Imagine this: it’s lunchtime at school and your nine year old son is at the eating area, finding his way around a girl at the table to reach his seat. As he slides past her he knocks her lunchbox to the ground, spilling its contents everywhere.
He starts to apologise but before he’s able to utter two words she starts to yell at him, calling him stupid and clumsy, demanding he fix it and get her a new lunch.
What would you advise him to do? How should he handle the situation in a way that is respectful of her and leaves him feeling good?
To minimise conflict and maximise respectful communication, I have taught my children to take the following steps:
- Say sorry and help pick up her lunch. Despite her reaction he still needs to acknowledge his accidental error. He did knock her lunchbox to the ground and her response does not negate his need to apologise for the accident.
- I know this is difficult for anyone (adults and children alike) to do when confronted with someone who is in a rage, but it’s a great technique to diffuse an emotional situation. Even though expressing anger in this way is disrespectful, people who are angry often just want to know they’ve been heard so empathizing with them makes them feel understood. A simple statement like, “yeah it’s annoying when someone bumps into you, I’m sorry” can go a long way.
What if she’s still shouting and name calling? I know general advice is to walk away or inform a teacher, but I encourage my children to do more than that. I tell them they have the right to say “I’ve treated you with respect but you are not treating me with respect. I will not talk to you any more until you stop shouting and calling names.” I also remind them their attitude must always be respectful, even while being firm.
My girls have used this strategy on occasion and they know I support them in asserting their boundaries in this way with their peers, and even with adults. It has helped them feel empowered in difficult situations. More importantly, the mere knowledge that they can say this is empowering, making them more mindful of their own, and the other party’s boundary-crossing behaviours.
Funnily enough, though this topic is about empowering children, it’s the same strategy I use when I’ve found myself facing an irate adult! Even though it’s never nice to be verbally abused, this is by far the best way to reduce conflict and move forward in a productive manner.
(If you have read my post from 1 November 2017, The best defence is not attack: how to empower your child in the face of unkindness, you will be aware I also show my children how to reduce emotional hurt by not taking other people’s actions personally. If you do this at home too, your child in the above scenario would be more battle-ready when faced with this conflict, and be able to take the steps outlined above with greater confidence).