WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a "trifecta" kind of morning, rain splashing down, kids drifting instead of bustling to get out the door. Their mom figured she'd said "Hurry up, we are going to be late" 70 times. She felt her jaw tighten and knew she was about to say something to make things worse, so she took a breath and hustled her bickering brood to the minivan.
That mom, Meghan Leahy, is a parent coach in Washington, D.C., who teaches better ways to handle conflict: What to fight for and what to let go, even how to apologize — an important part of fighting fair.
She practiced what she teaches. Inside the vehicle, out of hearing of neighbors, she wanted to lay into her kids, 9, 6 and 3. She didn't.
"I often tell parents, you always have that moment to change the conflict," she said. "All three children were screaming about something. I waited for them to settle down. And I started laughing. 'By a small miracle, we are all in the car. We are not yet late. The sun is now shining. We can do this.' I got a lot of eye rolls. When we got to school, I said, 'I love you. Have a great day.'"
She had recalibrated the trajectory of a day that began badly.
People who love each other still make each other mad. They disagree. Conflict is like wildfire. It either clears debris and jump-starts healthier growth or it burns down the forest. The right skills can change a family squabble and strengthen relationships. You must be willing to use helpful tools — even practice with them, experts say.
"Disagreement is inherent in what it is to be in a relationship," said John Stewart, psychologist at Tufts Medical School, who wrote "Beyond Time Out" and owns familytherapyvacations.com, providing intensive therapy retreats in Nicaragua. "It is like building strong muscle: a process of connect, tear and repair. Conflict is part of a strong relationship, but it can strengthen or destroy."
When arguments get heated, some people throw gas on them. Others know how to cool things down.
Kin or kindling?
Family fights may be among the most common conflicts, but they're also among the most complex, said Laurie Puhn, lawyer, family mediator and best-selling author of "Fight Less, Love More." A bad fight doesn't reach a resolution, because it gets off track, something family fights are prone to do.
"It's because they are long-term relationships and you have a ton of stuff in the past that happened, the present and things that can happen in the future," she said.
Spouses may not reach common ground when they argue because they are each intent only on delivering their own messages, said Leahy. Or a parent yells at a child but doesn't listen. The child fights back or shuts down.
Since their son Jacob, 8, was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia three years ago, Jeff and Rachel Alltmont have been learning new ways to handle conflict. The boy and his parents were often frustrated because of the many arguments. But the diagnosis came with unexpected blessings, said the New Orleans mom: They are better at negotiating and when they argue, they do it more fairly with each other and with their children. A psychologist taught them not to placate just to avoid temper tantrums and fights. They collaborate more.
Recently, their daughters were having a spat. Hannah planted her hands on her hips and thundered at Sydney, "I don't like the words you're using." Her mom smiled. Hannah is 3.
Voices off, ears on
David Cunningham, communications expert for Landmark Education, believes most family fights stem from undelivered communication, thwarted intention or unfulfilled expectation. Expressing affection goes a long way to resolving disagreements.
Ending conflict requires one thing, but it's painfully hard, experts agree. The only way to know what's bothering someone else is to listen.
"Too often, I talk and then I wait for my turn to talk," is what Stewart said happens instead. If a child or spouse can sense you're trying to listen, even if you don't understand or agree, it provides potential for resolution.
That is harder "once the point of contention has heightened to the level of raised voices, threatening statements, impulsive actions or words, defensiveness, blaming and a great deal of unspoken, hurtful body language," warned Erica Ives, marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. Rational thought stops and it is hard to gather oneself to address issues. If safety is threatened, there's no chance of resolution. Ditto if a party is using alcohol or drugs. Get help and wait. If you tend to have conflict at a certain time of day, that's not the time to try to solve it.
Puhn starts a "good" fight by noting common ground: "We're both upset and hurt. Our relationship is important to me. I want to work this out," she might say. Next, she takes her "humility pill." "I am interested in hearing your perspective on this and what you felt. After you share that, would you be willing to listen to how I felt?"
That sets up a successful ending and conveys fairness, instead of "trying to douse a person with the notion you're right and she's wrong." It conveys respect — and usually in a fight, someone feels disrespect. She may add: "It was not my intent, but I can see how you could feel that … " or "I shouldn't have said that and I won't in the future."
Cool things down so you agree on a solution.
Tone matters. According to Stewart, there is a world of difference between "Why on earth did you do that?" and "Can you help me understand why you did that?"
A good fight
Some battles are necessary. Done well, it doesn't hurt.
"It breaks you out of whatever bad routine you're in," Puhn said. "You learn new information about how others see things and can do better. Happy couples fight. You are not the same, don't have the same perspective, will not interpret everything the same way. ... " Argument can help you do better in the future, Puhn said.
If whomever you're arguing with cares about something that doesn't matter to you, experts say let them have that one. Fight for what matters. Don't curse. Don't belittle. Don't be aggressive or defensive.
"Mind your own fight. Don't speak for anyone else. You may not use other people as your evidence," Puhn said. That applies to getting in the middle of someone else's fight, too. Don't.
Pay attention not only to your words, said Stewart, but to your volume, body language and posture.
It's OK to let kids see you don't always agree, he said — as long as there's no character assassination, the kids aren't put in the middle and there's no scary level of aggression. "Kids should see some conflict between Mom and Dad. It doesn't mean they don't love each other or the situation is hopeless. It means this is part of the process."
"When you're having a disagreement with your spouse, you need to ask yourself if the disagreement is really about the issue at hand or if it is about something else, like the workday that preceded it, chores around the house or lack of affection from your partner," said Larry A. Moore, a life and relationship coach in Houston. "Take a minute and a breath and figure out why you're really upset."
"Don't allow your child to be disrespectful or disobedient, but giving them an opportunity to express how they feel does no harm," Moore said. "It's your right and duty as a parent to rear them the way you see is best ... Listening softens disagreement and helps them trust your judgment and wisdom."
When siblings fight, watch from a distance. It's one way kids learn coping mechanisms, communication skills and how to adjust in society. If it doesn't escalate to violence or hurtful actions, stand clear, he said. Don't choose sides or play favorites.
Gerette Braunsdorf's girls are 8 and almost 6. "They play lovingly together, then one hauls off and hits the other," said the Cleveland mom. "We have a lot of pitched drama."
She's learned the best approach may be to act like they're behaving normally. "I'm having the worst day of my life," Maddie, 8, might say. "Oh, that's unfortunate," her mom replies.
Ellie and Maddie are different, and so is what works.
Braunsdorf said her husband of 20 years, Chris, is neater than she is, a bone of contention. They usually don't argue in front of the kids and they argue more constructively than they used to be. Since she realized he couldn’t sleep until things are resolved, she no longer gets annoyed and goes to bed. They talk things out. She "owns" her part of conflict. "Sorry about this. It's something I'm trying to work on. Do you have ideas for what might help me?"
They spend a lot of time together. "We joke that we want to divorce the kids, but not each other,” she said.
Stewart said to recognize the other person is probably doing the best he knows how. "They are probably lost in their stuff just like you're lost in your stuff."
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