how to de-escalate family fightsEver find yourself on the receiving end of verbal attack? Many people have loved ones who lash out in verbally abusive ways. Some of these people refuse to listen to reason when angry. They take no accountability for their role in creating strife. They might insist that you are the cause of their abusive behavior and they would stop hurting you if only you would change. But relationships are always about two people. Each person interacts and affects the other.

For example, Moira, a 45-year-old wife and mother of three, was abused as a child. Moira was easily triggered into jealous rages. These rages could be set off by the smallest thing: perhaps her husband glanced inadvertently at another woman, or complimented a coworker. Or perhaps her teenage daughter talked back to Moira or expressed affection for a teacher, igniting Moira’s jealousy.

Any time Moira’s husband or children were not exclusively complimentary or solicitous of Moira’s needs, she became enraged and started to attack. She hurled insults, assassinated character and threatened to harm herself if the person with whom she was enraged did not do or say what she demanded. These fights could escalate to physical violence, where she threw dishes and pounded the furniture.

People who are partnered with or have parents who exhibit these types of behaviors often feel they are walking on eggshells, waiting for an explosion. Family members become hypervigilant about everything they do or say that could set off their volatile loved ones.

Walking on eggshells is exhausting. The natural response is to check out or fight back. Often, though, leaving the room or defending oneself triggers more wrath, as those who have suffered childhood trauma easily feel abandoned or punished.

While there is no perfect way to calm an explosive moment, rehearsing and memorizing a couple of phrases to say during explosive times can help try to break a negative cycle. The goals are to:

  • De-escalate the fight before it gets worse.
  • Use words that communicate you are not abandoning or punishing.
  • Know you have the right to set healthy limits and boundaries.

Once you see that your family member has switched into a rageful state, use one or all of the following approaches to calm things down. Each of the below statements should be said with a very firm but caring tone of voice. You should stand tall and look your partner or parent in the eye while you speak to him or her:

  • “I hear and see that you are angry. Clearly I have hurt you. However, I will not allow you to talk to me the way you are. When your emotions calm down and we can talk calmly about what happened without you insulting me we can try talking again. Until then, I will be at _____________ (insert where you will go — do leave the house) for the next hour calming down myself.” Then leave the house and return in an hour as promised.
  • “When you scream at me like this I cannot hear you. My body and mind go into a panicked shutdown state and all I can do is space out until you finish. I want to be able to hear you and communicate about whatever is upsetting you. Can you calm down so we can speak calmly and I can listen again?” Maintain eye contact until you get an answer. If the ranting continues, just keep repeating the sentence. If your partner or parent escalates, use the first conversation and leave the house.
  • “Once you start screaming and throwing things and making threats, I don’t feel safe any more. That is what is happening now. Is that your intent?” Maintain eye contact until you get an answer. If the ranting continues, just keep repeating the sentence. If your partner or parent escalates, use the first conversation and leave the house.

These kinds of conversations are meant to accomplish the following:

  • Stop the interaction dead in its tracks to de-escalate the argument.
  • Stop the argument without abandoning or abusing the person (even though they may feel abandoned or abused no matter what you say.)
  • Use non-accusatory “I” language. “I” language describes the impact the person is having on you: “When you scream, I feel afraid of you” as opposed to “You are abusing me!” Most of the time, someone doesn’t realize the impact they are having on you and your emotions as they are too wrapped up with their own.
  • Disengage to allow emotions to calm down so your partner or parent switches back into a non-triggered state. Time apart accomplishes this.
  • Leave the area. Assure your partner or parent you will return to discuss the issue, but only if they stay calm.
  • Repeat this as often as your partner escalates and starts acting abusive. Your message must be loud and clear: “I don’t want to be spoken to the way you are speaking to me. I can’t hear you when I feel attacked. If you want me to stay here and talk, I need you to take it down a notch so we can communicate more calmly.” Everything you say should be said firmly but with kindness when possible.

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