Helping Our Tweens & Teens Navigate Conflict

The “tweens” (between the ages of 8 or 9 and 12) are rough. Carefree childhood innocence rapidly slips away as kids encounter higher expectations at school and home, an ever-widening sense of a chaotic world outside themselves, confusing hormonal and physical changes, and the increasing complexity of social interaction with their peers.

Suddenly, social spats aren’t simple: “Jane wouldn’t share the toy,” but can become complicated, multi-layered issues: “Jane was mad that I didn’t eat lunch with her, so she wouldn’t talk to me and told everyone not to be friends with me anymore. Then she said mean things about me on {insert social media du jour here} and now everyone hates me.”

How do we help our kids get through this incredibly challenging time in a healthy way that promotes positive social skills?

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Apart from making sure they are secure in our unconditional love, and helping them build genuine confidence in themselves, it’s essential that kids learn how to work through conflict constructively. There are several important skills and mindsets that we can help them build that will make this easier.

How We View Conflict

Conflict is a natural and unavoidable part of human interaction, but working through it isn’t always intuitive, or easy. When I was a rookie elementary school teacher, I struggled to help my Grade 6 students sort out daily drama.

I attended several workshops on Restorative Justice and conflict resolution, and learned to view conflict not as “right” versus “wrong” but as two people wanting or needing different things. Resolving conflict isn’t about punishment or exacting revenge—it’s about making sure that everyone’s experience is heard and acknowledged, and that they find a way to move forward from the conflict in a way that meets everyone’s needs.

Our school formed a “Peace Squad”—a group of students, many from my class, trained to help mediate playground conflicts. This wasn’t a miracle cure for conflict and, obviously, there were issues (physical altercations, and bullying, among them) that mediators had to refer to adult supervisors. Sometimes students weren’t interested in participating when they realized that the other kid wasn’t going to get in “trouble.”

However, anyone involved in the process, whether as a mediator or someone in conflict, came away from it seeing that there is an alternative to the pervasive idea that if someone “wrongs” you, they need to be “punished.”

Over the year I noticed more students solving their own conflicts within the classroom, as well as increased empathy towards others, evidenced in their personal writing and even the way they spoke to each other.

Perspective-Taking and Empathy

Helping kids more fully understand how their actions affect others is something that can be practiced at home.

Books. When reading, you can discuss the characters’ feelings, and point out how several characters can feel differently about the same situation. Powerful “tween” books, told from multiple perspectives, are R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, and Rob Buyea’s Because of Mr. Terupt.

Authenticity. Give them feedback when their words or actions have an emotional effect on you, positive or negative.

Drama—the Good Kind. Role-playing is a great tool for helping us see and understand peoples’ emotions and motivations. Act out social situations and discuss what you are thinking and feeling when, for example, your best friend decides to sit with someone else at lunch. How might you react? What are some alternative ways of handling the situation?

Boost Emotional Awareness

Being able to describe how someone’s actions make you feel is an essential key to finding satisfying resolutions to conflict, but many kids struggle with a limited emotional vocabulary.

Labelling. We can help our kids develop and expand their emotional awareness, starting with labelling and talking about our own emotions. We can also provide a safe space and opportunities for them to practice.

Visual Aids. My four-year-old has a calendar with emotion magnets, and every day when we change the date, weather, and day of the week, he also takes a moment to think about how he’s feeling and picks a face. Sometimes we get into the “why” of his emotions, but just labelling them is a great start.

Shared Journal. If your tween isn’t yet comfortable with verbalizing their feelings, you could try keeping a shared journal (with a list of emotion words taped inside the cover for easy reference). There are some beautifully-designed journals out there for this purpose, full of creative prompts. Some are even fill-in-the-blank.

Games. Emotion charades and other activities derived from theatre sports can help your child develop and strengthen their ability to read facial expressions and body language.

A lot of kids have difficulty with tone and emphasis. They might repeat something funny a TV character says and not understand why their classmate finds it hurtful (it might be said with a sarcastic tone). You can make a game of saying the same sentence in different ways and trying to guess the speaker’s intent or emotion. For example, “What are you doing?” vs “What are you doing?” communicate different messages.

Calming Strategies

Learning and practicing calming techniques (mindful breathing, counting, visualization, positive self-talk) helps us be rational and receptive instead of reactive. You can help your child to determine which strategies are most useful for them and encourage them to practice when you see they are agitated.

Acknowledge Mistakes… and Grow

When conflict occurs, it’s important to work through it so that everyone can move forward peacefully. We can’t change what happened, but we can decide to learn and make different choices in the future. To do this we need to acknowledge our own part in conflict.

No one wants to believe their child is capable of causing hurt to another, but it happens every day. Not because they are “bad,” but because they are learning. If your child is involved in a conflict, take time to hear the whole story of what transpired. Encourage them to own their actions and be part of a solution. Just as in any new subject, they are going to make mistakes and that’s when they need our support the most—to help them grow positively from a negative experience.

Schools are beginning to teach emotional and social skills more explicitly within an evolving curriculum, but developing empathy, emotional awareness, self-regulation, and problem-solving skills starts with parents. They watch us for cues, and if we negotiate our own conflicts constructively this goes a long way to helping them get through the trials and tribulations of Tweenhood.

Kelly McQuillan
Kelly McQuillan
Kelly McQuillan is a writer, musician, teacher, and fledgling mother living in Comox, BC.