How to Teach the Cycle of Conflict to Teens

How to Teach the Cycle of Conflict to Teens by Suzanne Marie- Ferris wheel at night with lights and showing blurring from movement

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Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Teaching high school students how the cycle of conflict influences interpersonal relationships is important for their development.

This blog post contains lesson planning strategies to help educators equip students to recognize and effectively manage the cycle of conflict.

Background

Conflict resolution is a key component of the cycle of conflict.

As a dedicated educator and professional mediator for over two decades, I have an extensive background in helping people find appropriate tools to effectively manage conflicts and disputes.

I have created curricula tailored to high school and post-secondary students and professionals to teach individuals how to engage in successful conversations when faced with conflicts.

My fourteen years of experience as a chartered mediator has also proved invaluable in helping many people work towards resolving their differences.

Defining Conflict

Conflict is present in our lives every day.

For example, we may experience conflict situations with deciding when we will wake up in the morning, what we will have for breakfast, whether or not the job we are currently doing is ‘working for us,’ or if we are in a healthy relationship.

In these everyday conflicts, and only when conflict becomes manifested or escalated, do we experience an acknowledgment of the conflict situation that exists in our lives.

Once it is triggered, we find ourselves in many dispute situations.

Therefore, effectively managing the conflict situation becomes essential to our ability to solve our problems.

Managing Conflict

Teaching young people how to manage conflict effectively helps them develop social skills and problem solving in a respectful way.

By teaching effective conflict resolution strategies, our high school students learn how to handle difficult situations and strong emotions to achieve positive outcomes.

In the long term, teaching young people conflict resolution skills is a great way to help them reframe a negative experience and learn how to build healthy relationships with others.

The most important skill we develop in conflict management is managing our emotions in conflict situations.

Rather than letting our emotions rule our actions, we step back, think about what is going on, and then consciously decide how we will respond.

Knowing how to manage conflict and emotions, and having different ways to resolve conflict situations, are crucial for effective communication in our interpersonal relationships. 

Creating lesson plans including conflict scenarios with social-emotional skills, reflective listening, body language, conflict resolution styles, and communication skills is a good idea for the character education of young adults.

By teaching our students in their adolescent years, we set them up for the future. 

Reasons Behind Conflict

Conflict occurs for a variety of reasons and is both personal and impersonal.

There are many types of conflict; however, there are predominantly four different areas of conflict experienced:

  1. Interpersonal Conflicts – conflict occurring between two people or groups of people that may have been or is a relationship or touched upon a relationship
  2. Intra-personal Conflicts – conflict arising between the individual and their self.
  3. Inter-group Conflicts- conflict occurring between groups.
  4. Intra-group conflicts- conflict occurring within a group.

Managing conflict involves two or more people or small groups of people confronting each other or realizing they are engaged in a dispute.

Conflicts include arguments, negotiations, and disagreements. The only difference between a conflict and a dispute is the intensity (the level of hostility/violence) present during the process.

When in a conflict state, our thinking is clouded, and it becomes difficult to formulate options for a peaceful solution.

We are focused on what will give us the greatest possible chance of winning the dispute. Rather than focusing on effective ways to a better outcome.

Perception in Conflict Situations

Perceptions influence how we experience conflict situations.

The conflict cycle starts with our own beliefs and attitudes.

Our beliefs and attitudes about conflict are formed when our families are first faced with a conflict situation.

Our parents or primary caregivers contribute to developing our beliefs and attitudes about conflict just as their parents or primary caregivers contributed to form theirs.

Awareness of how the conflict cycle operates and how our beliefs and attitudes are continually reinforced each time we have conflict is the first action we can take to resolve the conflict in our lives peacefully.

Influence of Beliefs and Attitudes on Conflict

Because conflicts start with our attitudes and beliefs, we give in to our attitudes and beliefs when we are threatened.

It is a normal human response to protect ourselves when we feel threatened.

Unfortunately, the egocentric defenses we use against threats to our sense of “self” will escalate conflict quickly.

When we feel defensive, for example, we do not listen well and seek to justify our way of thinking and believing. But unfortunately, these perceptions and justifications rarely resolve disputes satisfactorily.

When defensive, we rarely seek to understand the other person first.

We usually resist when someone challenges our beliefs, seeks to correct our mistaken views, or persuades us to reconsider our position.

When we feel threatened, our perceptions stimulate egocentric defenses such as criticism, stubbornness, defensiveness, and fault-finding. These will escalate the conflict.

How Perception Influences Conflict

  • We shut out the other person, who is likely to become defensive as well.
  • We become closed-minded and focused on our agenda.
  • We tend to attack the other person’s position or ideas.

The anger and blame that often characterize conflict escalates as each person focuses on their position. Also, getting caught up in defending personal rightness entrenches positions. Defending personal righteousness is particularly true when we have deep-seated prejudices and beliefs.

When trapped in this state, fighting back and retaliating against anyone who disagrees with us is common.

How to Be Mindful in Conflict

The best way to start preparing for conflict management is to develop a keen understanding of the elements needed to be effective.

For the most part, to get started, we need three key ingredients:

  1. Awareness
  2. Willingness
  3. Skills

Be mindful of your perception, attitudes, and beliefs, and be on the lookout for defensive responses. Unpack feelings and reactions to conflict using models like understanding the cycle of conflict.

Be aware of the perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs of others as well. For example, sometimes we believe we are helpful by pointing out another person’s flaws, but this only escalates the conflict.

We always seem to have a good reason for our actions. And we usually ignore or invalidate the other person’s point of view.

When we disagree with someone, we must seek to understand first.

Move beyond the standard narrative in conflict situations:

  • I am always right.
  • I am always wrong.
  • I am a victim.
  • You are always right.
  • I often notice you are wrong.
  • You are a victim, narcissist, gas lighter, poor communicator, unhealthy, blamer, etc.

Re-Learning Conflict

The second action we can take to resolve the conflict cycle is re-learning.

  • First, we must be willing to learn how the conflict cycle works.
  • Next, we must be willing to learn how to create conflict resolution strategies for ourselves and others.

This is a crucial step because it is only through re-learning conflict that we break free from the grip of our belief systems.

Challenging Our Beliefs

The third action is changing our beliefs. To do this, use reflective questions to explore beliefs, attitudes, and values about conflict.

  • How does conflict make me feel?
  • What are some of the roles I play during a conflict?
  • When I was young, who taught me how to handle conflict? What was their approach?
  • What is the biggest lesson I learned during my childhood experiences with conflict?
  • What conflicts happened in my family that I observed?
  • What roles did people play during those conflicts?

Every conflict is unique, but conflict is cyclical. From the smallest arguments at home, a neighborly spat, a car accident on the freeway, or an international terrorist attack, there is a pattern.

All these conflicts are essentially the same in terms of how they are perceived, how they are approached, and, ultimately, how they are resolved.

The Cycle of Conflict Activity

This activity is fun to explore. It helps students grasp new concepts and ideas about conflict and the conflict cyle.

Discover Beliefs and Attitudes

Start this activity by inviting each student to think back to that time in their lives and focus on the response of the person they conflict with, their response, and how they were feeling in that situation.

Students are most comfortable closing their eyes or putting their heads down to assist with their concentration and focus on the conflict situation.

Then, after approximately a minute or two, continue with the next step.

Conflict Occurs

Next, ask students to think of a time later in life when they faced conflict.

Ask them to reflect on a time, maybe in middle school, junior high school, or even high school, depending on the group’s age, and invite them to focus on the conflict situation.

Prompt them to focus on the response of the person they conflict with, their reaction, and how they felt in that situation.

Responses to Conflict

For this step, have students think of a recent conflict, possibly in the past week or month.

Encourage them to focus on the response of the other person, as well as their reaction and how they felt in that situation.

After approximately a minute or two, let the participants know that the exercise is over and invite anyone to share similarities they may have noticed with the situations in their reflections.

This bridging activity helps introduce how cycles of conflict develop through consistent patterns of behavior.

Common Responses

  • Participants may notice that the examples they reflected on were similar
  • Participants may see that the examples they reflected on were different

Conflict is Cyclical

Conflict is often associated with disputes.

The following explanation of the Cycle of Conflict will describe how our definition and meaning of conflict in our lives influence how we respond to conflict situations.

The best method to teach the cycle of conflict is to draw a diagram on a whiteboard, then explain the four stages of the process.

Revise Beliefs and Attitudes

The first stage begins with the beliefs and attitudes we have formed from our experiences with conflict.

Relationships, meaning, and circumstances determine our beliefs and attitudes about conflict.

What we believe about conflict comes from the messages we receive from our parents, teachers, the media, other influences, and experiences.

These beliefs affect how we act and respond when a conflict occurs.

Examples:

If we were a child, and it’s normal to yell and react when a conflict occurs, we may adopt that belief and response.

If we were a child, and it’s normal to shut down, give the silent treatment, and avoid a situation every time a conflict occurs, we may adopt that belief and response.

Conflict Occurs

The second stage of the conflict cycle is when a conflict occurs and we respond.

Our response is conditioned over time and based on our beliefs about conflict.

Responses to a conflict are described as an approach and include some of the following:

  • yell
  • avoid
  • put things off
  • depression
  • confrontation
  • bullying
  • talk about it
  • walk away
  • name calling
  • put-downs
  • negotiate

Responses to Conflict

The response generates and outcome.

Outcomes are:

  • poor relationships
  • unhealthy relationships
  • better relationships
  • hurt feelings
  • guilt
  • depression
  • escalation of conflict
  • stress
  • feeling better

Reinforce New Beliefs and Attitudes

This stage ends the cycle of conflict, and another will begin.

Each time we experience conflict and have a similar reaction and a similar result, our beliefs and attitudes about conflict are reinforced.

Example

My sister-in-law and I have rarely seen things the same way. Whenever a conflict occurs between us, she will lose her temper, and I will walk away.

As a result of the battle with my sister-in-law, my husband and I will end up having a heated discussion creating stress in our relationship.

This result reinforces my belief and attitude that the next time a conflict occurs between my sister-in-law and me, she will lose her temper, and I will walk away.

The result will be that my husband and I will have a heated discussion about the issues I have with his sister, reinforcing my belief and attitude that the next time I will have a conflict with my sister-in-law…

Student Activity

At this stage in the example, ask students the following questions to generate dialogue about the cycle of conflict:

Teacher AsksCommon Student Responses
What pattern of behavior can you see with this conflict example?The same thing keeps happening. 

Nothing changes each time you are in conflict. 
Where in the conflict cycle do we have control or the power to make a change? The ‘response’ stage of the conflict cycle. 
How can this change be accomplished? By taking a different approach to the conflict situation. 

By doing something different. 

When students see the four stages of the cycle of conflict, they contextualize how conflict works.

At this point in the lesson, teachers must share an example of how the conflict cycle is changed.

Changing the Cycle of Conflict

My sister-in-law and I were in a situation where a conflict could occur.

Again, a confrontation occurred, and she started to speak louder and louder.

This time instead of walking away, I asked her what was going on for her to react in the way she was. She told me she didn’t feel like she was valued or important to my husband and me.

We discussed her comments, worked out a resolution, and continued with our visit conflict-free.

The next time a conflict occurred with my sister-in-law, we asked each other what was going on for us to respond the way we were. We were willing to sit down together and discuss our issues.

The next time a conflict occurred, my sister-in-law and I sat down and discussed the dispute and the issues to be resolved. We worked things out, resulting in a stronger relationship.

Changing the result of the conflict allowed me to create new beliefs and attitudes about my relationship with my sister-in-law and the conflict we experienced together.

In this example, I use the first-person explanation, as we are responsible for our behavior and only control our response to conflict.

Conflict management does not take two people to resolve issues. So long as one person is skilled in conflict management, the skilled person helps resolve the conflict.

For further individual reflection, provide materials to students to complete their cycle of conflict in a relationship they wish to explore.

Summary

Conflict is a part of everyday life, and students must know how to manage it effectively.

The cycle of conflict defines the common stages of adversarial interactions. Beginning with beliefs and attitudes, then focusing on reactions generating outcomes.

For students to manage this cycle and resolve their disputes, conflict resolution skills need to be taught.

Thanks for stopping by!

Until next time,

Suzanne

Related Topics

References

TACT (Teens and Conflict Together): A Facilitator’s Guide for Empowering Youth to Engage in Creative Problem Solving: Petryshyn, MA., Chartered Mediator, Suzanne: 9781451516593: Books – Amazon.ca. (2022). Amazon.ca.


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