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Avoiding “elephant fights”

“When elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled” – Kenyan Proverb

Conflict is not always a bad thing. Many positives come from conflict, not the least of which is learning how to resolve conflict itself in a peaceful and productive manner. Destructive conflict, on the other hand, serves little good. In my practice, I have found that some of the most significant change in clients – kids and adults alike – comes from conflict.

Conflict suggests a state of discomfort and if we are uncomfortable, we wish to change whatever it is that is causing our discomfort, from a pair of socks that are on wrong (you know what I mean, that little seam by the toes that, if it is not sitting nicely atop your foot, can drive you to a state approaching rage) to having learning problems in a classroom. Some things we can change easily, some take more effort and support, but we can change. To quote Rocky after his improbable win over Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, “If I can change, and youse can change, everyone can change” (Rocky’s diction, unfortunately, did not change).

However, there is the reality that in some situations, those in power must experience conflict that has a negative impact upon those who we are trying to help change. We can refer to this kind of conflict as being well-intended and “for the good of the child,” but unfortunately, such best intentions are often simply a cover for the protection of the adult ego. I have had countless conversations with parents going through struggles with custody following separation and/or divorce in which all parents have said, independent of one another “I only want what is best for my child.” They then go on to explain why they are the best – and occasionally, only – choice that can be made in terms of custody. They say that they never speak negatively about the other parent – and then go on to say some of the most insidious things about that very person (or their new partners). This is all ego, acting in the disguise of “the best interests of the child.” And please be aware, nothing in these situations is as simple as what I am presenting here. I am simply emphasizing certain familiar patterns of behavior that are more common than one would expect.

We need to remember that the way we deal with conflict as adults is how our children learn about dealing with conflict. Very much a monkey-see, monkey-do situation. We can provide all sorts of lessons and demonstrations and curriculum on healthy conflict management, but what kids really look to is how we actually, in real life, approach (or avoid) conflict. That is what they will learn and repeat in their own lives.

The elephant proverb cited above is one I agree with whole-heartedly in working with kids.  Adult egos, including conflictual parents, parents who have ongoing negative interactions with school staff, teachers who have conflict about how best to serve the needs of the child – most of these conflicts are truly rooted in what the adults believe to be in the best interests of the child.  But how often do we trample the children in what we believe to be their own best interests?  Children can learn from observing how adults resolve conflict and if they see mom and dad disparaging the school or teachers, or if they hear parents saying negative things about other parents, particularly when that other parent is not there to engage in healthy conflict management and resolution, what does the child learn? 

And then – we see students having conflict at school, with their peers or with teachers. They struggle with resolving conflict independently or even with support. We blame pop media, video games, and so on. To mix my metaphors for a moment, we ignore the elephant fight in the room – the grass is getting trampled by our conflict. Children, being the vulnerable and impressionable people they are, are not great at understanding the “do as I say, not as I do” approach to parenting and teaching, so they do what they observe. And somehow, we get upset with them for doing exactly what our modeling is showing them to do.

We are weird that way. 

So, some things to consider:

  • Encourage kids to think of conflict as normal, healthy, and a source of learning.
  • Role model positive conflict management.
  • Fight fair.
  • Keep adult things adult – ask this question “Whose needs are being served by my comments? Mine, or my child’s/student’s?”  (*And be honest – this is only a question you need to answer and only in your head – feel free to be self-critical!)
  • Identify negative approaches to conflict – especially in the media.
  • Fill in the blank: “If you can’t say something nice about someone, ____” (hint, the correct response is not “say a bunch of nasty stuff”!)
  • Support kids in conflict that is beyond their means of control; adult conflict is beyond their control, some peer conflict is beyond their control, an argument with a sibling over who gets the bigger piece of cake is within their control.

Support kids in conflict that is beyond their means of control; adult conflict is beyond their control, some peer conflict is beyond their control, an argument with a sibling over who gets the bigger piece of cake is within their control.


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