Conflict can occur within families at anytime, but too much “togetherness” can really make things challenging on the home front. Whether conflict occurs between partners, parent-child, or siblings the sources of conflict typically arise from three main factors. Family members may differ in what they want to accomplish, in the ways in which they want to pursue their goals and from the expectations you have for one another. Conflict does not have to be a problem. Handled well it can strengthen family relationships. Handled poorly it can negatively impact family functioning. The key is to approach conflict in a positive way by thinking of it as an opportunity to solve a problem. Healthy conflict resolution begins with you as the parent because you set the tone in the home. The children and young people in your home mirror your behavior.
Many professionals have written about the best ways to deal with conflict. In examining the literature, three key ideas emerge.
First, you cannot solve problems when you and/or a family member have lost emotional control. Dr. Dan Siegel, a well known Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, talks about what happens in the brain when we “flip our lid” in a way that is easy to understand using the “Hand Model of the Brain” Dr. Dan Seigel presenting a Hand Model of the Brain.
In order to be able to problem solve individuals must be in their “Upstairs Brain”. Take the time for everyone to become calm. As a family create a “calm down tool box” which can be use during times of conflict.
Second, teach your kids empathy which means stepping into the shoes of another person, avoiding judgement, seeing emotion in others and communicating it. Practice with your children how to listen to understand both the needs and feelings of others. Model this skill through your own interactions. Instead of reacting to the problem try and gather information to achieve a clear picture of what is really happening. Remember this saying “Curious, not furious”. For example, if your child is having a meltdown because they have not had their turn to use the family computer ask how long they have been waiting, how they approached their sibling and what they need the computer for. Once you understand the issue, you might respond, “I get why it is frustrating to wait for the computer when you have lots of school work to finish. Everyone needs a turn on the computer today. How can we make this work?”
Third, a clear process for communication during problem-solving can reduce conflict:
- Clearly name the problem.
- Have each individual take turns without interruption, describe the conflict and their feelings about the situation.
- Explore ideas for compromise and relationship repair by keeping the “we” in mind not just the “I”
- When a decision is reached ask each individual to describe how they think the solution will fix the issue.
- Take action and put the solution in motion.
This problem solving model can be used with a parent and their child or between siblings. It is important to remember that sometimes issues are too big for children to solve on their own and they need the parent’s help to think of alternatives and choose the best one. Be a team and build in small rewards for the whole family when a conflict is resolved.
Finally, getting along is easier when everyone has some personal space during periods of prolonged togetherness. When it is not possible for family members to all have their own room, draw a line, use making tape or arrange furniture in a way that family members have their own space. Consider building a small tent where an individual can be alone if they choose. Keep special possessions in high cupboards where they cannot be broken or lost when not in use. When you are together, such as at the dinner table, take time to express everyday one thing that you appreciate about a family member.