Conflict among young children is inevitable. Some of you will know too well - the moment your little one snatches a toy from another, in front of all the other parents. As the embarrassment washes over you, you dive in and demand they give it back. You return to your post and are met with a wall of judgemental looks or, worse, the sympathetic head-tilt.
Or there’s the even trickier alternative where your child has had their toy taken but the accused’s parent does absolutely nothing about it. You mutter something softly like, ‘Oh, come on now, let’s give it back’, but internally you are screaming at the mother, ‘Listen Susan, do your job, your brat is running wild!’
It is in these conflict scenarios, though, where there is great opportunity for learning. They are a chance for your child to learn about themselves, about relationships and about how others feel.
At this age, children are developing the skills for delayed gratification and to control impulses. As conflicts can come in many different forms we must be mindful of the fact that this is a learning process and is not just a case of your child being ‘terrible at sharing’.
When we act on impulse our initial reactions come from the lower part of our brain called the amygdala which, as discussed in resilience, is responsible for many of our fight and flight reactions. A rush of signals, born in the amygdala are sent upstairs to the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that, among other things, is responsible for planning, rational thinking and impulse control. The prefrontal cortex grows for the longest time, compared to the rest of our brain, typically until our mid-twenties.
In a brain with well-formed connections in the pre frontal cortex, we are able to control the impulsive feelings we have. We are not able to get rid of the feelings, but we are able to control how we react to them. For instance, we might feel so nervous in a job interview that we just want to leg it out of the room but our prefrontal cortex rationalises and thinks that, on balance, you probably shouldn’t do that.
EFFECTS ON BEHAVIOUR
Connections in the brain are made through experiences but without them, what behaviours do we see?
Although not the only conflict children find themselves in, with an influx of energy to the amygdala and without the tools to spread the load to a more rational thinking part of our brain, we see high emotion and impulsive actions. A child’s brain has told them they want the toy so without the upstairs to help them out – they take it.
There are many ways in which young children can find themselves in conflict. Most commonly, though, it is when they want something. Not a day goes by in school where we don’t shoot round because of a loud scream, thinking something awful has happened but in reality, Tommy has again snatched the train out of Jack’s hand because ‘it’s mine and I don’t want you to play with it’.
The quickest way to deal with this is to tell Tommy to give the train back to Jack and offer some sort of consequence if he does it again, like time-out etc. Of course, though, Tommy will do it again as soon as anyone else has it. He’s not learnt why he shouldn’t snatch. And here in lies the problem - consequences are not a good teaching tool if you want long term change.
Fundamentally, for early years children to learn well and lower the need for you to keep repeating the same lessons, they need to be the ones coming up with the solutions. Your role as the grown up is to guide conversation that way.
To check out the strategies adults can take in these situations, click below.