By Bettina Hemmingsen
Here we go again… with the screaming and yelling, crying and swearing. It’s so frustrating when nothing you say and do seems to ease off the tension. We all have the dream of a happy and almost perfect family life but instead, we find ourselves in the middle of a war zone with tiring and eternal battles going on. You hear the all too familiar noise in the background while you are stressing around in the kitchen trying to prepare dinner, so you can keep up the appearance of a happy and harmonious family around the dinner table.
Now I am not saying that a healthy and stable family life does not contain conflicts, I am rather pointing at the degree of how involved we get as parents when the kids are fighting. We need to be better in guiding the kids solving conflicts by themselves so we avoid getting dragged into daily issues such as whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, having time on the computer or walk the dog. The quality time as a whole will improve significantly and your relationship with your spouse will not be burden by the disagreements over whose turn it is to interfere and what strategy to use.
You need to think creative if you want to teach your children to solve their conflicts effectively and prepare them for the more advanced problem solving later on in life. It is important to stress that regardless of what method you decide on, parents should continuously be the ones to draw the line and show authority thereby establishing the safe environment which makes it possible for the kids to experiment and adapt to new ways of conflict solving.
What role do you take on?
Let’s begin by characterising the different roles we tend to fall into when we try to intervene between the disagreeing parties. Imagine your children are fighting over the only computer in the house; they are both accusing each other of being the worst existence on the planet and now what do you do?
The Police officer
“STOP fighting” “But it is my turn to play, say something mum…” “I don’t care whose turn it is I want you to stop fighting NOW! ”If the command is not enough you might force them physically to move away from the computer or threaten them by saying.“If you don’t do as I tell you, none of you are allowed to use the computer”
“Why are you fighting”? “It’s my turn to play on the computer” “He is lying it’s my turn – he always lies” “OK since you can’t agree I will decide who gets to play first” “That’s not fair; I am telling you it was my turn” “Then you will have to draw straws”!!
“If you stop fighting I will buy you a new game in the Mall on Saturday” Meanwhile you are considering when you will be able to afford buying another computer, to avoid all the perpetual complaining.
”I can’t believe you can bring yourself to do this to me, I have worked hard to be able afford buying this computer and what do I get in return – ungrateful kids. I am getting sick and tired of listening to your fighting. You ought to be ashamed of yourself”!!
“If you continue fighting there will be no movie tonight. I won’t even bother spending time with you”.
There are numerous reasons why these ordinary ways of responding turns out to be ineffective. Common for all of them is that when you take over the conflict and decide how to solve it, you prevent the kids from dealing with the problem themselves and they will repeat the same behaviour 10 min later.
When you decide to end the conflict by using your authority (Police officer) you are often unfamiliar with the background and what caused the conflict to rise in the first place. One of the negative consequences of using dominance is that the kids gets more focused on avoiding punishment than solving the disagreement on fair grounds. In other words it’s not a moral judgement that determine the outcome of the conflict and unfortunately these kids will often resort to copying your method and even worse turn to violence to manifest their dominance.
If you use your influence on the situation as a Judge you teach your kids that they are not capable of solving conflicts by themselves; only adults are able to define what’s right and wrong and to decide the outcome fairly.
If the conflict turns into a trading (Cashier) situation in which the adult buys and sells peace, in which case money and material values becomes powerful tools in handling the conflict. The kids are brought up to believe that conflict and solution are not equivalent and eventually they will be lacking the skills on an emotional level when they think they can by themselves out of a conflict.
Taking the role of the Victim you appeal to the children to stop fighting because you can’t cope with it and the kids become uncertain as to who causes what and why and how? This creates feelings of guilt and remorse in the child towards you instead of the sibling because you make him responsible of your emotional and physical condition.
Finally blackmailing and denying your child of benefits and loving contact result in insecure and frightened children. They get confused as to cause and effect and the risk of losing the parental love leads to suppressing and fearful behaviour. No matter what role you take the consequences are the same in terms of conflict resolution on a broader perspective, eventually the children turns into illiterates when resolving conflicts in adulthood.
The tendency of contemporary methods of upbringing is by the use of words rather than by will of force just as the values of modern society have changed from obedience to responsibility. With this in mind we are aiming for a Win/Win method that build upon the independence and self-confidence of the children, the respect and equality between parent and child and the minimum involvement from parents. The ancient art of mediating.
The method builds on 6 principles, which establish a sensible foundation and enhance constructive dialogue among the parties.
- The conflict belongs to the children; if we want our children to develop problem solving skills we need to teach them instead of “stealing” the conflict and find solutions on their behalf.
- See the conflict as an opportunity to develop; enforce the learning process of a conflict and the valuable experience it creates for later encounters.
- The children are the experts; when the children feel your support and encouragement in finding solutions to their dispute on their own they become more engaged and committed and after all the children are better judges of what might settle the conflict since they know all the details of it.
- There are no “right” or “wrong”; always pay attention to the Child’s own version of the story and don’t judge the truth. The children might have different opinions and versions of the story line and your role is to teach them to respect and acknowledge their different views and not to focus on “who’s to blame.”
- Always aim for the win/win solution; by encouraging the children to determine what they need and what they can do without, metaphorically speaking, they will naturally meet in the in the middle. It becomes easier for the children to give and take, when they experience that their needs and feelings are taken serious.
- Stay neutral – your role is limited in establishing a fundament on neutral grounds in order for the striding parties to navigate their way out of the conflict. Don’t take sides but keep on the path of constructive communication. When you start practicing this method you will experience several positive side effects e.g. your children become better at handling conflicts in general without dominating or being dominated by others. They learn to understand and respect differences, to show sympathy and feel empathy towards others and to refrain from violence. They learn to cooperate instead of oppose and last but not least they learn to respect you because you engage in their conflict on a respectful and supportive level.
You as the mediator
You are there to ensure the quality of the process and not to determine its outcome and with this in mind you take a deep breath and keep both feet on the ground.It is wise to let the child, which is most upset to begin since it is difficult to listen if you are caught up in emotions. Help them to express themselves in a considerate way and try to “translate” and take the edges of the language.
Your ability to listen with an open mind to both versions of the story is essential for a positive result. Show your impartial position by posing open questions, such as “Would you like to tell me what happened I would like to hear your version of the story”.
Make sure that when the child starts talking he/she will include as many facts and feelings as possible since this will help clarify the sequence of events and the feelings that attach to it.
Help the children to avoid generalizing like “he is always lying” but help them stick to facts and to be more specific about their own feelings – and if they find it difficult to answer your question try to rephrase it. Sometimes it might be effective to repeat a statement because it brings forward more associations, which could lead to forgotten information.
Make room for silence since this often lets the mind run free and might bring new dimension to the conflict. Sum up several times during the conversation to make sure you have understood everything correctly and finally encourage the children to see the situation through the opponent’s eyes. This is a very useful and important dimension to add to the whole learning process because it strengthens the child’s ability to feel empathy and show sympathy towards others.
Always keep in mind that it is important to maintain your authority and to stick out the limits with love, consequence and determination.
Bettina Hemmingsen is a family-therapist and counsellor for expats living abroad. She is a mother, and über mom, works with children, families and couples in Munich. If you have a question and want to further discuss an issue visit her homepage. http://www.bettinahemmingsen.com/