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HEAD OFF THE VERBAL COLLISIONS

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Twelve-year-old Michael spends his allowance on a flimsy toy that breaks the first time he plays with it. "Why do you just blow your money like that?" his father asks angrily. "You just don't know how to manage money." As Michael starts to protest, his mother intercedes: "Aren't you being too hard on him?" At that, father explodes: "You're always protecting him. If you had your way, he'd never learn the value of a dollar." The ensuing argument between the parents lasts all evening.

Jan argues with her 15-year-old daughter over whether she is going to help with dishes. Her husband, who is within earshot, doesn't attempt to intervene in the argument. Afterward, Jan is angry with her husband for not supporting her.Sixteen-year-old Rebecca and her younger sister Anne are arguing over a blouse of Rebecca's that the younger girl has worn. Father enters the fracas, lecturing Anne for having taken someone else's property without permission. Mother agrees with father and suddenly the argument settles into a game of three-against-one.

Verbal conflicts such as these occur in millions of family households every day, triggered in part by intense stresses affecting all family members. Many families develop effective routines for dealing with conficts. But for those who don't, conflicts can disrupt family life, erode bonding and leave painful emotional residues.

If you're a parent who would like to reduce the bickering and verbal collisions in your home, here are methods of dealing with conflict that may help your family:

Handle problems privately with children. Handling problems with a child in front of other people is hazardous to family health. Early on, children become masters at chiming in when they see parents scolding other siblings.

Frequently letting children help "parent" other children may have any number of consequences, including increased sibling rivalry. Sometimes a "parental" child emerges who is regarded as the parent's favorite by the other children. This sets up chronic feelings of resentment toward the apparently favored child.

Your children will be more likely to cooperate if their problems are handled without an audience and they are allowed to save face. Under fire from a number of quarters, children have a tendency to muster their defenses rather than to deal responsively with adults.

Try to avoid situations in which two heavyweights (you and your spouse) gang up on one lightweight (your child). It's so easy to add your own two cents' worth when your spouse is discussing a problem with your child ("Yeah, and what's more, you didn't make it to school on time"). In a matter of seconds the two of you can nail the child to the wall with all the things he's done wrong for months and months.

Handle the problems you own. If you're the one who's upset, say, because your child hasn't made his bed or cleaned up a mess, be the one to deal with these problems. It's an error to palm the problem off on your spouse and expect him or her to be as invested as you in a particular outcome or to handle the problem the way you want it handled. Over the long haul these expectations are sure to create conflict in your relationship.

If you feel unsure of your own capability in handling a child, find ways to increase your skill and confidence level until you can deal with the child effectively without your spouse's backup.

Let others handle the problems they own. Sometimes patterns develop in which the first spouse makes judgments out loud about the second spouse's behavior while that person is dealing with the children. If you're the spouse who is observing, try to stay out of the situation.

If you consistently enter other people's arguments and end up judging and taking sides, you are probably fueling the fire instead of putting it out.

If you object to certain ways your spouse typically deals with the childen, talk about these privately when you're not having problems. Avoid being critical. Just simply tell the other person the kind of behavior you'd be more comfortable with and ask if he or she would be willing to try that behavior. Also invite your spouse to describe changes he or she might like in the way you manage the children.

Probably both of you struggle at times to keep your cool with kids, so you may want to agree that if one of you starts getting heavy with a child, the other can step in and offer to take over. Commit yourselves to helping each other avoid wounding your children when there's a problem.

Children's arguments that are causing loud noises and going nowhere should be interrupted quickly and decisively. However, instead of interrogating children about "whose fault it is" or taking sides, just simply separate the kids by moving them to their rooms or to different areas of the house. Work with them privately to adopt desired behaviors.

Become a reporter of positive changes. If you'd like to help your spouse or any of your children make changes, stop criticizing and start reporting when you see them relating effectively to others. Consistently focus on what's going right, not on what's going wrong, and you may be surprised at the positive changes you can help create in your home.