Imagine a calm, serene lake secluded with beautiful high sweeping trees is the stuff of which dreams are made. Many families fantasize of that picture when they think of conflict in the home. Everyone is happy, calm and serene. The reality is more like waves pounding into a rock-strewn, foaming white, tumultuous sea. Conflict is normal and real. Parents need not be afraid of it or avoid it. As a parent, you can teach yourself to manage your own response to conflict and accept it as a normal part of family life.
Three responses to conflict
As parents, we all want to reduce the amount of conflict in the home. Personal disputes or disagreements, opinions and basic human selfishness are the most common causes of family conflicts. Failure to address personal conflict will lead to problematic interaction patterns of communication in families. Typically people choose one of three ways to deal with personal conflict.
- Flee from it. In these cases the reaction is to pretend that the problem does not exist. The conflict is swept under the carpet. The experience is usually very painful, with almost no chance of immediate and sometimes, long-term resolution. The tendency is to withdraw, and the ramifications are stress, strain, tension and an ongoing problem. This type of family will go to any lengths to avoid conflict at the first sign of trouble. Conflict is seen as being too stressful or simply inappropriate among family members. I would submit that this breeds an unhealthy response to conflict in your child.
- Fight it. Instead of running, the situation breeds belligerence and the desire to impose our will on the other person. The only acceptable result is victory. The conflict produces a winner and a loser and ends with anger, hurt and disappointment. In this case, one or more family members may dominate in all disputes and forcefully settle all conflicts. Again, children who grow up this way learn unhealthy responses to difficult situations. Some become passive and others model the behavior of the dominant parent.
- Face it. This constructive approach is especially important as it openly addresses the complaints of family members and moves toward rational changes that strive to eliminate the problem. Understanding the base root of the conflict additionally assists in conflict resolution, answering questions such as.
As a parent, it’s extremely important that you know your default response to conflict and adjust accordingly. Then when conflict arises between you and your child or you and your spouse, start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Is this a power struggle? If so, take a step back and ask what the struggle is really about.
- Do we have different perceptions, goals, or values?
- Is this just a personality clash?
- Are there unrealistic expectations? Are my expectations appropriate for my child’s age and abilities?
- Take a step back and ask yourself what you are feeling. Ask your child what he or she is feeling.
- Listen. NO matter how strongly you disagree, never reject your child. Keep the lines of communication open.
As a parent, rather than fleeing or forcing your child to back down, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, especially with teenagers. Tension in the family and in all close relationships is normal, but peace and conflict resolution are achievable. My wife and I have two grown children. We’ve had conflict with them and with each other. One of the things we have learned with our children is that no matter what they do, they keep coming to us and telling us about their decisions – even knowing we will disagree. They are involving us in their lives despite the fact that we have disciplined them, we disagree and will never agree on certain things. We’re not perfect parents. Our children are not perfect children. We struggle daily with relationships and training.
Conflict styles learned in the family are practiced by children as they interact with peers and others outside the family context. His or her learned conflict style determines how interpersonal relationships are handled. Families can benefit by improving or changing their conflict approach. Such change requires open discussions and persistence when we fall back into old patterns.