Shall We Fight or Shall We Solve a Problem?

We learned to fight at a very early age.  My youngest’s first sentence was, “I had it first.” Because the effectiveness of MODELING the behavior we expect from our kids is one of the strongest teaching methods, we can teach our kids the language for fighting, or we can teach them the language for solving problems. It’s all in what we model.

Here’s a typical event parents experience with their adolescent.  Let’s say this particular adolescent is a 16-year-old boy who has just walked in 2 hours after curfew.  He didn’t call, and his parents couldn’t reach him on his cell.  It’s now 2 A M and they’ve been beside themselves with worry. Now that he’s finally home and not the least bit concerned, their worry explodes into anger.

Parent:    Where have you been!  Do you realize what time it is?

Son:         What? (looking totally oblivious to a possible problem).

Parent:    You were supposed to be home 2 hours ago!  You have no

consideration for us.  The least you could have done is call.

Son:          You always make a big deal out of everything.

Parent:    Two hours late IS a big deal.

Son:         Oh G…  Why can’t you just trust me.  This place is a f…n jail!

Parent:    Don’t use that kind of language around here or you’ll find

yourself grounded.

Son:         All you ever do is yell.  I’m sick of this f….n place (as he storms

off toward his room.

Parent:   That does it!  Don’t expect to be going anywhere except

school for the next week!

What just happened here?  The parents inadvertently started a fight.  Yes, the parents started it by doing 3 things:  beginning in anger, using sentences starting with “you,” and then changing the subject from lateness to language.  Each of these mistakes are so common, I’ll wager we’ve all done them – many times even.

In our emotionally charged discussions with our kids, we are more effective when we change the previous 3 actions to the following:  avoiding beginning in anger, using I MESSAGES, and dealing with one issue at a time. Here’s an alternative way to handle this situation:

Parent:   We’re so glad you’re home. We’ve been worried sick because

your curfew was 2 hours ago, and we didn’t hear from you

(no blame; just statement of fact).

Son:        What? (looking totally oblivious to a possible problem).

Parent:   Curfew was 2 hours ago! (repeating the fact)

Son:      You don’t have to spaz out.  You always make a big deal

of everything.

Parent:  Two hours late IS a big deal.  We expect you to call when you

know you’ll be late (statement of fact).

Son:        Oh My G…  My phone died. This place

is a f…n jail (as he stomps off to his room).

Parent:    We expect that we can all sit down and have a reasonable

discussion about this issue. By tomorrow night, we’ll be

calmer, and we’ll do it then.

Next evening:

Parents:     We’d like to talk with you about last night.  Let’s sit down

for a few minutes.

Son:            (Sits, turning his body and head to the side – no eye contact –

and very obviously irritated, but calmer than the previous night.)

Parents:      When you come home late, we worry that something may

have happened to you. All we expect is that you call. (I MESSAGE)*

Son:             There’s nothing to worry about.  I can take care of myself.

Parents:       We know you’re very good at taking care of yourself, and our

expectation is still that we hear from you so we know you’re

okay.  In our family, we each do that – even the two of us (modeling

behavior expected from children).   We want to have a verbal agreement

from you that you’ll do the same.

Son:               (sulkily) Okay.  Can I go now?

Parents:       Not quite; there’s one more issue we’d like to discuss.

Son:              (groans)

Parents:      (Now they can deal with the language issue, using the same skills)

Yes, parenting is very time- consuming, often very difficult, and requires a great deal of emotional maturity on our part.  The communication methods for how to fight are very different from those for how to problem-solve.

Becoming emotionally mature parents usually means learning new ways to communicate – ways that our culture doesn’t teach us.  It’s up to each of us to learn and model the skills for problem-solving.



*This is called  an “I MESSAGE” (Gordon, 1980) and has 3 parts:  1. Describe the child’s behavior (without judgement of that behavior), 2. State your feelings when that behavior happens (no blame), and 3. State the behavior you want/expect instead.

Copyright Judy Harmon Holmes, 2018

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