Confiding to a trusted friend, a father expresses concern over his 9-year-old son. “He’s a `forgetter.’ He can’t seem to remember anything I tell him. Assign him a chore, and he `forgets’ to do it. Give him a message for someone; it never gets there. If I ask him to do two things, maybe one will get done. His `forgetfulness’ is causing a lot of conflict in our family.”
Speaking to a teacher, a mother and father share their frustration that their sixth-grade daughter has a problem taking responsibility for her homework. “As a result, we’re constantly badgering her to make sure she keeps up with her assignments. On school nights the tension level is very high in our household.”
Fathers and mothers can quickly identify with these two scenes. While neither parents nor their children enjoy tension and conflict, situations often arise that elevate frustration and heighten anxiety within a family. Most parents are aware that how they respond to such issues dramatically affects their child’s response. Use certain words and sentences and the child will comply. Express other statements and emotions and the child will resist and even rebel. Conflict management is a vital skill for promoting family health and unity. When it’s done properly, family life flows more smoothly and a child’s self-esteem, motivation, and maturity are positively influenced. Here are simple but effective ways to minimize the conflicts and maximize the love.
Accept the fact that all families experience conflict.
A family is not abnormal or dysfunctional just because conflicts emerge from time to time. Even Scripture refers to the reality of family strife. “It is harder to win back the friendship of an offended brother than to capture a fortified city. His anger shuts you out like iron bars” (Proverbs 18:19, TLB).*
Within every family there are differences of opinion, approach, style, and expression. Often children test limits and assert their independence by acting in ways parents find disagreeable or unacceptable. Such acting out is normal and should be viewed as simply one aspect of a child’s maturing and learning process.
An expectation that there will be no conflict within a family is unrealistic and naive. That view will only result in disappointment. Mothers and fathers of school-age children can take consolation in the fact that even parents who have strong and loving rapport with their adult children experience conflict from time to time.
One example is that of the mother-daughter singing team of Naomi and Wynonna Judd. While their relationship is warm and strong, there are moments when harmony is absent. Naomi Judd explains: “Before a show in Denver, Wynonna and I were fighting because she had forgotten her outfit. We were mere minutes from showtime, and I opened fire with both guns. `You stupid kid,’ I screamed. `Aren’t you ever going to grow up and get your act together? ‘” Immediately the daughter declared she would not sing with her mother that night. As the two shrieked at each other, their manager stepped in, saying: “Ladies, there are several thousand people out there who’ve paid money to hear you tonight. You must decide whether you’re going to rise to professionalism or be a disappointment to everyone, including me.” His comments evoked a mature response from both women. They quickly resolved the conflict, made amends, and went on to sing. The point: even the closest of families experience conflict from time to time.
Avoid never, ever, and always.
All too often children hear these types of demeaning generalizations:
- “You never consider how I feel.”
- “You’re always late.”
- “When will you ever accept responsibility?”
Such expressions are shaming, insulting remarks that hurt a child and do not produce the desired results. ” These words can become self-fulfilling prophecies,” notes Nancy Samalin, founder and director of Parent Guidance Workshops in New York. “They hurt a child’s self-esteem and discourage him from trying to change. What they really say to the child is `You’re a disappointment . . . you’re hopeless.’ ” Samalin says a much more constructive approach is to be concrete, describing expectations clearly and specifically. She offers these examples: “Instead of `You never do anything I ask,’ try `It’s your job to take out the garbage, and that needs to be done this afternoon.’ Instead of `You never pick up after yourself,’ try `I expect the blocks to be put in the toy box.’ “
Separate the behavior from the person.
It is the unacceptable behavior a parent must object to and not the person. Saying “I’m upset that you came home an hour past curfew because I was very worried something might have happened to you” is more appropriate than angrily declaring “Late again! I’m not surprised, because you are so irresponsible and immature. You’ll never amount to anything!” The first response is a simple statement of fact that faults the behavior, while the second response erodes self-esteem by demeaning the child. “In a healthy family, the child is always loved even if the child’s behavior is unacceptable,” notes family counselor, Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D., in her book Healthy Parenting. “In an unhealthy family the child is shamed and the person is confused with the behavior.” Woititz says that separating the behavior from the person is a powerful way to express unconditional love. She explains that unconditional love conveys this feeling: “I love you with no strings attached, regardless of how you behave. This doesn’t mean I always accept your behavior, but it does mean I always accept you as a person.”
Have rules that are age-appropriate, and be flexible about rulemaking.
That may be a part of what Paul had in mind when he advised parents: “Do not exasperate your children” (Ephesians 6:4, NIV).+ The fact is many family conflicts could be erased and eliminated if parents would be certain that the rules are age-appropriate. For example, very young children need to have a specific bedtime that is consistently enforced, while older children can have a later one with some flexibility. Or consider the example of Sue and Steve, parents of three children aged 14, 12, and 10. After they had a new sofa delivered for their family room, Steve asked Sue, “Should we have a rule about eating in the family room?” After thinking for a moment, she responded, “No, I don’t think we need to have a rule anymore. The children are now at an age where they don’t spill things and mess up furniture anymore.” Sue and Steve exhibited healthy parenting by establishing age-appropriate rules and also being flexible about them.
Brainstorm together for solutions.
Involving children in seeking solutions to sources of conflict develops maturity in the child as well as demonstrating that their opinion is respected. Brainstorming with children is a technique recommended by therapists Betty Lou Bettner, Ph.D., and Amy Lew, Ph.D. In their book Raising Kids Who Can, they further advise: “To avoid a win/lose atmosphere of my idea versus your idea, come up with at least three alternatives. When choices are limited to two, polarities are seen-right/wrong, good/bad, smart/dumb. When a third choice is seen, other options become clearer … Be sure to develop fail-safes for what will happen if the agreement is broken or someone doesn’t follow through (not a punishment, just an action that everyone agrees is respectful to all).”
Give positive feedback.
While children need to be informed about what is unacceptable or inappropriate behavior, they also need to be given credit for the good conduct they exhibit. “I praise loudly; I blame softly” was the parenting philosophy adopted by Catherine II of Russia. Giving positive feedback not only lets a child know that the parent notices and appreciates good behavior, but is a way of balancing criticisms offered on other occasions. The best type of positive feedback is specific. For example:
- “I was proud of the way you comforted your little brother when he fell down and hurt himself.”
- “I like the fact that you don’t fall apart when you make a mistake. We all learn from our mistakes. You don’t let the fear of failure hold you back. That’s terrific!”
- “I appreciate very much the fact that you always come home on time. You are so responsible about your commitment that I don’t worry about your being late or violating the curfew.”
Although some conflict is inevitable in any family, responding with fairness and creativity will result in a family unit in which there will be a tremendous amount of love, inspiration, and enjoyment.
*Verses marked TLB are taken from The Living Bible, copyright © 1971 by Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Ill. Used by permission.
+Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.