Resolving Conflict with Empathy


By Jayme Waddell, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

There is not a person around who is going say being a parent is easy. It is often a balancing act. We want kids to be self-sufficient, while also providing all the help we can. We want confident children, but they should also be humble.

Sometimes we focus so much on the strong and confident attributes we are trying to instill in our children that we forget some of the other very important traits they will need as they grow: empathy and conflict resolution skills. It might feel strange to put these two things together, but being able to feel empathy towards others will directly affect how they resolve conflict.  

As we build kids into strong, confident future leaders, we need to remember that leaders are also good listeners. Good leaders are also kind, can take criticism from others with grace, and can communicate their feelings in a healthy way. So how do we teach our kids skills like empathy and conflict resolution? 

Step 1: Modeling – The best thing we can do is model these behaviors for our children. When you’re out to eat at a busy restaurant and you feel the service is less than stellar, you can model empathy by making positive comments about how hard the people around you are working or how they might be short staffed.

There are also many opportunities to model patience for your child. When your child is arguing with a sibling, try to help them navigate their feelings. Ask them listen to each other, validate how each of them is feeling during their time to speak, and encourage positive solutions. Our children are great at generating creative ways to solve their own problems when given the opportunity.

Step 2: Look for teachable moments – These could be real life situations, or you could take time to talk through how they would handle situations in a book you’re reading together. Encourage them to think about how the characters might be feeling and why (creating the opportunity for them to be empathetic). Ask about what they might do if they were in that situation and what the results of those decisions might be. 

Step 3: Use “I” Messages – Communicate your own feelings with your child to help them learn how to communicate their feelings in the same way. I-messages sound like “I feel sad when you don’t let me play with you, will you please include me next time?” Helping your child learn how to use this type of phrasing at home and with their peers teaches them how to communicate in a non-combative way and encourages others to hear them without becoming defensive.  

Teaching our children these skills help empower them to have difficult conversations while building healthy and strong relationships. It is possible to have strong kids who are also kind and empathetic. These are the types of skills that help grow future leaders.