In a reflection between some of my colleagues and I, an interesting thought entered my mind about the conflicts that we had seen a lot of recently. Thinking specifically of an occurrence between two “best friends” in the early morning that was very emotional for both parties, this idea of conflicts between friends stuck with me. As I continued to reflect on my way home I began to wonder, what does conflict really mean for children?
Taking a step back for a moment and letting this question simmer, I thought a little more about our image of conflict. When thinking about conflict especially among children I think the most common thing for people to focus on is the responses those engaged in it have toward one another. We imagine the yelling, fighting, hitting, name calling, etc. that comes out in full force for many children (and sometimes even adults) when they are challenging someone else. Reflecting on this I started to think about what people might see if they looked past all of those loud, scary noises and movements, and instead stopped to consider the emotions behind it all.
Within each conflict there is a feeling there, something that is telling that person to scream, to hit and to lash out. Something in them that says “You NEED this!” These feelings and the need for them to exist is exactly why conflict is so integral to our being in the first place. In order for us to grow and develop into the people that we want to be, to realize our true selves, and to learn to advocate for the things we believe, we must experience conflict. And by this I don’t mean the little arguments we have with people or disagreements that are easily resolved, I mean real, raw, emotionally taxing types of conflict.
But what happens when people, especially children, don’t feel comfortable enough to express these big emotions, to feel their anger, disappointment, etc. to its fullest extent?
In our parent conferences a few weeks ago, one of my coworkers told a pair of parents who were concerned about their child’s strong reactions to feeling angry, frustrated, etc. that this is actually something we as teachers hope to see, a side of the children that we want to know. I recall her telling them that when a child yells at her or does something to challenge her for the first time the thought that comes to her mind is actually “Yes! They are finally comfortable here!”
Thinking about what my colleague shared I realize that this is a whole other side of conflict that so many people, especially parents, don’t tend to see. When we imagine those moments of frustration where children are kicking and screaming or those times when they are in tears on the floor, we are so wrapped up in our own frustration with what’s going on and with the idea of being challenged in that way, that we don’t see them reaching out and telling us with their bodies and their cries, “I need to feel this and I know I’m safe here.”
This is important to consider because it gives us an opportunity to view conflict, especially with those we are closest to, in a whole new light. When we engage in conflict what it actually says is that we are comfortable enough with each other to disagree, to let go of our inhibitions, to have honest reactions and to, in many ways, show them our “worst selves.” It is us being unafraid to speak our minds and realizing that it is okay in this space and with these people to be vulnerable.
Think for a moment about the the people you tend to challenge most or the people who challenge you. Chances are the people who come to mind when you think about challenge and conflict are people you are closest to. They are your partner, child, coworker, friend, family member; a person with whom you know a mutual love and respect will exist even in times when you are extremely frustrated with one another.
I think we all know it’s much easier to be joyful when the energy around you is joyful too. In fact, I’m sure many of us have had moments in our own lives when we’ve tried to mask our feelings or bury them inside to avoid being seen as the “negative” or “difficult” person in a situation. We might have conceded when we really didn’t want to concede, given up on an idea to make way for someone else’s, or even pretended to be happy in times when we actually felt really broken inside.
When you are in conflict with someone you know, and who you know cares about you, you are freed from that worry that you won’t be accepted or won’t be loved and don’t have to hold those feelings back. You can be vulnerable, be yourself, and bring all those challenging emotions to the surface, eventually making space for resolutions and repairs in that relationship to occur.
These feelings, the fear of being “that person,” is something that is not unique to adults even though I think we tend to believe it is. Even in children that feeling is there, picking at them in those moments when someones pushes them over, takes one of their toys, or makes them uncomfortable in some way. There is surely a desire to do something, to give into that voice in their brain that tells them this is not okay and wants them to yell and to fight back, but the worry of how others will react is often too strong. This is why conflict is actually a really beautiful thing. It’s not just a yelling match or a power struggle, it’s a chance for children to feel empowered and for them to advocate for themselves especially to those they are close to.
It’s in those moments when we see children find that courage and open up to someone in a sometimes painfully messy way, that we begin to see not only the importance of conflict but also why children feel the need to engage in it. For children, those times when they are expressing how frustrated, angry, or upset they are (in whatever form that takes) are really them sharing with those around them how comfortable they are. It doesn’t mean they dislike the person they are challenging or that they don’t want to spend time with them but rather that they want them to understand who they are, what they are feeling, and why they are feeling that way.
In reality conflict is a connective force, helping children and people break down walls often times without them even realizing it. It opens up parts of us that we usually don’t want seen and allows the people around us to connect with who we are on a much deeper level. It is what brings balance to our relationships, and creates a space for vulnerability to live. A space where children and even adults to be their whole selves and when the right conditions are set, where a person can trust that they will be accepted even when things are hard.
Considering this I ask you, in the context of your own lives to ponder these questions… Can a relationship truly be healthy if it doesn’t include some level of challenge or conflict? Can love and mutual respect for one another occur in an environment where conflict is not allowed or supported? Is it possibly to realize the depth of our connection to others if we have never been challenged by them and had to work together to a resolution?