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Navigating Different Types of Conflict Between Parents and Children

Gary Gilles, LCPC

Any close relationship is going to experience conflict; especially when it is between a parent and child. As a parent, you are charged with the huge responsibility of helping your child understand the difference between good and bad, right and wrong and what it means to be respectful to others. In your quest to instill these values, there will inevitably be times when your child resists or you miscommunicate. Here are three common types of conflict and some helpful remedies.

upset mother and son1. Inevitable conflict. This is the type of periodic conflict that we experience in all of our closest relationships. This type of conflict is inevitable because we can't always be attentive, mindful and sensitive to those we are closest to. There will be times where we are preoccupied, miss verbal or non-verbal cues, show impatience, overreact, etc. When children feel disconnected in these types of situations, they have a heightened need to be understood.

2. Boundary conflict. This occurs when parents attempt to set limits with their children. Limits are an important part of creating structure for children. But, setting limits can create tension between parent and child, resulting in an emotional disconnect in the relationship. The key to staying in connection during these limit-setting interactions is to align yourself with your child's primary emotional state. You can empathize and reflect back to your child the essence of her desire without actually fulfilling her wish. For example: "I know you'd like to go outside and play, but it's important that you finish your homework before dinner. Then you can play outside for awhile." This is far better than just saying, "No, you can't go outside."

By allowing your child to have her distress without trying to punish her or indulge her can offer the opportunity to learn how to tolerate her own emotional discomfort. You do not have to fix the situation by giving in or try to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings. Letting your child have his emotion and letting him know that you understand that it's hard to not get what he wants is the kindest and most helpful thing you can do for your child at the moment. This helps your child learn to regulate his or her own emotion.

3. Intense conflict. This type of conflict involves intense emotional distress and a significant disconnection between a parent and child. This occurs when a parent loses control of his or her emotions and engages in screaming, name-calling, or threatening behavior toward a child. These are the most distressing types of disconnections for children because there is often an accompanying sense of shame. These types of conflict often occur because parents have unresolved issues from their own backgrounds.

There is often an overwhelming feeling of shame in the parent and also the child. The parent feels a deep sense of inadequacy that may have been triggered by feeling helpless or incompetent. The child feels a sense of shame from being criticized, demeaned or ridiculed. For example: you are in a grocery store and you come down harshly on your child's behavior because you feel humiliated in front of others. Instead of trying to understand the meaning of your child's behavior, you unconsciously respond to the shame you feel in public of not being able to control your child.

Facilitating Repair

Repair is an interactive experience that usually starts with the parent's own centering process. It is virtually impossible for true emotional repair to occur if the parent is still angry or resentful toward their child. Plus, the child will intuitively pick up that the parent is not fully emotionally available and will likely respond in a cautious manner.

Step one: Be aware of your own emotion

If you are not comfortable with your emotion, you will have a hard time giving your children permission to express the full range of their emotion. Questions to consider: Are there emotions you are uncomfortable expressing or express too frequently (anger, sadness, guilt, anxiety)? Are you explosive in your expression of anger? If so, what might be the source of that behavior? Do you overeact to situations that seem out of your control?

The anger you might feel at yourself for acting out of control may keep you from making efforts at repair and block you from seeing your child's need for reconnection. This is an example of how your life story is blocking the repair process. Being able to focus on your own experience and that of your child is a central feature of effective repair.

Step two: Initiate repair with your child

It is the parent's role to initiate repair. Timing though can be very important. Learn and respect your child's style for processing and reconnecting. Start by addressing the disconnection in a neutral way. For example, "This has been very difficult for both of us to be fighting like this. I really want us to feel good about each other again. Let's talk about it." Don't give up if your first few attempts are met with a dismissive attitude.

In order to begin the process of repair you must resist the urge to blame. As the parent, you have the responsibility to own your behavior and know your internal emotional issues.

Don't try to conceal or dismiss emotional moments with your child. In doing so you teach your child to conceal or minimize his or her emotion. By taking the lead you give your children permission to express themselves. By appropriately expressing your emotion you also communicate that strong emotion can be expressed and managed.

Step three: Listen carefully to your child's thoughts and feelings

Encourage them to express how the experience of the conflict felt to them. Allow them to express the full range of feelings and even do it strongly as long as it is done respectfully and does not create an unsafe situation. Do not judge or counter their expression. Do not defend yourself. Allow your child to fully express him or herself before you share your experience of the interaction. Use the interaction as a teaching opportunity to help set boundaries on how emotions are expressed. Join with your child emotionally by reflecting back what you hear about his experience of the events. How we communicate with our children helps to shape the ways they learn to regulate their own emotions and impulses.