How to Teach the Cycle of Conflict to Teens

abstract of a wheel moving to represent the conflict cycle by Suzanne Marie

This blog post includes lesson planning strategies for teaching high school students about the cycle of conflict in interpersonal conflicts.

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 in our ability to solve our problems.

Managing Conflict

Teaching young people about managing conflict effectively will help them to develop social skills and problem solving in a respectful way. By teaching effective conflict resolution strategies, we show our high school students how to handle difficult situations and strong emotions to achieve positive outcomes. In the long term, teaching young people about 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 can develop in conflict management is the ability to manage our emotions in conflict situations. Rather than letting our emotions rule our actions, we can step back and 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, is 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 can occur for a variety of reasons and can be 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 usually consists of two or more people or small groups of people confronting each other or realizing that they are engaged in a dispute. Conflicts can be in the form of arguments, negotiations, disagreements, and more. The only difference between a conflict and a dispute is the intensity (the level of hostility/violence) present during the process.

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

We often perceive others as selfish, which might be better replaced with more compassionate perceptions.

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 have contributed to developing our beliefs and attitudes about conflict just as their parents or primary caregivers have 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 often begin 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” often escalate conflict quickly. When we are defensive, for example, we do not listen well and seek to justify our way of thinking and believing.

When we are defensive, we rarely seek to understand the other person first. We usually resist when someone challenges our beliefs, seeks to correct our mistaken views, and persuades us to reconsider our position.

When we are threatened, our perceptions stimulate egocentric defenses such as criticism, stubbornness, defensiveness, and fault-finding often escalate the conflict. But unfortunately, these perceptions and justifications rarely resolve disputes satisfactorily.

Examples of Perception Influencing 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 can lead to an escalation of conflict as each party focuses on their position, getting caught up in defending personal rightness. Defending personal righteousness is particularly true when we have deep-seated prejudices and beliefs.

We also often “fight back” and retaliate against anyone who disagrees with us.

How to Be Mindful in Conflict

The best way to start preparing yourself for conflict management is to develop a keen understanding of the elements needed to be effective at conflict management. 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 conflict with someone, it is essential to 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.

Conflict in Education

The second action we can take to resolve the conflict cycle is education. 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 education that we will be able to break free from the dictates of our previous belief systems.

Challenging Our Beliefs

The third action is changing our beliefs. We can take time to ask ourselves these questions about our beliefs and attitudes 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 the idea that conflict is indeed cyclical holds true for every row we have, from the smallest of arguments at home, a neighborly spat, a car accident on the freeway, or an international terrorist attack. 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

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 have contributed to developing our beliefs and attitudes about conflict just as their parents or primary caregivers have contributed to forming 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.

The Cycle of Conflict Activity

The teacher begins this activity by inviting each student to spend a few moments reflecting on the first time they remember being in a conflict situation. The conflict situation may have been when they were a child with their mother or father or caregiver, a sibling, a teacher, a friend, or a family member.

Step 1

Invite each student to think back to that time in their lives and focus on the response of the person they conflict with, as well as 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.

Step 2

Ask students to think of a time later in life when they were faced with 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 at that time. Ask them to focus on the response of the person they conflict with, as well as their reaction and how they were feeling in that situation.

Step 3

Ask students to think of a recent conflict, possibly in the past week or month. Ask them to focus on the response of the other person they conflict with, as well as their reaction and how they were feeling 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 can be defined in many ways. However, conflict is often associated with disputes. The following explanation of the Cycle of Conflict will provide a description of 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 this diagram on a whiteboard, then explain the four stages of the process:

Conflict Cycle (Reinforces)
Stage 1

The first stage begins with the beliefs and attitudes we have formed from our experiences with conflict. Relationships, meaning, and circumstances determine what beliefs and attitudes we create about conflict. What we believe about conflict comes from the messages we receive from our parents, teachers, the media, other influences, and our 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 for ourselves.

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 for ourselves.

Stage 2

The second stage of the conflict cycle is when a conflict occurs. And then our response to the conflict that has taken place. Our response is what we do when a dispute arises and is conditioned over time. Our response is based on what we believe about conflict. Our response to conflict can also be defined as our approach to a dispute may include some of the following:

  • yell
  • avoid
  • put things off
  • depression
  • confrontation
  • bullying
  • talk about it
  • walk away
  • name calling
  • put-downs
  • negotiate
Stage 3

The response that we have in conflict generates a result of the conflict. The result may include, depending on our response, any of the following:

  • poor relationships
  • unhealthy relationships
  • better relationships
  • hurt feelings
  • guilt
  • depression
  • escalation of conflict
  • stress
  • feeling better
Stage 4

Our response to conflict reinforces our beliefs and attitudes about conflict and potentially the specific conflict situation. 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. I believe and believe that every time 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 that will likely create 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, which will reinforce the belief and attitude that the next time I have a conflict with my sister-in-law and so on.

At this stage in the example, it is crucial for the teacher to 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 is changing 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 can contextualize how conflict works. At this point in the lesson, teachers must share an example of how the conflict cycle is changed.

Conflict Cycle (Changes)

Example of how the cycle of conflict changes:

My sister-in-law and I were coming to 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 responded by telling me that she didn’t feel like she was valued or important to my husband and me. We continued to discuss her comments, and we were able to work out a resolution and continue with our visit conflict-free.

The next time a conflict occurred with my sister-in-law, and 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, and we worked things out while building a stronger relationship. My husband was proud of how I managed conflict with his sister, and because of my changed response, I felt empowered to change the result of the competition and conflict between us.

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 each only responsible for what is our behavior. I can only control my 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 can resolve the conflict, not in every situation, but in most.

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

Summary

We experience conflict every day. Unfortunately, our students also experience conflict daily, so it is essential to provide them with the necessary information to learn how to unpack their negative experiences and change their perceptions about conflict.

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.

TACT (Teens and Conflict Together)

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How to Successfully Teach Teens Conflict Resolution Skills

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If you are an educator, parent, or grandparent and looking for practical strategies to use with children, concepts to understand, and ideas that can be easily implemented about how to create space for self and others, you have landed in the right spot.

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Children learn how to solve problems the same way they learn how to read, write, and add. Like reading, writing, and adding, there are three specific components to solving problems. These are teachable skills children can learn at any age.

Published by suzannemarie

Educator and published author of conflict management and children's books. Living life to its fullest. I believe in courageously honouring my truth and living my legacy. Lover of meaningful conversations, coffee, food, art, and building connections. I love writing about my fascination with culture, food, adventure, self-love, and living a healthy and fulfilled life!

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