How to Turn Conflicts Into Learning Opportunities

Parenting expert, Dr. Laura Markham, shares her tips on dealing with conflicts through effective, productive communication.

Mom having a difficult conversation with daughter

Almost from the time our kids can talk, there are conflicts we need to work through, from an impending move (“I’m not going!”) to your six-year-old lying, your nine-year-old flunking math, your twelve-year-old using profanity on Instagram, or your 15-year-old getting drunk with his friends. Starting out on the offensive will only slam the doors of communication. If you can control your emotions and keep the conversation safe, your child may be able to stop being defensive and start sharing. That’s when breakthroughs happen. The child actually sees the error of her ways and becomes motivated to repair things. (Unlike when we jump to blame and punishment and the child assumes you never understand or care.)

12 tips for managing conflicts:

1. Don’t take it personally

Your four-year-old screams, I hate you, Daddy!” Your ten-year-old huffs, Mom, you never understand! Your teenager slams the door to her bedroom.

What’s the most important thing to remember? DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. This isn’t really about you. It’s about them — their tangled up feelings, their difficulty controlling themselves, their inability to understand and express their emotions. When your daughter says “You never understand!” try to hear that as information about her – at this moment she feels like she’s never understood – rather than about you.

Taking comments personally wounds you, which would lead you do what we all do when we’re hurt: close off, or lash out, or both, which only worsens a tough situation for all concerned.

2. Manage your own feelings and behavior

The only one you can control in this situation is yourself. Here’s how:

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Let the hurt go. Remind yourself that your child does, in fact, love you but can’t get in touch with positive feelings at the moment.
  • Let the fear go. Remind yourself that while this feels like an emergency, it isn’t. It’s a learning opportunity for your child, and you, too!
  • Try hard to remember what it feels like to be a kid who is upset and over-reacting.
  • Notice if your “story” is making you upset (But she lied to me!”) and if necessary, expand it to change your emotional response. For example, “My daughter was so afraid of my reaction that she lied to me. I guess I need to look at how I respond when she tells me something I don’t want to hear.”
  • Consciously lower and slow your voice before you speak. Your goal is to calm the storm, not inflame it.

3. Always start the conversation by acknowledging your child’s perspective

That takes them off the defensive so they can hear you then elaborate. Before you state your own views, reflect your child’s corrections so they know you recognize and acknowledge their point of view.

4. Extend respect

Remember that more than one perspective can be true simultaneously. Assume your child has a reason for her views or behavior. It may not be what you would consider a good reason, but she has a reason. If you want to understand her, you’ll need to extend her the basic respect of trying to see things from her point of view. Say whatever you need to say and then close your mouth and listen.

5. Reconnect with your love and empathy for your child

You can still set limits, but do it from as calm a place as you can muster. Your child will be deeply grateful, even if she can’t acknowledge it at the moment. I’m not suggesting that you let your child treat you disrespectfully. Recognize any disrespect as an expression of hurt, fear or frustration. Listen to the message underneath the rudeness. Wait until you can act out of love, rather than anger, before you set limits.

6. Keep the conversation safe for everyone

People can’t hear when they’re upset. If they don’t feel safe, they generally withdraw or attack. If you notice your child getting angry, scared or hurt, back up and reconnect. Remind her – and yourself – how much you love her, and that you’re committed to finding a solution that works for everyone.

7. Try hard to avoid making your child defensive

  • Use “I” statements to describe your feelings (“It scares me when you’re late and don’t call” instead of “You’re so irresponsible not to call!”)
  • Describe the situation. (“This report card is much worse than your previous report cards”  instead of “This is a terrible report card!”)
  • Offer information. (“Our neighbor Mrs. Brown says that you were smoking in the back yard” instead of “Are you smoking?”)

8. Ask questions instead of lecturing to keep your child receptive

Here are two of the most valuable questions you can ask to help your child develop good judgment and make better choices in the future:

  • “Was there some part of you that knew this was a bad idea?”
  • “Why didn’t you listen to that part of you?”

9. Maintain your sense of humor

A light touch almost magically diffuses tension.

10. Remember that expressing anger just makes you more angry

Anger only serves to reinforce your position that you’re right and the other person is wrong. Instead, notice your anger and use it as a signal of what needs to change. For instance, rather than throwing a tantrum because the kids aren’t helping around the house, use your anger as a motivator to implement a new system of chores – one they help design — that will help prevent the situation in the future.

11. Wait until there’s been a reconnection before you ask the child to come up with a repair plan

For instance, if your child has ruptured the trust between you, he has some repair work to do. But he won’t be be motivated to do that until he sees the cost of his actions. First connect. Then brainstorm repair with him.

12. Hold the intention that working through conflict an actually bring you closer

If we approach a difficult discussion with clarity about our true purpose – nurturing this developing human – we create an opening for something new to happen. If we’re open to really hearing our child’s side of things, and to meeting our child with love even while we’re clear about the behavior we need to see, new possibilities for connection will appear. That may seem impossible when everyone is upset. But intimacy deepens or is eroded by every interaction we have. Every problem offers an opportunity to shift onto a positive track and deepen your connection to your child.

Imagine your child, many years from now, being asked by his own child what he remembers about you. Have the conversation you want him to remember.


Published with permission from Aha! Parenting by Dr. Laura Markham. 

Dr. Laura Markham trained as a Clinical Psychologist, earning her PhD from Columbia University.  But she’s also a mom, so she translates proven science into the practical solutions you need for the family life you want.

Dr. Laura is the author of the books Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings:How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. For more information, visit


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