carol McCormick
Carol McCormick has been a professional storyteller and public speaker for over thirty years. An Interfaith Minister, she wrote the picture book A Bridge for Grandma to help children understand and accept death and dying.


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