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Transforming Fights into Opportunities for Learning

Molly and her mother are fighting again.

“Get down here this instant!” That’s Mother. She’s just tripped over the backpack, gym clothes, lunchbox, and violin case that are strewn around the family’s most-used door.

“I’m on the phone!” screams Molly.

“I said (“said” is drawn out threateningly): Get Down Here!” Mom is getting madder.

“But I have to talk to Sarah.” This isn’t an explanation. It’s an argument.

“If you don’t get down here and clean up this mess this instant, I’m going to throw everything into the trash.” Now Mom is upping the ante with a threat.

“If you do that, it will be your fault that I flunk my history project.” Molly counters with her own threat.

By now, Mother is furious and daughter is digging in her heels. Both are absolutely stuck in the battle. Neither one feels able to back down. After more angry words, recriminations, and tears, both will be exhausted and miserable. Like countless others, this fight will just peter out. The trouble is that the relationship between mother and daughter is becoming more and more frayed and neither is learning how to approach it differently.

Molly and her mom aren’t very different from lots of families. They really do essentially like each other. They really do love each other. They even agree that fighting like this is hurtful and never seems to solve anything. Nonetheless, they fight about something almost every day. It’s exhausting. It’s painful. It’s frustrating. But it seems to be all they know how to do when one of them makes a mistake, is forgetful or thoughtless, or breaks a rule.

One of the striking things about this kind of fight is how equal it really is. Even though Molly is only 12, she can hold her own with her mother. Even though Mother is 35, she can’t seem to win. Their fights just go around and around and around, with no clear winner or final victory. Winning a battle doesn’t settle a thing. The war goes on.

Why does an essentially good kid like Molly (and yes, she really is a good kid) fall into constant battles with her mother? And why does an essentially good mother (and yes, she is a good mother) fall into constant battles with the daughter she loves?

Molly’s Side of the Story

Here are some of the reasons that a perfectly nice, intelligent kid like Molly gets into fights with her mother.

Partly, it’s by accident. She gets caught in the struggle before she even realizes what is happening. In her hurry to call her friend, she forgot the rule about not leaving things around the doorway. Answering back when her mother yells at her is a reflex, not a thoughtful response. By the time she figures out that her mother really is angry, she is too far down the road in the fight to pull back from it.

Partly, it’s a lack of skills. Molly doesn’t know how to pull back from a fight once it starts. She doesn’t understand some basic principles of diplomacy or know the steps for negotiating. Lacking skills, she counters with noise and a threat. She can’t win this way, but at least she can make sure that she doesn’t lose.

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Partly, it’s a matter of competing issues. Molly doesn’t really want to fight with her mother, but she does very much (in the above example) want to talk with her friend about whatever preteen drama went on in school today. At her age, what is happening every day with her friends often outweighs things like doing chores and pleasing her mother. Since she doesn’t know how to explain this to her mother, all she can do is dig in her heels and find ways to take care of her own agenda in spite of Mom’s anger.

Transforming Fights into Opportunities for Learning

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Transforming Fights into Opportunities for Learning. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.