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Stop the Screaming
How to Turn Angry Conflict with Your Child Into Positive Communication
By Carl E. Pickhardt
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Carl E. Pickhardt
All rights reserved.
COOPERATION AND CONFLICT
Conflict depends on the principle of cooperation: For the creation, conduct, and resolution of all family conflicts (between parents, parent and child, siblings) the participation of opposing parties is required. By accepting individual responsibility for their share in this cooperation, parents and children can influence the process and outcome of what occurs. If they cast off that responsibility by blaming each other, however, an amicable resolution will likely be impossible to reach.
HOW CONFLICT BEGINS
Think of it this way. Despite appearances to the contrary, no human conflict ever really starts between people: It starts within people. Each person makes a judgment that some issue is worth contesting and then decides to engage the other party in a response. The younger sister says to herself, "I don't like it that my brother hit me, and I'm going to hit him back."
Or consider the angry parent who is determined to "make" a silent child reveal what is bothering her because not knowing is bothering him. "If you don't tell me what's going on, you are going to bed early!" But angry demands only yield a more sullen response from the child. It is better for the parent to explain that when she won't say what is upsetting her, it leaves him wondering what is amiss. He can only guess what the matter is, will probably guess wrong, and perhaps act on that misunderstanding in ways she won't like. "How can I help you feel better if you won't tell me what's wrong? I bet it's that you got into more trouble with the teacher today. I'm going to call her tonight." Now the child blurts out that her friend was mean to her on the playground today. The parent who was prepared for conflict because he felt shut out can now offer comfort instead.
What a person is thinking in the moment is the primary influence on whether she decides to initiate or collaborate in conflict. An eighteen-year-old once told me about a fight he almost started before he realized, just in time, that if he did, he would have major cause to regret it. "I'm driving down the highway when this pickup truck passes me and then swerves back in front of me so close I have to slam on the breaks to avoid rear-ending him. No way! Immediately, I'm tailgating this guy, cussing him out and furiously honking my horn. Finally, he gets off at an exit and pulls to a stop, with me right behind him. I jump out of my car, ready to get into it, when these two big guys get out of the truck, looking about as angry as I feel. That's when I say to myself, 'What am I thinking?' Then I turn around, get back in my car, and drive off." "What were you thinking?" I asked. "I was thinking, 'They shouldn't have cut me off! They shouldn't run me off the road that way! They can't get away with that! I'll make them sorry!'" In his mind, he had set up four conditions that made him determined to fight. Mental sets have action consequences this way. How one thinks affects what one does, as the young man fortunately realized at the last minute, taking responsibility for the conflict that started within him and could have escalated into a fight with strangers.
There is a lesson here. If you have a young child who continually gets into fights on the playground, take time to find out what he is thinking before he fights. Instead of punishing him for fighting, show him how he can choose to react in a way that does not automatically direct him into youthful combat. You might say, "When someone hurts your feelings, you think that you must hurt the person back. That's one way to react, but there are others. Let's talk about what those might be. You could let the person know you feel hurt and you could talk about it, or you might decide he didn't mean to hurt your feelings and let it go." Another level of thought involved in conflict is deciding whether engaging in it is worthwhile. If one party decides that it is not worthwhile or thinks that it is but the risks of engagement are too great, the internal requirements for conflict will not be met. The younger brother who is upset that his surly older sister has once again deliberately been mean to him decides the better part of wisdom is not to retaliate. Why give his sister the fight he knows she is spoiling for?
People are geared differently for conflict. Some people, child and adult, love to pick fights for the love of the contest. Then there are those who see little value in it, who can ignore the goading, mostly judging it not worth the energy to argue. Readiness for conflict is a matter of internal choice, which can often be the result of conflicts within oneself. For example, a child who feels unhappy over not standing up to his tormenters at school and wishes he had defended himself instead may pick a fight with a younger sibling at home later to act out his hurt, angry feelings.
Another example of the way internal conflict begets external conflict is teenage rebelliousness. Many parents misunderstand this, treating rebellious behavior as opposition directed against them personally, when it is not. The adolescent is actually in conflict with the compliant child she used to be and acts out against her parents in order to redefine herself on more independent terms. She wants to change herself and does so by challenging their authority. Teenage rebellious behavior is also a good example of how conflict can only begin when someone decides to lodge a complaint. A teenager's decision to object to something her parents are doing is only one of a series of choices required for an active conflict to unfold.
REQUIREMENTS FOR CONFLICT
It is important to understand that conflict isn't just one choice, but the culmination of a series of choices, with each step in the sequence a point at which a different choice could be made. Here are some stages of the parent/child conflict.
Parent and child have a difference in conduct, habits, wants, values, beliefs, or perceptions that is brought into focus between them. For example, the child likes his room messy, which isdifferent from how the parent likes it.
Someone decides to lodge a complaint. The parent complains about her son's messy room and tells him to clean it up.
The other party disputes or rejects this complaint, creating a disagreement. The son protests that his room isn't messy, it's comfortable.
Both parties agree to contest the disagreement, creating a conflict. The parent insists that her son clean up his room. The child insists that he shouldn't have to.
The conflict continues until a resolution is reached. The child agrees to clean up his room in an hour, after his TV show is over, and the parent agrees to delay satisfaction until this later time.
Some parents acknowledge differences and do not allow them to turn into active disagreements. They may think it is more important for their sixth-grader to get good grades than to have a lot of friends, while she has a reverse priority. They, wisely, don't waste time arguing over the relative importance of grades versus friends; they simply supervise their daughter to make sure she does her homework. Alternatively, active disagreements can remain unresolved, creating ongoing tension. Stepparent and stepchild, for example, may not be able to make lasting peace over the scope of the new adult's authority. Attempts at resolution do not last long; the differences soon arise again and arguing ensues. Siblings who managed to agree about who got to go first yesterday are back to fighting over the same issue today.
We all learn to live with and work around many more human differences than we use conflict to work through and resolve. We ignore, avoid, accept, and accommodate a host of unwelcome and offensive behaviors that we do not contest because we decide that the effort and emotional wear and tear it would take is not worthwhile. Family members are selective when it comes to engaging in conflict, choosing to create disagreements over only those differences they are not willing to live with. It takes willingness to cooperate in conflict.
HOW CONFLICT IS COOPERATIVE
The most important thing for parents to understand about conflict is that, although it is always about disagreement, it is fundamentally based on an agreement between a parent and child. When people argue, they actively agree to oppose each other's views, with the objective of convincing the other person to change his mind or behavior.
In counseling, when frustrated parents complain that they are trapped in endless conflict with their willful child, I suggest that they consider an alternative point of view: Conflict is collaborative and cooperative, a joint undertaking that requires teamwork. Parent and child work together to contest their differences. Your child can't have a fight with you unless you agree to fight back.
It takes cooperation to start a conflict.
It takes cooperation to maintain a conflict.
And it takes cooperation to resolve a conflict.
The cooperative formula is this: resistance vs. resistance = conflict. Conflict arises from one resistance pushing against another resistance, and lasts only as long as both parties continue to invest energy in this mutual opposition. If one party gives up their resistance, the conflict ends. The weary father who ceases to debate with a maddening early adolescent, by simply announcing, "I have explained myself as much as I can and have nothing further to discuss, although I will listen to anything you have to say," liberates himself from the young person's untiring interest at this quarrelsome age in provoking argument for its own sake. The father will listen, but will not argue further.
In declining to argue back, however, the father is also giving something up. Withdrawing from conflict with an argumentative teenager is always a trade-off—the father gains relief from ongoing conflict but loses a valuable opportunity to learn more about his son. While arguing with a teenager is aggravating, it can also be informative. That is, it is better to treat a child, and particularly an adolescent, not as an opponent, but as an informant, whose different agenda and point of view open a window of understanding. Think of your child not as your enemy, but as a partner in disagreement, with whom you share a joint interest in working something out for the sake of the relationship. The parent can say, "Please tell me more about what you want and why, so I can better understand." Instead of shutting the child down, he uses conflict to draw her out. Now cooperation of an educational kind can begin.
If your child's resistance intensifies during an argument, it is usually best to disengage from debate at this pressure point. Delay pursuing the issue until the child has cooled down a bit. Then patiently, but persistently, bring up the subject again. Whenever practical, it's better for the parent to follow the path of least resistance. A power struggle with your child can quickly escalate, with damaging results. If your willful child is red in the face with angry determination to oppose you, acknowledge her frustration, and then disengage, with a promise to revisit the issue later. In the meantime, you can suggest doing something together, making a snack or watching TV to allow tempers to cool. "Later" is the tactic parents need to use when conflict with their child "now" is escalating. Resorting to "later" is not giving up or giving in. It is judiciously using delay so conflict can be resumed on less intense, more reasonable terms. To quote that anonymous aphorism about a parent's need for maturity, do not argue with a child when there is no thinking person at home.
WHEN SIBLINGS FIGHT
In a conflict between children, parents can fall into the trap of trying to fix responsibility. "Okay, who started it?" is a common refrain of parents called to the scene of battle. In trying to determine just who provoked whom in order to sanction the instigator, parents run the risk of ignoring the children's shared responsibility. When their kindergarten-age daughter runs in from the other room crying that her twelve-year-old brother has just pushed her, it is common to feel angry that the older, bigger child is picking on the younger, smaller one. Demanding to know whether what the little girl said is true, the parents are prepared to punish their son for bullying. "Yes," he angrily admits. Now they have him dead to rights. Or do they?
"But it was her fault," he protests, "not that you'd ever believe me!"
"A five-year-old starting a fight with a twelve-year-old?" they ask in predictable disbelief, "Come on!"
"See? You never want to hear my side!" he complains.
"Okay then, let's hear it," they say.
"I'm on the phone with my new girlfriend, and the little snoop walks right up next to me to listen in. I whispered for her to get away, but she refused to move, and then she said had the right to stand anywhere she wants. Then, with my hand over the receiver I asked her again to get away, but she just refused. That's when I gave her a push."
"Is this true?" the parents ask their daughter, who sullenly admits that it is.
Since the parents have agreed to listen, they can see that each child was at fault, and they can decide to hold both accountable. The little girl's provocation was a bid to engage her brother in conflict (perhaps to get his attention and then get him in trouble).
But no child can start a fight alone. The big brother's resistance signified his acceptance of her invitation to engage in conflict. The conflict ended when parents, as they so often do, intervened to shut both resistances down. "You are not to bother your brother when he is on the phone." "You are not to push your sister."
Sometimes parents will resolve their own conflicts by ceasing to contest a disagreement between them: They simply agree to let it go. A mother and father finally give up trying to change each other's mind about the importance of their child wearing clean clothes when visiting friends, deciding to let their disagreement over the child's public appearance stand. They reach a mutually acceptable solution by agreeing to let the parent who arranges the visit make the call. Now they have pulled one source of conflict off the table. The same strategy goes for children, too, when, for example, young siblings stop fighting over what TV show to watch and agree that they will each get to choose on alternate days.
There is just one caveat. Agreements can't be coerced. The parent says to the child, "You broke our agreement about not watching TV until homework is done." The child replies, "No I didn't. I broke your agreement. It was never mine. When you tell me I have to agree to something, that's not an agreement, that's a rule!" Score one for the child. For an agreement to be an agreement, the willing 'signatures' of both parties are required.
Choosing to engage in conflict is always an act of cooperation between two parties. What we cannot choose, however, is to live in a family without any conflict. As researchers in the field of conflict have noted, "The potential for conflict resides in the very activity of two people relating to each other."
The antiwar bumper sticker had it right: "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" Or only one side came? War is a willing partnership of a very complex, destructive order. Conflict between parent and child is also a willing partnership. It is a dance of disagreement whose steps become harder to unlearn the more often they are practiced. Without our realizing it, conflict can become second nature. As one doctor describes it, "[F]amilies stuck in cycles of conflict find it very hard to change because old ways have become habits and unpleasant scenes are replayed over and over."
Ritual conflicts are fights that parent and child get into so routinely that they lose sight of the steps leading up to them. Consider the nightly homework debate recounted in counseling by a single parent and child. Three or four nights a week, it unfolds in the same way.
The players arrive on the home stage at about the same hour—the child from his after-school activity, the mother from work; both are tired and grumpy after their long days. The steps to nightly argument swiftly proceed as follows:
Parent: "Please start your homework." (Request)
Child: "I'll do it later." (Delay)
Parent: "Do it now and get it over with." (Demand)
Child: "Why should I have to do it now? I just got home. I'm tired." (Challenge)
Parent: "Because I'm tired too, and I said so." (Overrule)
Child: "That's not fair! I won't!" (Refuse)
Parent: "If you don't get started now, no TV later!" (Threaten)
Child: "You can't make me!" (Defy)
Parent: "You never do as I ask!" (Charge)
Child: "You're always bossing me around!" (Countercharge)
Excerpted from Stop the Screaming by Carl E. Pickhardt. Copyright © 2009 Carl E. Pickhardt. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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