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.

Read About It
And as with many situations with young children, books are an excellent way to give kids a script of sorts for proper behavior.  Reading stories is an age appropriate way to give children the language they need to deal with their own conflicts, as well as labels for the emotions they are feeling. Try these children’s books that deal directly with common childhood problems:

  • Simon’s Hook by Karen Gedig Burnett, deals directly with teasing and put-downs
  • Three Monsters  by David McKee, a book about acceptance and sharing
  • The Little Giant  by Sergio Ruzzier, a story about peace, friendship, and differences
  • Trouble in the Barker's Class, by Tomie de Paola, a tale about a class bully
  • T-Rex Is Missing! by Tomie dePaola, a lesson about jumping to conclusions

Frame It
Parents need to be aware of age-appropriate expectations for behavior so they can explain things to their kids. When another child acts in a less-than-ideal way, explain to your child that everyone has things he's still working on, and that it's a process that takes time. “It’s important that your child understands that the undesirable behavior, like teasing or not sharing, is the other child’s problem not his,” Armistead says. Point out that the other child is still learning how to behave. Maybe they haven’t learned how to share yet, but they will. Don't refer to the other child in a harsh or negative tone. That will only make the problem seem more unsolvable.

Know the Lingo
Don’t just wait until your child comes home with a problem to start thinking about conflict solutions. Be proactive and you might even be able to ward off some potential playground problems. Most schools offer some kind of school-wide character development or conflict resolution program. Find out the buzzwords that your child’s teacher uses to handle conflict. Then work them into your family conversations at home. This will give your child more practice with the phrases and help her to access them when she needs to. Just don't be surprised when she uses some of this new vocabulary on you!

Brainstorm Solutions
Armistead believes in a 3-step formula for resolving kid conflict. The first step is for parents to acknowledge that they hear their child is upset and communicate that the problem is solvable. The second step is identifying the problem from your child's perspective. That brings us to the third step: empowerment. What are the choices? What can your child do now to solve the issue? Armistead suggests using an analogy to a board game: what's the next move. Try to elicit three solutions that might be acceptable to your child, then ask him to pick the best move.

Enlist Help

At this age, problems can generally be solved with a little help from you and your child’s teacher. But if the conflict persists or the other child’s aggression seems to escalate, it may be necessary to involve the school counselor and possibly the other child’s parents. If that is the case you should always initiate this through the teacher first. You should never attempt to make contact with the other child’s family on your own.

It can be difficult as a parent to watch your child endure the inevitable aches and pains of life. But as difficult as it may be, it's a part of kindergarten development, and part of life. “Learning to handle problems at a young age prepares children to hand problems they will inevitably encounter as adults," Burnett says. "The more we help them learn to navigate around or through these bumps, the happier our children will be in the long run.”