Mediating conflicts between children has never been high on adults' lists of favorite parental responsibilities, and no wonder: it's a thankless job that results, if you're lucky, in both parties mumbling “sorry” while still remaining resolutely unapologetic. However, conflict resolution is an important life skill that children need to get a handle on, while avoiding flying off the handle in the first place. And sometimes, just saying “sorry” isn't enough. So how can parents encourage conflict resolution skills in their child?

As it turns out, just saying sorry is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to truly resolving a conflict. Young children often believe that “sorry” is a magic word that makes all of their problems go away. When in conflict, children often blurt out “sorry” before the problem can be resolved, expecting it to quickly make everything better. But while saying sorry is certainly a promising insight into a child’s character, it is not how children resolve conflicts successfully.

The secret is getting your child to understand and accept just why she should feel sorry. Judith Schapiro, on Oakland-based therapist, says, “It's important for kids to understand the reasons why they need to say they're sorry. If, for example, they find out that they have hurt someone's feelings, they can learn that they have a powerful effect on other people.” Hurting others, whether by name-calling, refusing to share, hitting or pinching, or just plain being mean, should always elicit a heart-felt apology, but first children need to learn the important skill of empathy.

Frank Alviso, a school psychologist for Aspire Public Schools, says when children engage in effective conflict resolution, they “are able to move away from an egocentric worldview to a moral perspective in which they are motivated by empathy and the need to preserve social order.” Effective conflict resolution techniques—instead of just a simple “sorry”—engage children in trying to see another’s perspective, giving them opportunities to learn how their actions affect others.

Here are a few lessons in conflict resolution to pass along to your child:

  • Use “I-Messages” when involved in conflicts. I-Messages can be created by using the frame “I feel _____________ when you ___________. I need you to ____________.” They are very useful for having children express emotions without blame and can help children come up with solutions to their problems.

    For example, if someone took a ball away from your child, he might say “I felt angry when you took the ball away from me. I need you to please give it back to me and then I will give you a turn.” Instead of just grabbing the ball back or yelling, this approach helps your child focus on a solution to the problem at hand. 

  • Be an active listener. When in a conflict, each person involved should get a chance to tell his side of the story. Teach your child how important it is not only to listen to others but also to show others that he is listening. Active listening means looking at the person who is talking and giving your full attention to the speaker.

  • Repeat what others have said. After each person has expressed his perspective, the other person should rephrase what has been said. For example, if one child says “I felt sad and hurt when you hit me. I need you to promise you will never do it again,” the other child would say, “I heard you say that you were sad and hurt when I hit you. I’m sorry and I promise I will never do it again.” You’ll notice that the word sorry appeared in this last exchange, but it wasn’t an empty apology. Instead, the child included a reason for being sorry and a solution for the future.

  • Remember to practice what you preach. Model how to solve conflicts using I-Messages and active listening. If your child hears you using these tools to effectively solve conflicts, he will feel encouraged to use these tools himself. Of course, sometimes you want to take a direct route with your child (i.e. “Stop yelling!”) but there are other times when it is useful to use I-Messages when talking to your child. If your child won’t stop making an annoying noise, you could say “It makes me feel really frustrated when you make that noise. I need you to stop so I can concentrate.” Role play how to solve conflicts using active listening and I-Messages before expecting your child to use these tools in the heat of a conflict.

Schapiro adds that, “It's also important for kids--and adults--to know the reasons for rules. Sometimes we lose track of why we are "supposed to" do things and not do others. Explaining these reasons to children helps us to learn with them, and to focus on what is truly important.” Conflict resolution can serve as an opportunity to discuss kind behavior and to develop empathy. With time, using these tips will help your child learn from conflicts and understand the meaning behind a true apology.