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.
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.
Mother’s Side of the Story
Here are some of the reasons that a perfectly nice, intelligent mother gets into fights with her daughter.
Partly, it’s by accident. She gets caught in the struggle before she even realizes what is happening. All she did was get upset when she tripped over her kid’s stuff. In her upset, she didn’t think about whatever her daughter might be doing at the time. Sounding angry when she is angry is a reflex, not a thoughtful response. By the time she figures out that this is yet another incident among many that is out of control, she is too far down the road in the fight to pull back from it.
Partly, it’s a lack of skills. Mother 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 blame. She can’t win the battle but at least she can make sure that she doesn’t lose.
Partly, it’s a matter of competing issues. Mother doesn’t really want to fight with her daughter, but she does very much want to get on with whatever is next in her overly busy day. At her age, the need to get everything done can outweigh things like remembering to check in with her daughter when she first gets home. Since she is generally feeling overwhelmed, tripping over the same stuff she’s tripped over a thousand times before is just the last straw. All she can do is fight for the room to manage her own agenda in spite of whatever her daughter is doing.
The issues are the same, but it’s the adult who must take the lead to resolve it.
Molly isn’t a bad kid. Mother isn’t a bad mother. Rather, they both need some new skills for managing conflict and misunderstandings. But Mother, being the mother, does need to take the lead. Because we are adults, we are expected to act like adults. Being adult means being able to control our feelings at least some of the time and setting up a structure that will teach our children how to negotiate differences.
Seven Skills for Managing Conflict
- Understand that backing off isn’t backing down. Everyone loses it once in awhile. Everyone is entitled to a bad day. Everyone gets caught up in conflict. The question is not how to avoid it all together but rather what to do next when you discover you’ve fallen into a fight again. Continuing a fight you can never win doesn’t solve anything. Backing off so you can do something more effective does.
If you find yourself tensing up, yelling, threatening, or feeling martyred, that’s your signal that you are doing something that just isn’t going to work. Stop! Take a deep breath. Then do something totally unexpected and very, very effective. Apologize — not for having a difference of opinion, but for losing it. Suggest a time out for both of you so that you can collect yourselves. Come back to the situation after a few minutes of cooling off and move on to the next step.
- Be sympathetic about competing issues. Life is complicated, no matter how old we are. It’s very, very important that we not take every infraction of rules as a personal affront. Our children are as overwhelmed as we are as they try to juggle complicated social relationships, school, activities, and family obligations. Sometimes the most important thing we can do for our child when he is thoughtless or breaks a rule is to sympathetically ask what else is going on. Your child then feels that you are on his side in his efforts to manage life.
- Be clear with expectations. Often enough, at least part of the problem is that we adults haven’t been clear about what we expect. We may think we’ve been clear. We may think that the situation is obvious. (After all, it shouldn’t seem like rocket science to expect a kid to pick up her own stuff.) But kids don’t necessarily make a good connection between behavior A and problem B. Take a minute to state, or restate, your rule or concern or expectations. For example: “Molly. When you come home from school, I need you to take a few minutes to put your stuff in your room and put your lunchbox on the sink counter before you go off to do something else. That way I won’t break a leg tripping over it when I come home. It would make my homecoming so much nicer.”
- Make sure your expectations are age-appropriate. This is a common pitfall. A 12-year-old certainly can be expected to remember to put things away when she comes home from school. But a 3-year-old needs a lot of help to do the same thing. We adults sometimes forget what it was like to be small or to not quite know how to do what is expected. It’s important to think about each child’s age and stage of development when we set rules and expectations.
- Be clear with consequences. It’s not enough to be clear with your expectations. Another key part of the formula is to negotiate consequences that make sense, especially around recurring problems. It’s not new information to Molly and her mother that Molly drops her stuff at the door. Rather than fight about it day after day, they could take a few minutes to decide together what they could do differently. It’s important to remember that consequences are a tool for teaching, not a way to get even. Most important, good consequences are time-limited and offer an opportunity to try again soon.
- Stay calm. If you get angry, your child will focus on your anger, rather than on the negotiations. Good diplomacy requires that sarcasm, threats, and guilt trips be left out of the conversation. If you find yourself getting upset, review Step 1.
- Catch her being good — often. One of my teachers used to say that children respond to praise like plants respond to sunshine — they blossom when adults they care about tell them or show them that they have our approval. Make sure that you notice and praise when your child does what he is supposed to do. It will be a million times more effective than criticizing him for what he forgot.
Recognize Opportunities for Learning
Fighting really isn’t necessary or helpful. No matter how right you are, it doesn’t feel good to be in conflict with a child you love. But, believe it or not, the issues that cause the fights offer a wonderful opportunity for learning. When we use those issues to teach our children how to resolve conflicts with negotiation and respect, we provide them with an essential skill for managing life.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Transforming Fights into Opportunities for Learning. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/transforming-fights-into-opportunities-for-learning/