Updated: May 14, 2021
I’ve yet to meet a parent who dreams of the conflicts they’ll have with their child.
No one I know aspires to being a shouting, reactive, angry care giver who constantly questions their own decisions. Yet conflict with your child can turn you into a very different version of the parent you imagined you’d be and leave family life a far cry from your original dreams.
When you’re choosing paint colours for the nursery it’s hard to imagine your offspring as anything other than a sweet bundle of joy. Certainly not a whirlwind of defiance, rage and aggression.
All too often parents find conflict in family life also brings shame, self doubt, and the toxic myth that somehow you’re a bad parent.
Whether you’re a solo parent with one child or a huge family with a whole range of dynamics the truth is conflict is unavoidable. At some point you will clash or disagree.
The real question is not around IF conflict happens but WHEN and how do you make that experience as positive as possible.
You did read that right!
I am talking about making conflict positive. Please note I didn’t say comfortable or easy. Whilst there are some people who love conflict, experience tells me the majority of us would rather avoid it. It’s great to avoid unnecessary conflict, but there are other conflicts we avoid at our peril – shoving them under the carpet as small issues they can end up breeding resentment and damaging relationships in other ways just as toxic.
After years of working with very volatile children in a Pupil Referral Unit, raising traumatised children and having my own birth children I’m pretty good at manoeuvring around unnecessary conflict. I also know some conflicts need to be embraced.
Some days I handle it really well.
Sometimes not so much.
However, I know that there’s an awful lot which can be done to increase the likelihood of conflict being a positive opportunity for growth so given it’s unavoidable that’s where I aim to focus my energy!
How? The questions below are a few examples of ones I ask myself and my clients. What it looks like in practice depends on you and your unique family.
1. How are you making sure you’re ready and equipped to deal with conflict with your child?
I know I’m way more likely to get cross with the children or handle conflict badly when I’m tired, overstretched, unclear or I haven’t had any space. These things are not just vital to my wellbeing, but the wellbeing of the whole family.
That’s even before we get into what topics trigger me or my children, whether they are hungry, tired, stressed or worried or whatever else is going on.
My own state makes a HUGE difference to how family life goes. It’s really annoying as that creates a pressure and responsibility on my shoulders, but it also empowers me. I am the person best placed to ensure conflict goes well – it just needs me to look after me!
So easy to say – much harder to do, especially as triggers for conflict rarely come at convenient times!
Whether it’s looking after my wellbeing, equipping myself with knowledge (reading parenting books which include lots of neuroscience has been a big one for me) or just planning my diary carefully the bottom line is I am better able to meet the needs of my family when my own needs have also been attended to.
What helps you make sure you are best placed to positively handle conflict with your child?
2. What are the messages you want to come out through conflict?
One of the significant challenges I see is the shift from how the current generation of parents were parented to how they want to parent. Whilst growing up in the 80s and early 90s doing as you were told, conforming and obedience was high priority there has been a shift to a more individual and arguably a more relational approach.
What hasn’t changed is a child’s need for boundaries, feeling safe and knowing there is an adult in charge. If you’re not doing it how your parents did, then do you have a strategy and an approach for how you will handle the difficult moments?
Many parents know what they don’t want, but struggle to work out how to do it differently, especially as this can be so easily misinterpreted as “letting them get away with it.” How do you navigate conflict in a way which holds healthy boundaries yet maintains connection and two way communication?
The first stepping stone is to get beyond winning/losing and work out what you want to achieve through the conflict.
When you’ve got the purpose you can begin to work on the how – if the point is respect and you end up having a screaming row and hurling insults at one another then you may have lost that message. What are you trying to achieve and is it worth a conflict?
One common cause of family conflict is the pressures which come from school expectations. It can be really valuable to pause and ask yourself how much is it your battle to fight? It is actually between your child and the school? If you’ve encouraged, reminded and given your child support to do homework, but they still avoid it or do it poorly is there a valuable lesson in allowing them to experience the consequence of their choices? If you’re trying to teach responsibility and then end up nagging your child through every step are they really learning anything? Is it only robbing you of connection and creating more angst in family life?
“Choose you battles” is a wise mantra many parents adopt, but taking it one step further and being clear about the purpose of any battle you get into is even wiser.
What are the messages you want your child to receive through conflict?
3. Explore the patterns – what commonly causes arguments and conflict?
You have wealth of expertise on your child. Dig into that. What is causing conflict – certain topics times of day/week/year? What is going on for your child?
Let’s say change and transition is a common theme – what’s going on for your child there? How are they feeling and what are they telling you? Use that to begin to get beyond the conflict and inevitable difficult behaviour and explore the cry for help? It may highlight times when conflict is really a reflection of times when your child needs help and support. Is this actually an opportunity to prepare and teach them to communicate they need help and navigate these challenges without alienating those around them?
It’s also worth looking at what triggers you. Are there particular times, combinations of family members of particular topics? Knowing your own patterns and triggers can be really beneficial information if you can then use it to help navigate those tricky times.
For me if a conflict involves dishonesty or lying it touches a nerve more than a rude tone of voice or a bit of attitude. I have to be much more mindful about how I handle it compared to other conflicts because it’s one where I can all too easily overreact. Understanding ourselves and how the world looks from the viewpoint of other members of the family can make a huge difference to how we approach conflict.
It’s also worth checking if some conflicts are actually minor issues which have been swept under the carpet or ignored. Had they been resolved when they were minor would they be much less arduous now? Sometimes having brave conversations early on may mean small conflicts but avoids the issue of resentment and bigger blow ups later.
What patterns do you notice when you consider conflict in your family?
4. Be prepared. What can you do before, during and after to help make conflict a more positive experience?
Conflict can feel like a messy blur, but breaking it into before, during and after and being prepared gives you greater opportunity to turn it round when it’s all going horribly wrong.
There’s so much which can be done before a conflict or when you see one looming, you can prepare yourself for during and there can even be positive learning in the aftermath. This is a meaty topic in itself so there’s a bonus bit called “Preparing for Battle - how to make a family conflict as positive as possible” here.
What can you do before, during and after to help make conflict a more positive experience?
5. Remember you’re not alone – how can you make sure you have support and space to reflect?
It’s easy to think it’s just you, especially when social media only shows us the shiny happy bits of other people’s lives. Trust me – every family has conflicts and they don’t always go well!
If anyone tells me they don’t have arguments in relationships my first question is “who’s giving in” Absence of conflict can be a breeding ground for passive aggressive behaviour instead which can be more toxic and just as unpleasant as open conflict
If you’re feeling alone then pause and consider what you need. Who in your circle can offer support and a safe space to reflect? Who else could help? There is lots of support around – sometimes it’s just a case of reaching out to find it.
How can you make sure you have support and space to reflect?
Conflict is a normal part of family life. It may be inevitable and uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean it has to be a negative experience.
Imagine if your child grew up in a family where conflict could happen in a positive way – in which different voices were heard, where there was a sense of it being handled well and in the moments when it does go horribly wrong that everyone is quick and able to set things right and move forward.
Imagine the ripple effect in adult life in the workplace, society and for their future relationships.
It’s hard work working on conflict, but arguably it can be well worth it!
First and foremost I’m a mum who is constantly learning. My family is an eclectic mix of my husband, birth children, grown up foster children, cats and our wider family. I’m a qualified coach and working with parents is my passion – parents feeling confident and making use of their wisdom and expertise makes a massive difference to the whole family. Too often parents don’t realise what a wealth of wisdom and knowledge they have on their children, especially when family life is tough and they can’t see the wood for the trees.
There is no one size fits all and I’m particularly passionate about supporting parents whose children are a little more unique or who don’t fit some of the moulds society expects. Having worked with children through my teaching career who have not fitted the mainstream system I know how hard it can be for parents supporting them to help them be uniquely them and navigate the challenge school and everyday life been. To find out more about how I can help your unique family book at chat at: https://calendly.com/optimumcoaching/appointment-with-julie-cresswell-clone
 There are some great resources out there to help guide parents tools in these areas. These are just a few of my favourites: How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish Whole brain Child by Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson No Drama Discipline by Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read And Your Children Will Be Glad You Did by Philippa Perry.  This is very much the approach of restorative practice. The following link gives you a bit more information based on practice in schools in Gloucestershire. https://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/education-and-learning/restorative-practice-in-gloucestershire/