We never forget our first experiences of being hurt by others.
Those experiences become childhood scars etched into our memories, as we are jolted out of innocent sweetness and naiveté into the eye-opening realization that our personalities are unique and we will not jibe with everyone around us.
My first such painful memories were of girls wanting to beat me up because I was the “nice girl.”
At the time, I did not understand why they would want to hurt me, and I never fought back. That made them even more angry. I can remember being baffled and sad at this. Not having a clue of how to respond, I just kept being nice and tried to keep to myself.
That was when I learned how to put up emotional walls to protect myself, an issue I still deal with today.
Now, as a parent, I want to provide a safe place where my children can discuss their feelings. Whether I agree with them or not is not the point. I want to allow them to feel how they are feeling and teach them how to use their negative feelings to move quickly and genuinely to a positive emotion. At work, I coined the phrase “Pause to Pivot to a Positive,” to describe this practice.
Let’s explore a recent scenario that involved my daughter and a friend of hers, and the steps I helped her take in that conflict.
Identify the Issue.
In order to appropriately identify the issue at hand, it is vital to listen to all sides of a conflict, because all parties play a role in any conflict they are involved in.
In the case at hand, I asked the mother what the issue was for her daughter and then checked with my daughter about what the main issue was for her. My daughter, at the tender age of 11, was feeling left out of the girls’ core group.
Teach Them to Listen to Their Feelings.
It has taken me years to fully understand the importance of allowing and listening to all my feelings and emotions, and I strive to teach my children that is okay to feel how they are feeling, because their feelings have something important to tell them.
It is also okay for their friends to feel how they feel. Even if we cannot understand why someone’s feelings were hurt, we have to allow them to feel the way they feel, and we must develop empathy for them. If a child is not understanding why someone else’s feelings are hurt, give an example such as the following: “How do you feel when your sibling picks a fight with you, and you come to me but I tell you, ‘I don’t want to hear about it—just get along’?”
Go on to explain to the child, “You probably wanted me to listen to you and hear you and tell you it is okay how you are feeling, right? (Pause. Listen to the response) I know that many times I do not listen to how you are feeling, and I am sorry for that. I will try to do a better job.” As parents, when we apologize, we lead by example.
As the child shares his or her feelings, just listen. Ask questions but only those that will help you listen more deeply, such as: How do you feel when you are not following your heart? How do you feel when you act in kind ways? How do you feel when you are not nice to others? Which feeling do you prefer?
After I listened to my daughter’s feelings and discussed them with her, I asked if she could put herself in her friend’s shoes and have empathy for how her friend was feeling. She was able to identify a scenario in which a group of her friends were doing a presentation in class and were excluding her friend. She instantly realized this was likely hurtful since up to this point all the girls had done similar presentations together.
Trust Them to Make the Right Choices.
Next, I said, “I trust you to make the right decisions. I know you are kind and will work to settle this in a positive way.”
Encourage One Positive Action Step.
Subsequently, ask, “What is one action step you can take to make amends with your friend?”
In this case, my daughter came up with three ideas: First, she was going to ask the others to allow her to join the presentation. The other girls did not agree, so she decided not to participate.
Second, she apologized to her friend by saying, “I did not mean to hurt your feelings, and I can see how your feelings were hurt. I am sorry.”
Third, she invited her friend for a fun outing outside of school to move forward in a positive and fun way.
Wow! Because I trusted my daughter to make her own choices, she exceeded my expectations. Honestly, I would not have been able to come up with such a solid action plan.
Follow Up Daily.
Our children will face ongoing challenges in their lives, so it is critical to follow up daily with them about how they are feeling, and to repeat the above steps over and over.
Ask them questions: Who did you have lunch with, who did you play with at recess, what did you play? What was your favorite part about your day? What was your least favorite? What made you happy today? What made you sad today?
These conversations are where you can identify issues and facilitate positive conflict resolution over and over.
Group Conflict Resolution.
I was remiss in following my own advice on repeating these steps with the other girls in my daughter’s group of friends, and feelings in the group escalated to such an extent that the school administration became involved. The girls were focusing only on their hurt feelings and were not including the gratitude they once had for their friendship and the regrets they personally had about the conflict. So I decided to share with the other moms the steps I had taken with my daughter, and I suggested we do an exercise to resolve their differences.
In group conflict such as this one, you can try the process below, which was inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Watering Flowers, an exercise that I have modified based on my years of leading corporate conflict resolution sessions.
When attempting to resolve conflict, if we focus only on the hurt feelings, we tend to move into fight or flight mode. But if the other person first hears that we appreciate them and that we also regret hurting their feelings, it is then easier for them to hear how our feelings have been hurt.
1. Have all parties involved say why they are grateful for each of the other people in the group, making sure on each round of gratitudes that no one is left out.
2. Next, ask each person to say at least one thing they regret having done to each of the others, and then apologize.
3. Finally, ask each person to share an example of how their feelings were hurt.
In my daughter’s case, we were able to do this with only one of the families, so my daughter wrote to the other families. Here is an example of what she wrote:
I am grateful for being my own person. Also, that our friendship did last over two years.
I regret and I am sorry for losing communication with the group. I am sorry if I hurt your feelings.
My feelings were hurt when you did not apologize to our friend whose feelings were initially hurt. And when after we went through this (with one of her other friends), you were still mad at me.
I include these details of the story to illustrate that feelings are messy, and not all parties will want to take this approach. In my daughter’s case, this exercise worked with only one of the girls involved. But that is a small win my daughter will never forget. She will remember that as she went through the steps, one of her friends accepted her apology.
Through this process, my daughter also learned another invaluable lesson—that she is not going to please and get along with everyone. Different people make the world go around, providing contrasts that help us be grateful for those who love us and accept us for who we are.
I teach my children to brush their teeth and pick up after themselves, but I spend even more time teaching them about the emotional aspects of life. If we can teach our kids to mindfully resolve conflict—to take accountability rather than to blame others, and to move forward rather than to make excuses for not being able to forgive—then we will have done our job as parents.
Let’s teach our kids the power of Pausing to Pivot to the Positive: identifying the issue, listening to their feelings, empathizing with others, making right choices, and taking positive action steps.