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Peer to Peer Problems and Playground Politics

Peer to Peer Problems and Playground Politics

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Updated on Sep 23, 2008

Kindergarten is under way and it’s been smooth sailing so far. Your child loves his teacher and all his new friends. He is happily leaving you at the door, eager to enter the classroom and start his day. That is, until one day he comes home quiet, sad, or visibly upset. What happened to the joyful glee of school? After a little poking and prodding you find out he's having problems with a classmate. Playground politics, at five?

It's heartbreaking to see your kindergarten kid distraught over one of his first friendship dilemmas, but resist the urge to jump to your child's defense and get upset right along with him, says Rhonda Armistead, M.S. past president of the National Association of School Psychiatrists. While they can be painful for parents to witness, problems with peers are good opportunities to teach your child an essential life skill: how to deal with conflict. “You want your child to learn to be an effective problem solver," Armistead says. And social conflicts provide the perfect learning opportunity. 

Karen Burnett, children's author and former elementary school counselor, agrees. “Every conflict your child has, with other children, siblings or even adults, is an opportunity to teach and encourage personal understanding and respect, communication and negotiation skills," she says. No one is born with negotiation know-how, it's learned. Yes, you can teach your child to become a little more playground savvy, outlining the rules for engagement. But you'd be missing the point. “Teaching is not about telling, it’s about guiding,” Burnett says.  

So how exactly do you guide a five-year-old to learn how to handle conflict? By walking her through the process for a while, so she'll eventually learn to solve problems on her own. Here are 8 steps:

Ask Specific Questions.
When a problem arises, ask pointed questions to get to the heart of what happened. For example, “Were you physically hurt? Did he hurt your feelings? Or both?” Try to stick to the facts: What happened first? Then what happened? What did your child do and what did the other child do? Help your child lay out exactly what occurred, from his point of view, without getting into why it happened or who was at fault. 

Put Words In Her Mouth.
Once you've talked about the facts, talk about how your child is feeling. This can be easier said than done, because one thing many kindergarten aged kids are missing, is the vocabulary to describe how they're feeling or what is happening to them. Help your child talk about the problem by guiding her with phrases such as, “You seem upset. Tell me about it." Or "How do you feel about that? If that had happened to me I think I might feel …” Giving children names to fit their emotions helps them learn to communicate more effectively and defuse future problems.

Empathize, Don't Sympathize.
Sympathy is the wrong tactic, Burnett stresses. Instead, parents need to empathize with their kids. "Empathize means, you are trying to understand how your child feels, sounding something like, 'That must be hard. I’ll bet you were upset.' Sympathize says, 'Poor you. That is terrible. It shouldn’t be happening.' You want to give your child the power to change the situation, not to feel like a victim," Burnett says.

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