Building Bridges Part Three: A Restorative Way Through Family Conflict
© 2019 William A. Bledsoe, Ph.D. for Mountain Parent Magazine
Conflict is stressful
Family conflict even more so because we have an emotional investment in each other. A simple disagreement can escalate into an argument, and an argument into a screaming match. When our children fight with us or each other, it’s easy to blame ourselves.
Take heart. Family conflict is inevitable. But it’s also an opportunity for deeper engagement and understanding, and a chance to teach our children how to process their emotions, develop empathy and take responsibility.
Why Patterns are so hard to Break
Family patterns of interaction during conflict can be difficult to break because they become hard-wired in our brains. If our experience of conflict is hurtful, we develop unconscious strategies meant to protect us.
Harsh treatment and words activate the most primal part of our brain, the amygdala, which controls our response to fear. We get triggered and off goes the alarm switch to our nervous system and our survival “fight/flight/freeze” impulse takes over. The pre-frontal cortex (rational executive brain) is not fully developed in teens, and so they need us to help them regulate and understand their emotions.
Our children are looking to us to learn how to talk about and interpret what’s happening. They need our perspective, language and narrative.
Replacing old and unconstructive ways of managing conflict requires two things. First, we have to make the commitment to do it differently. Frustration is a good motivator! Second, we need a “go to method” that we consistently use to process any conflict.
Consistency fosters predictability and reduces anxiety
As a parent, taking the time to process a conflict situation can be challenging. It’s easier to be directive and just tell our children what they need to do (i.e. “you need to apologize.”) When we’re directive, we assume the role of “fixer,” losing the opportunity to teach our children how to work through conflict. Let’s shift our “parent peacemaker” role from director to facilitator.
The Restorative Way is in our DNA
The restorative approach to conflict is not new. In fact, it’s ancient. Scholars tell us it predates western civilization and punitive responses. When human beings lived primarily in small clan units and/or tribes, the survival of the clan depended upon cooperation and the contribution of each member. Restoring relationship harmony between members in conflict was a matter of survival. Today this perennial wisdom of how to resolve conflict is finding its way back into our justice systems, schools, workplaces and families.
It is a way of communicating with each other when we experience conflict. Restoration is not touchy-feely magic. It’s about engaging in a purposeful and structured conversation when we’re at odds or when a conflict has become destructive.
The process itself is simple and straightforward.
However, simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Because we’re dealing with family dynamics, psychology, conflict, often intense emotions, and some real needs that may have been ignored or neglected, it takes practice and refinement. This refinement involves observing, listening, acknowledging feelings, and responding in an empathically attuned way.
As I wrote about attachment styles in the second article in this series, restorative communication during conflict is about looking for what’s underneath any conflict to discover why it’s happening and what people are needing.
First things first – Breathe!
When a disagreement turns into an argument that escalates into a fight, our heart rate increases, adrenaline floods our nervous system, and we’re thrown off balance. The first act of the Restorative Approach is to restore your own emotional and nervous system equilibrium.
As a parent, you have the right to take care of yourself first before stepping into the fire as a peacemaker.
Center yourself. Breathe. While you may have to immediately intervene and separate the “warring parties” (including yourself) to keep it from escalating, you have the authority to say, “Time out! We will work through this together once we chill out.”
Scholars tell us the first 3 minutes of a conflict are the most crucial for halting escalation. I think it’s the first 30 seconds and maybe less. Schedule a time to reconvene.
One-on-One & Group Discussions
There are two “places” to use this process. The first is in a one-on-one discussion with an individual child/teen when something has happened. In this dialogue we’re helping them process their thinking, feelings and needs with respect to what happened during the conflict. We’re also helping them to recognize the same in others.
The second is in a group discussion that we facilitate between two (or more) children/teens. Here’s a disclaimer: there’s going to be resistance because it’s new, and it requires kids and teens to actually talk to you and each other about what’s happening, their feelings, and how it’s impacting everyone.
It can be challenging to put this process in place as “the way we as a family move through conflict.” Here’s the good news – with regularity it will become easier for people to open up. They’ll come to trust the process and so will you.
An Art & a skill
Learning how to facilitate a discussion is like learning to play a musical instrument. The more you play, the better it sounds, and it helps to take a few lessons. When I train teachers, I encourage parents to participate in the workshops as well. This benefits children and teens because they experience consistency between how conflict and misconduct are handled at school, and how they are handled at home.
The Basic Process: 4 Questions and a Piece of Pie
The basic Restorative Process involves 4 questions designed to help people slow down and process their experience, perceptions and feelings in an organized and sequential way. It helps if you can sit in a circle. This is the way it’s been done for thousands of years. A circle signifies that we’re in this together, we all have an important contribution, and we’re about to have an important discussion.
The more you use the circle, the more meaningful it will become. It works in schools; it works in families. I don’t prefer tables because they can be like barriers keeping us from being vulnerable and open to each other.
Also in a group discussion, there needs to be some ground rules around turn-taking, not interrupting, and using “I” statements rather than blaming. A talking stick works wonders. Kids like it. Teens eventually will.
ONE: Can you tell me what happened?
When we experience an upsetting incident, we need to tell our story. This is especially true if we feel/believe we’ve been treated unfairly. This is a developmental moment for children and teens. It helps them learn how to talk about their experience.
When we patiently listen without judgement (not easy to do), we communicate the message “You matter and what happened to you matters.” It’s a moment of empathic connection and trust-building between parent and child/teen.
As a parent, this question helps us get a picture of the issue, and begin to understand the impact. We start to see what our children need to restore harmony.
“I can see that this was frustrating.”
“I can see how this would be upsetting.”
“Sounds like this was really tough.”
Notice how empathic statements help soothe the person who feels wronged, and then how their nervous system will relax.
Each child is going to have their own version of what happened. Don’t focus too much establishing a set of absolute facts. If we make this our primary objective it can come across as punitive and accusatory and cause “your client” to shut down. If the story doesn’t ring true, you can ask questions to clarify such as:
“I’m curious, did ~~~ happen?”
“Is there anything else that happened that you can share?”
“I’m confused, can you help me understand if
~~~ might’ve happened too?”
If they become defensive, this keeps them in their heads and away from their heart – where the real change is going to happen. What we’re really trying to do is enable them to feel safe to tell the truth. It’s been my experience that over time, once kids/teens trust that we’re not using their story against them to criticize, judge, or justify punishment, they’ll be more willing to be honest. The change we’re looking for is their recognition of how their actions have impacted others.
TWO: How were you and others impacted?
I think this question is the most important in the Restorative Process. It shifts us from our heads to our hearts. The question of emotional impact is too often overlooked in conventional conflict resolution methods. Yet it holds the key to activating healthy remorse and empathy, which in turn, shifts people from self-interest into concern for others.
If people don’t have the opportunity to express their feelings, then authentic willingness to restore harmony and to reconcile will remain incomplete. Those hurt feelings and the beliefs attached to them will resurface the next time there is a conflict. This is how patterns develop.
“I can see how you would feel this way.”
“It’s understandable that you would feel hurt.”
“I can see how upsetting this is.”
“I might feel that way too.”
As parent/facilitator, this is your opportunity to validate feelings. In as much as children and teens need to talk about how the conflict impacted them, they also need to hear how the conflict impacted the other person or persons.
In this moment of the conversation, it’s typically the case where authentic/healthy remorse and a desire to repair emerges. Since as a facilitator you have moved through this discussion with a compassionate demeanor, you have established a safe space for your children to feel compassion for each other. (Ideally!)
In a group dialogue, after you’ve discussed impact, you might complete this step by commenting:
“I can see that what happened hurt all of us.”
“This is how the conflict impacted me ~~~.”
“It hurts me to see how this has hurt you.”
“I’d like to see if there’s a way we can repair what happened.”
Developmentally, this discussion is helping children/teens learn how to identify, express, and process their emotions in a constructive way. Simultaneously, because you’ve modeled validation, you’re teaching them to honor the other person’s feelings as well.
THREE: What do you/we need?
Feelings are signs of needs – either met, or unmet. My training partner Kerri Quinn likes to say, “needs are non-negotiable,” and I think there’s great wisdom in this. Basic relational needs that we all share have to do with how we are treated by others. These needs can get neglected when we’re in the throes of an argument. We have a need for physical and emotional safety, respect for our boundaries, the right to have our feelings, the right to express how we feel and…what we need!
When disagreements escalate into arguments and destructive conflict, it’s usually because people’s needs are being ignored or trampled. This discussion is your opportunity to help children discover and express what they need now, and perhaps what they were needing when the argument started. They also learn about other’s needs.
Strong emotions can be interpreted as “signals” that a need was not being met. These feelings have been expressed. You can now move into a discussion about needs that exist “under the feelings.”
For example, anger can be a sign that our boundaries have been violated. Therefore, we have a need for our boundary to be respected. As a facilitator, you can ask exploratory questions such as:
“I’m wondering if what you are/were needing is to have your personal space respected?”
Fear is a sign that we need to feel safe. Feeling excluded is a signal that we need to feel included etc. Attention and acknowledgment are needs that might exist underneath aggressive behavior. This discussion is an opportunity to help children and teens connect their feelings with their needs. By asking questions, we can help them identify what they needed when the conflict happened and what they need moving forward. We can then identify what we need and what the family needs to keep the peace in the future.
This is also an opportune moment to express that “we all need to be able to resolve our conflicts in a healthy way that preserves our relationships.”
FOUR: What’s our Agreement?
Making an agreement is about taking ownership for making things right. As the facilitator, you can ask, “What do you think we can do to keep this from happening again?” If they’re stumped, you might suggest:
“If Susie’s door is closed, how do we respect her right to privacy?”
“If Justin has friends over, what does it look like to respect his time with his friends?”
“If one of us gets really upset about something, what do we need to do keep from being hurtful?”
As parents, we may know what needs to happen, but we need to facilitate our children’s discovery and their ability to name what needs to happen. When we allow them to do this, we give them the opportunity to take ownership and this can be empowering. It teaches them that we all make mistakes. We can rectify our mistakes by taking responsibility for repair, and reparation is an honorable thing to do. Making amends is a character builder.
An effective amends has three components:
We acknowledge: “I see that what I did/said was hurtful.”
We express remorse: “I’m sorry that I caused you this pain.”
We repair: “What can I do to make things right?”
Often, a sincere apology is enough (in ‘low impact’ conflicts). In conflicts that are repetitive and particularly hurtful, we need to put agreements in place to prevent the conflict from blowing up into another war.
Inevitably, agreements will be broken. But one of the agreements you can make is that if an agreement is broken…you assemble in a circle and go through the Restorative Process to address what happened, how breaking the agreement impacted everyone, what everyone now needs, and what we can re-commit to moving forward.
Too often we blow through a conflict without taking the time to use it as a profound moment of social-emotional development. This is true for all of us, not just our children. I think we’re all in various stages of social-emotional evolution.
Teaching our children how to do conflict constructively lays a foundation for their future relationship health. For parents, the restorative process is simply a tool. It breaks down the chaos of conflict into bite sized chunks of conversation.
Who doesn’t love a piece of pie? Ice cream works too. It’s important to acknowledge the work everyone’s completed during the process. I think pie is restorative. Nothing is better than celebrating family conflict resolution than a good slice of restorative pie.