By Casey O'Roarty


Empowering Kids to Navigate Social Conflict

I recently had the great privilege to lead a workshop called Mean Boys/Mean Girls: Empowering our Children to Navigate Social Conflict.  The conversations that showed up really highlighted how challenging it is for parents to witness their kids’ pain. 

Even for those of us who don’t fall into the “helicopter” model, when we hear “the kids were mean to me today” we are so quick to slip into mama/papa bear mode, ready to make phone calls and take those mean kids D-O-W-N!

This topic, of course, was fitting to some of what my own kids are going through right now (that always seems to happen, right?).  And I find my response to their experience is quick – MAKE IT STOP.  We are all so quick to project into a future of our kids being bullied, ostracized and so desperate that they don’t see any way out.

And while the stories of bullied kids taking their lives exist, it is not the outcome of every negative social experience, so how about we all calm down?

Social conflict is real.

It exists in the sandbox, on the playground, during passing periods, and in the workplace.  Social conflict is the result of the many different personalities that come together in an environment, handling all of their “stuff,” while trying to interact with each other in a way that leaves them feeling significant.At least, that is how I see it.  And is it any wonder that KIDS, of all people, may be challenged by this?

My own kids have had a variety of opportunities for navigating peer dynamics over the years. And I have had an equal number of opportunities for supporting them while not rescuing them.  I believe that my response of curiosity and non-judgment, has helped my kids move from a place of the angry, hurt victim to an empowered designer of their lives.

Let me be clear. The conflict my kids have had the opportunity to navigate is NOT bullying.  Instead, it is the very age-appropriate and typical behavior that shows up when people are lacking skills. The behavior that often leaves our kids feeling stunned, hurt and at a loss for how to handle it.

It is human instinct to hurt others when we feel hurt.  How often have you witnessed kids doing this?  It happens all the time!  You hurt me and I will hurt you worse.  What I often point out about this approach is that it never actually SOLVES the problem – it simply exists as a strategy for making someone else feel bad enough to leave you alone.

I trust our kids can do better than that.  They just need helpful support.

You can make your own decisions about how to help your kids navigate social conflict. I am going to share the strategy I use, in hopes that you find some value in it, and perhaps some nuggets to take away and use to support your kids.

The first thing I do is I notice my own internal response to my children sharing their problem with me.

I notice tension and heat, and all the things that tell me I am going into fierce protector mode – and then I breathe it out.  I find my neutral.  I reset so that I can be fully present to the child in front of me.

I listen. 

I listen deeply to my child, to their story of injustice and hurt. I say, “can you tell me more about that?” when they share, to help them explore the full experience.

I get curious. 

I ask a lot of “what and how” questions (in Positive Discipline these are actually called Curiosity Questions). The goal is to hold space for my child to consider all parts of their experience.

I invite other perspectives.

I ask my kids to look at the situation through the eyes of everyone else.  I want them to develop skills for seeing from multiple perspectives, for broadening their lens to the experiences of others.

I ask my kids what they want.

It is one thing to complain.  It is another thing to consider what you want to come out of the situation.  Yes, our kids don’t want to be picked on, they don’t want to fell left out or ignore.  Helping them to identify what they DO want will help them become clearer when advocating for themselves.

I support them in developing the language they need.

As a grown up, I spend time developing what I want to say to people – especially those that have hurt me in some way. And when I have thought it through, my delivery is always so much for effective. Same is true for our kids, when they have come up with language to express their feelings and their wants, they are much more empowered to use it!

I am available for practicing.

This has been the most important piece for my son. We practice. We practice what he is going to say before any tough conversation. We take turns in different roles, we imagine how the other person might respond.  We practice more than once, as many times as he needs.  This has offered him a feeling of familiarity and comfort amidst the discomfort of advocating and taking a stand.

Raising my children with Positive Discipline has been key in their development of interpersonal skills.  Social conflict is their opportunity for practicing those skills.  I also lean on the work of Rosalind Wiseman, who has spent years in elementary, middle and high schools developing relationships with kids with the intention of getting a deeper understanding of the dynamics that exist in peer groups.

For more resources for empowering our kids through social conflict check out these books:

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen

Queen Bees and Wanna-Bes by Rosalind Wiseman

Masterminds and Wingmen by Rosalind Wiseman

Author bio

Casey O’Roarty, M.Ed, is a facilitator of personal growth and development. For the last 15 years, her work has encouraged parents to discover the purpose of their journey, and provided them with tools and a shift of mindset that has allowed them to deepen their relationship with themselves and their families. Casey is a Positive Discipline Lead Trainer and Coach. She hosts the Joyful Courage podcast, parenting summits, live and online classes, and individual coaching. Her book, Joyful Courage: Calming the Drama and Taking Control of YOUR Parenting Journey was published in May 2019. Casey lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, and two teenagers.


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