When friends fall out the skill for adults is knowing when to step in or step back
While children will squabble from time to time, they are usually practising negotiating techniques. The skill for adults is to know when to step in or step back and let them get on with it, explains Anne O’Connor…
Fran and Lauren are happily playing together. They are chatting away and appear to be enjoying each other’s company. That is, until they both reach for the same toy and an argument ensues.
Fran reacts and hits Lauren. She instantly realises that Lauren is hurt and offended, so tries to make friends. Fran then apologises and gives Lauren a cuddle. But Lauren is still upset and shows Fran that she is not yet ready to make up by turning away from her.
Fran is disgruntled at first that her apology didn’t work, but doesn’t give up and tries a different approach. She suggests a new game to which Lauren responds, and they are soon happily playing together again.
Although it was Fran’s initial aggressive reaction that had caused the situation, she showed considerable social intelligence in recognising the need to negotiate a way through the problem in order to make amends with Lauren and so restore the relationship.
Neither Lauren nor Fran called on an adult to take over and solve the problem for them. They were both learning about the value of negotiation and the need to move to a resolution rather than blame.
1 Anyone spending time with children knows that arguments over the possession of toys are very common. Understanding the neuroscience and brain chemistry behind it all can make a big difference to the interventions and strategies we use to solve these kinds of conflicts.
- When there is an emotional attachment to a toy, it releases chemicals called opiods in the brain, which means that the child has a sense of well-being when they are playing with the toy. Take it away and the brain is likely to experience ‘opiod withdrawal’ and this causes emotional pain, which is often expressed through crying.
- The child might feel a territorial claim over the toy. Vasopressin is the brain chemical linked to aggression and is released when ‘territory’ is invaded, which explains why children often attack or hit each other in arguments about possessions or space.
- Our brains are made up of three regions, the core reptilian brain, the lower mammalian brain and the higher human brain, which is the one capable of rational thought. Early positive and stimulating experiences help to build up these frontal lobes in children. However, until these lobes are sufficiently developed, children will need adults to help them solve problems.
2 Just as importantly, adults need to model calm responses to conflict situations, so we need to regulate our own reactions when we intervene.
Don’t wade in with an angry reaction when children are squabbling. What is needed is a soothing voice and calm body language to help regulate heated emotions and bring children to an emotional space where they can begin to think.
Be honest with them about how painful and scary it can be to have to share things, rather than focusing on the ‘morality’ of sharing. Remember very young children will find it hard to empathise or rationalise – their instinctive lower brain will be in the driving seat – so it is unfair to punish or chastise a child for the immaturity of their brain.
With an older child whose higher brain is more developed, it is still important to support and coach them as they experiment with negotiating. Better still, observe, wait and listen before reacting. Give children the space to experiment with both negotiating and problem-solving, just as Fran and Lauren did, and only intervene when asked or when the situation warrants it.
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Article written by Anne O’Connor and published in Nursery World © www.nurseryworld.co.uk