This morning, my daughter and I had a fight.
It was one of our perpetual fights. Her hair, luscious and thick, turns into a rat’s nest if it’s not brushed out each night.
When I style it in the morning, I have to brush it smooth. That’s when everything goes wrong. The clock is ticking. We have to be out the door in 10 minutes. But every time I run the brush through her hair, she jerks back with an “Ow!”
Today, our hair misadventures ended in tears. The rats defeated me. I smoothed out the surface and put the rest in a puffy ponytail. She hated it. She wanted a braid. There was no more time. We were going to miss the bus.
We fired words at one another as we brushed our teeth and got on our shoes. She was mad at me. I was mad at her.
We walked out the door in stony silence. There was nothing more to say.
She went ahead of me, flicking up her hood. Drizzle drenched the pavement. I thought she was going to walk all the way to the bus stop on her own. But then she stopped at the carport and waited, her back to me.
I came up beside her and asked her if she wanted to walk under the umbrella with me. She did.
As we headed up the road, she said, “I’m sorry I got mad at you.”
She said it calmly and simply. There was no trace of the intense emotions of just a minute ago.
“I’m sorry I got mad at you, too,” I said, hugging her close.
We talked about why we’d gotten so upset with each other. We both had colds. It had been a rough few months. When one of us felt bad, the other started feeling bad, too.
“I appreciate what you said,” I told her. “Being the first to apologize is amazing. It takes courage.”
“Well, Mom,” she told me. “You’re usually the first to apologize, so I thought I’d be the first this time.”
When Parents and Kids Fight
Back when I was studying conflict in married couples, I never imagined I would use those very same techniques as a parent.
I thought that I would be using bids for connection and soft startups with my life partner. We would avoid the Four Horsemen, take breaks when we were flooded, and turn towards each other instead of away.
These concrete, useful techniques were a world away from the popular parenting advice I read.
I learned that parents should always remain calm, listen empathetically, ask open-ended questions, then help their children come up with solutions on their own.
That’s really good advice.
But a child’s source of conflict is not always another child or something that happened at school.
Often, the source of conflict is their parents.
No parent-child relationship is perfect. We will always get on each other’s nerves. Sometimes, there are fundamental differences in the way we see the world. We perceive each other as adversaries, even though we love each other beyond belief.
Every time you want one thing and your child wants something different, there’s a tendency to slip into the role of opponents. You feel that your job is to bring your child around to your way of thinking. Your child feels that their job is to convince you otherwise.
That’s why there will always be conflict in the parent-child relationship.
We don’t share the same mind as our children. We don’t always know best. Our children have the right to disagree with us. As they grow older, they will exercise that right more and more.
We need to be prepared.
5 Healthy Conflict Skills
That’s where skills taught by relationship leaders like the Gottman Institute can come in handy.
The original focus of the Gottman Institute was the preservation of marriages. Dr. John Gottman learned to spot the signs that a couple was on the verge of divorce. He developed techniques to keep marital conflict from escalating that far.
The skills taught by the Gottman Institute are good life skills in general.
- Notice the ways your loved one tries to get your attention, and respond to those “bids for connection” with warmth.
- Avoid the trap of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
- The way you start a difficult conversation determines how it’s going to go. Start softly.
- Never tell your loved one to calm down or stop overreacting. Find out how you can connect with how they’re feeling, even if you don’t agree with it.
- When you’re so upset that you’re hurling words at each other, take a break. Come back to the topic later.
Fighting Can Be Good
When you learn to fight in healthy ways with your children—because you will fight—you teach your children the skills they will need in future relationships.
They will learn from you whether it’s okay to keep arguing past the point where you have anything constructive to offer. They will learn whether it’s okay to get defensive or put the other person in their place.
They will learn whether it’s possible to repair the rift an argument has caused. Do you pretend that those hurt feelings never happened? Do you keep picking up the fight where you left off? Or do you take a step back and realize that you both want to return to love and find a way to get there?
No, our children are not adults. Our relationship with them is not the same as a relationship between adults. We have to adjust our conflict resolution skills to an age-appropriate level.
But someday our children will grow up, and they’ll get into fights with their friends and loved ones.
Wouldn’t it be great if they had the skills to fight in healthy ways, because they learned them years ago?
You’re Her First Role Model
I hate fighting with my daughter. She hates fighting with me, too. We’re happiest when our home is peaceful and loving.
But we have to deal with the fact that we fight sometimes. We don’t agree. We get mad.
My job as a mother is to acknowledge what I’ve done wrong, ask forgiveness, and find ways to do better.
When I do that, my daughter sees that it’s okay to acknowledge what she’s done wrong, ask for forgiveness, and find ways to do better. We’re on the same side, even though we don’t always get it right.
That’s why I was so proud of my daughter this morning. It takes great courage to be the first to say, “I’m sorry.”
Now, she’s not apologizing for disagreeing with me—we may never see eye to eye on the hair issue! And that’s okay. What’s not okay is the rift between us, that angry silence and resentment that lingers after we fight.
How do you repair that difficult feeling of distance after a fight with your children? Share your tips in the comments.