Let’s face it: no one likes conflict, especially conflict with people we love and care about. Unfortunately, conflict is inevitable in relationships, especially in parent-child relationships. Parent-child conflict is, in fact, a frequent reason families seek therapy. Often, parents and children state that conflict in the home is stressful, uncomfortable, upsetting, and angering. Conflict is difficult because it typically leaves both parties feeling emotionally flooded, hurt, and hesitant about future connections with the other person. Conflict and the feelings related to conflict, if left unresolved, can linger for days or weeks and may seep into other relationships within the family.
For many families, the goal is to get rid of conflict altogether. For parents, this sometimes turns into a permissive parenting style characterized by poor boundaries, rules, and consequences for fear of inciting conflict. For kids, this can turn into anxiety or a perfectionist tendency in an effort to decrease the negativity surrounding the conflict. Either way, these strategies often lead to unhealthy dynamics and future problems. While it is always preferable to use healthy communication strategies to keep conflict to a minimum, a healthy relationship is ultimately defined less by the frequency of conflict and more by the repair strategies each person uses and is open to receiving.
What is a repair attempt? Dr. John Gottman talks a lot about repair attempts in his work with couples. These same strategies can be successfully used in all sorts of relationships, including parent-child relationships. According to Gottman (1999), a repair attempt is “any statement or action—silly or otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control” (p. 22). He suggests people in healthy relationships repair early and often and are both able to make repair attempts and receive repair attempts.
Below are some examples of repair attempts that you can use at home as a parent or child.
- Validate the other person’s emotions. Letting the other person know you hear them and validate their feelings and experience can go a long way to decreasing conflict. Both parents and children often express feeling misunderstood and dismissed by the other. By validating, you are saying, “I hear you” and “I care about your feelings.”
- For kids: A lot of times, your parents may feel taken for granted, invisible, and that you don’t care how they feel. By validating their emotions, it can decrease their anger, hurt feelings, and potential defensiveness. Remember, your parents are people with feelings too.
- For parents: How many times have you heard kids say no one understands them? Well, that might be due in part to the fact adults don’t always do a good job validating their feelings. By validating your child’s feelings, you are communicating to them that you want to understand them and are there for them no matter how they are feeling.
- Take responsibility and apologize. Taking responsibility and apologizing for your role in a situation or conflict can go a long way to deescalating a situation.
- For kids: Usually parents just want to hear you know what you did wrong, that you take responsibility for your choice, and you have learned not to repeat the behavior. The sooner you can take ownership of your piece, the quicker the conflict will end.
- For parents: Kids often believe parents don’t apologize or see how they can make poor choices too. It can be powerful for kids to hear a parent apologize and take ownership of their mistakes. You are also modeling for your kids the importance of this skill.
- Use Gottman’s “stop action” strategies. Gottman has some great strategies to stop conflict in its place before someone gets flooded or things escalate too far. Although it is important for parents to be able to initiate and model these skills, kids can also learn to recognize when they are becoming overwhelmed and ask for a break. Remember, these are not strategies to avoid conflict but rather allow each person to calm down and revisit the conversation from a better, calmer place. Gottman (1999) gives the following examples (p. 175):
- “Let’s take a break.”
- “Let’s agree to disagree.”
- “I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
- “Can we change the topic and come back to this later?”
Remind yourself to listen to the other person’s words, not just their tone, and embrace a repair attempt when it has been presented. When in doubt, seek support from a therapist.
- Try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Along with validating, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and seeing the conflict from their perspective can help move a disagreement along to a healthy resolution.
- For kids: Even though it may feel at times parents are being unfair, most of the time their rules, consequences, and boundaries are coming from a place of love and protection. For example, if you are arguing over curfew, it can be helpful to put yourself in their shoes and recognize they are not setting a curfew just to make you angry, but rather to make sure you are safe. Try saying something like, “I know you have a curfew for me because you love me and are trying to keep me safe. I am grateful for that. However, I feel I am at an age where a later curfew is appropriate.” By saying this, you are validating their concerns while sharing your position.
- For parents: Again, kids often feel misunderstood. And let’s be honest, sometimes it can be hard to understand their motivations and/or choices. However, if you take a moment to reframe their behavior and put yourself in their shoes, you might find this new understanding helps you both reach a positive resolution. For example, if you are arguing over phone usage, you might recognize how important peer connection is in their life. You might say something like, “I know your friends are important to you and your phone is the best way to stay connected outside of school. I understand that limiting your usage makes you worry that you will miss out on important things. However, we feel strongly that cellphones be turned off at 9 p.m. so you get good sleep. Maybe we can make more of an effort to get you together with friends after school or on the weekends.” By using this repair strategy, your child may feel heard and that there are options to get their needs met.
- Ask what the other person needs and/or share what you need in the moment. You can share your feelings and needs with “I” statements (i.e., “I am feeling blamed and defensive right now and could really use a break”). You can also ask the other person what they need (i.e., “It seems like you are feeling really upset right now. Would it help to take a break and come back to this when we are both calmer?”). Again, this strategy can help initiate a much-needed cool-down period.
- Use humor. Humor is a good strategy to deescalate conflict. One way you can use humor is through a funny code/safe word you both come up with to identify when conflict is getting out of hand. When things are calm, work together to think of a funny word or phrase that either one of you can use when you are feeling flooded during conflict. Use of this word during conflict should signify it is time to use those self-regulation skills or take a break until you are calmer. Sometimes, it may just get the two of you laughing.
It is important to note that sometimes these repair attempts don’t come across in the clearest or gentlest way. Therefore, it is important not only to make an effort to use them appropriately, but to be on the lookout for them from the other person. This can be especially difficult when your relationship is fraught with negativity. Remind yourself to listen to the other person’s words, not just their tone, and embrace a repair attempt when it has been presented. When in doubt, seek support from a therapist to help you learn and practice some of these skills. Therapy can be a great place to begin to identify and practice potential repair strategies for use at home.
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
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