Tired of arguing with your child or teen? (Pt 1) How to deflect an argument before it begins
It can’t be avoided. Practical parenting involves refusing our kid’s requests, or telling them what to do or what to stop doing. No matter how nice I am, I have to do this, sometimes several times a day.
‘You can’t swim now.’ ‘Now’s not the best time to watch that.’ ‘I don’t think it’s best for you to go to that party’ ‘It’s time to do homework’ ‘It’s bed-time.’ ‘Put that game console down.’ ‘No, you can’t hold the cake.’
Here’s the problem: most of my kids, much of the time tend to push back with ferocity when I do.
Sometimes I give my child a reasonable instruction, or I decline their demand and they react like a rabid animal.
And usually the way I then try deal with their emotionality only makes it worse, only confirming their suspicion they are victims of gross human rights abuse.
If this clash happens a few times a day, our 5-kid house can turn into a war-zone. Their heated reaction creates friction that tears away at the parent-child connections and challenges Julie’s and my patience and sanity.
Can you relate?
What to do?
I can tell you what not to do. (I have the wounds to prove it!)
On reflection, there are four ways to throw fuel on the fire of your child’s negative reaction.
1. React in counter-argument. When our kids protest, our exhaustion (parenting is like herding cats, after all) and impatience easily cause us to protest back. Their reaction begets our reaction. In which case it is no longer we who are leading the situation. Our kids are. Having unwittingly abdicated our leadership, we allow our kids to set the emotional tone of the situation. Much better to remember the words of Victor Frankl: ‘Between the stimulus and our response, there is a gap called choice.’ We can’t control the emotional response of our kids, but we can and must control our response in return. Yes, we can help it. Is there a method to do respond rather than re-act? Nope. It comes from practice, lots and lots of practice.
2. Repeat the command with greater punch. In a previous post, I implied that there are times when we must simply restate the instruction with calm command. After all, we are the boss, not them. They must deal with this fact. But, most times the better approach is to not throw oil on the fire by immediately re-asserting our authority. Indirect methods of leading our kids are often better than direct, seemingly combative methods.
3. Correct or criticize what they’re saying or feeling. Analyze a child’s protest. It usually consists of both a feeling and a request. Typically, and unwisely, we tend to refute the request by attacking their feeling. When someone tells you that what you feel and think are illegitimate, how do you feel? Well, your kids feel the same! You’re basically turning up the dial on their sense of frustration. Not a great way to defuse the emotional intensity of the interaction.
4. Bolster your instruction by giving reasons. The moment a parent goes into explanation mode, we are treating our child like a peer. This may feel like the fair approach (and indeed as kids are older we will do this more and more) but the problem is our kids are not interested in our reasons. They are interested in their reasons for getting their way. Also, when we try to defend our directive with reasons it starts to feel more like a debate, in which case the fact of my leadership has been pushed aside.
What am I missing in all four of these responses?
Why do they not work?
I think Dale Carnegie gives us a clue in ‘How to Win Friends And Influence People’: ‘We are not dealing with creatures of logic … we are dealing with creatures of emotion.’ He said this of adults, but it is exponentially true of kids. All four responses above lack emotional intelligence.
Is there another way? A way where…
- I still remain in charge?
- their emotionality and resistance is partially, if not fully, defused?
- most times, my instruction still stands?
- arguments are prevented, or reduced in number, intensity and damage done?
- both kids and, according to one author, teens tend to respond well?
Yes, there is.
And it’s simpler than you think.
In a comment under one of my posts, my friend, Karen Grant calls it the ‘mirror and reflect’ method.
Michael Nichols author of ‘Stop Arguing with Your Kids: How to Win the Battle of Wills by Making Your Children Feel Heard’ calls it ‘responsive listening’, which he defines as follows…
“Responsive listening is a skill that enables parents to take charge of conversations with their children, not by laying down the law, but by shifting from the mindset of an opponent in a struggle for control to that of someone actively interested in the child’s wishes and opinions. The point isn’t for parents to give up their authority but to use it to hear their children out before making what is ultimately a parental decision.”
Here is the big idea behind this approach: Until I non-critically acknowledge my child’s contrary feelings and wishes, my reasonable decrees will only increase their unreasonable resistance to me.
Mysteriously (for low-EQ dudes like me at least) the more I validate my kid’s feelings of disagreement with my decision, the less they resist it.
I wish I had discovered this approach earlier. It recognizes that my child is first and foremost ‘a creature of emotion’. Thus my parenting requires at least a touch of emotional intelligence.
In my next post I will tell you how to implement ‘responsive listening’ and also why it works.
Also published on Medium.