Conflict is healthy. Learning how to navigate it is important.
How do we support children through conflicts?
When children are between 18 months and 3, they’re transitioning from the “parallel play” stage into social play. Energetically, they’re waking up a bit to the realities of boundaries in the world, and understanding their autonomy and separation. This can manifest in a lot of ways but in social settings one of the most interesting clues of this transition is conflict. No longer will the child allow an object to float from their grasp with the dreaminess of a one year old. Suddenly, they notice the hand that is grabbing it from them, and they hold firm. These are the first conflicts, the “I want what they have” and to get to that realization they first need to have an understanding of the separation between “I” and “they.” This is an important marker, and shows us that the child is ready for deeper social learning.
I saw this article in the New York Times the other day with the quote “be a sportscaster, not a referee.” I’ve been quoting it ever since, because this just about sums it up! Narrating children’s actions is one of the hallmarks of RIE parenting, and when done intentionally this simple strategy has a remarkable ability to encourage children’s authenticity and independence (trying to keep up a constant stream of narration, however, can be exhausting for both caregiver and child. As with everything, care and moderation are key.) Faced with new realizations and emotions, children need our support so they can navigate their experience of a situation. What they don’t need, and in fact what will hinder their development of conflict resolution skills, is someone stepping in and saying “you have to share that with your friend.”
What to do in the moment, ideally when you see a conflict about to happen, or after one has already begun.
1. Ground and calm your presence in the space (I like to sit down cross legged next to them and take a steady breath)
2. Simply narrate what is happening: “I see that you want the block. I see that she has it.”
3. Allow them to feel frustrated if they are (after all, that’s frustrating!) and validate their emotions with a sympathetic look or back pat. Feel for yourself how long to let them work through this feeling, and what kind of reorientation they might be needing. Try just letting it play out, staying present to make sure everyone is safe—often initial frustration will transition into a social game!
When they’re first navigating conflicts or if they seem “stuck,” and try…
4. Redirect them to an alternative. “I see there’s another block over there.”
Eventually, they’ll start to take over parts of this process, until they can navigate their emotional experiences of conflict with ease. After all, this is essentially the same process I follow when I get into a conflict with an adult! I ground myself, articulate my emotional experience, give myself space to feel whatever it brought up, and move on to a solution.
How you organize your space and your days can set you up to help manage conflicts much more easily.
Prepare your space
First, assess your play area and see what you can do to make it more free play-friendly.
Decide what (and where) will be off limits (“closed”) during playdates. Special dolls, etc. often do well tucked away, or perhaps a bedroom is closed and just a few baskets are brought into a communal play space. When the children are older they’ll want to share and show off their “special” things, but with toddlers it’s just too much.
For siblings, likewise decide what special objects will be individual possessions, and which will be shared. You have to feel this out for your own family, but I’d shoot for more shared than not. Open ended toys are so flexible that they can engage children across a wide range of ages!
Have multiples of shared things. It’s far easier to deescalate if they can see there’s another block two feet away they can use instead of the one in their friend’s hand.
Be confident in your discipline in general
Seeing you navigate conflicts and set boundaries with confidence and understanding is such an important model for children as they learn to do this themselves. Get started with Creative Discipline here, or go deeper with our Boundaries workshop.
Consider your rhythm
I have a whole workshop in the works about building and managing your daily rhythm (I’ll update this post when it’s live) but essentially: take a look at your child’s energy and your schedule, and see when would actually be a best time for a playdate, social program, etc. The social world is so new to toddlers that managing it can take all of their energy, and times when you or they are already mentally exhausted may not be the best moments to put them in that sort of situation. If you have multiple children in your household, consider how to balance times of more independent, quiet play with times of togetherness.
A note on hitting
Hitting and other similar behaviors are really a topic unto themselves, but as you work on keeping everyone safe as they navigate conflicts, consider this: toddlers experience the world through all of their senses, and especially touch and movement. They are naturally curious about other beings and want to learn, experientially, about how others feel, move, react, etc. All this to say, toddlers are not malicious, they’re learning. And one of the things they can learn is that we are here to keep everyone safe, so hitting is not allowed. Simply stating that, calmly and gently, while physically preventing the action with a gentle, confident motion, typically works quite well. If their curiosity continues, taking them out of the situation by gently pulling them onto your lap will also provide that sense of safety—for everyone involved.