5 Steps to Stop Arguing with Your Kids

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Arguing with our kids is something that we all hate, but still most of us spend a lot of time doing it. In this blog post, you’ll learn 5 steps that have the power to transform any potential argument into an opportunity for you and your child to understand each other better and grow closer.

 

Here are my five steps to ending arguments:

 

Step 1: Stop Trying to Make Your Point.

Step 2: Check-in with yourself.

Step 3: Start “Listening and Learning.”

Step 4: Express Your Feelings.

Step 5: Problem Solve.

 

Let’s look at them illustrated in a fairly typical argument between a parent and child:

 

The moment David, a 6th grader, came home from school, he turned on his laptop and dove straight into Minecraft. Though this would ordinarily aggravate his mom, Maureen, it really gets to her today as she just picked up an email from David’s teacher saying that he was missing several assignments.

 

MOM:             Rather than playing on your computer, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get started on your homework? I just got an email from Ms. Sutton who said you are missing two English assignments.

DAVID:          I’ll get started in a minute.

(Ten minutes later he’s still sitting there).

MOM:             Didn’t you hear me? I said get off that computer and get to work!

DAVID:          I’ve got it under control.

MOM:             If you had it under control, I wouldn’t be hearing from your teacher! Get up to your room and get started on that homework!

(He ignores her and continues to play his game.)

MOM:             This is serious. If you can’t keep up now, how is it going to be when you get to High School?

DAVID:          Ms. Sutton’s class is stupid. Her assignments are pointless. I’m never going to have to read a poem to get a job.

 

You can imagine how this fight might end: Maureen could make threats, try to shut off his game, or give up. David could storm off, start yelling, or remain on his computer in open defiance.

 

What can Maureen do to change things? And what can you do to break out of a cycle of arguments with your child? Here are my 5 steps:

 

Step 1: Stop Trying to Make Your Point.

 

In any argument, especially ones with our children, the urge to make our point – again and again if necessary – is huge. It’s important to us because the stakes are high and we worry that we’re not being good parent if we don’t convince our child of our point of view. Although letting go of making our point can feel like giving up, it’s actually the most powerful path toward being heard by our child. Continuing to push our point only leads our child to dig in harder, and tune us out more.

 

Let’s take David and Maureen. Neither is listening to the other, they are both pushing their points of view. Maureen is focused on getting David to do his homework. David is focused on getting his mom to stop nagging him. Neither Maureen nor David is interested in understanding where the other one is coming from.

 

When we notice that we have gotten caught up in an argument with our child, Step 1 is to stop trying to make our “point.” Making the shift from pushing our point to listening and understanding, paradoxically, is the shortest and most effective path to being heard and having influence.

 

Step 2: Check-in with yourself.

 

Once we’ve stopped trying to make our point, we need to check in with ourselves.  This looks like the following: Ask ourselves whether we can, just for the moment, suspend being “right” in favor of really listening to and understanding our child. Am I open to the fact that my child has a point of view that makes sense to him or her? Can I let go of my judgments of my child?

 

Family researcher, John Gottman, has found that it’s impossible for any of us to truly listen when our heart rate is above 100 beats per minute. Anger at our child, or anxiety about what he or she might do or has done, can send our heart rate skyrocketing. Feeling stressed, tired, hungry or sick can also make it extremely difficult to listen. Maureen definitely had a lot going on with David which, when combined with typical life stress, can make listening very difficult.

 

If we find, when checking in with ourselves, that we are ready to work to understand where our child is coming from, it is time to move on to step three: “Listening and Learning.”

 

If we discover that we aren’t in a good place to listen, it’s time to take a break from the conversation and give each of us a little space from the other. Talking can be resumed once we both have had a chance to calm down. Continuing talking while feelings are running high almost always make things worse.

 

Step 3: Start “Listening and Learning.”

 

When we argue, we feel we are right and our child is wrong (or doesn’t get it, is irrational, oppositional, naïve, etc…). However, the truth is, as beautifully summarized by one of my favorite quotes taken from the movie Raising Arizona: “there ain’t no pancake so thin it ain’t got two sides.” There are always two valid points of view in any conflict.

 

In the listening and learning step we need to work hard at understanding our child’s point of view and why it makes just as much sense as ours given the information, beliefs, emotions, and perceptions that he or she has. This is the hardest step of all. It’s where we all want to quit and go back to being “right.” I promise, if you persist here, despite the challenge, the rewards will be amazing.

 

When Maureen shifts from wondering “Why is my son so lazy?” to “What is going with David that makes him feel so awful that he won’t do homework?” then everything shifts. Instead of trying to get David to listen to her point that success in school is the springboard to success in life, she might ask David, “What is it about Ms. Sutton’s class that’s stupid?” If she did, she might hear some clues from David that he is having a difficult time understanding the poems they are reading for class and it makes him feel stupid. Or, Maureen might find that David feels embarrassed and self-conscious that he is being asked to write about the feelings he has when he reads a poem. Or, Maureen might learn that Ms. Sutton embarrassed David, who has a slight stutter, by asking him to read aloud.

 

As we understand more about our child’s perspective, we can ask questions to clarify things further and reflect back what we have learned. It’s hard work, especially because our kids frequently can’t or won’t tell us exactly what they are feeling. We often have to guess. Maureen might say, “So poetry isn’t your thing. You don’t have an easy time understanding what the poems are about. It makes you want to avoid the whole thing.” The goal is for David to feel understood and validated. Feeling heard always makes people more inclined to listen.

 

Let me be clear: listening, understanding and validating our child’s point of view does not mean that we have to abandon our own position, or are that we are giving in to our child. It also doesn’t mean that we agree with how our child is handling the situation. What it does mean is that we accept that we both have valid points of view. By understanding David’s discomfort with poetry better, Maureen is not giving up her position that doing homework is important. She is helping David experience her as an ally instead of an adversary so they can work together to solve the problem.

 

Step 4: Express Your Feelings.

 

Once our child feels that we get where he or she is coming from, our child will be much more receptive to hearing about our feelings and concerns. Maureen might say to David it makes total sense to her that he’d want to avoid doing homework that makes him feel stupid or embarrassed, but that she also knows that he likes to do well in school and that not doing these assignments is hurting his grade. She might add that when we avoid our problems they don’t go away and they usually get worse.

 

Don’t be surprised if your child doesn’t exactly validate back just yet. It’ll come with time as we work consistently, when there is conflict, to listen to and validate our child, instead of arguing.

 

Step 5: Problem Solve.

 

Once we each feel understood, we can now start brainstorming solutions to the problems underlying the argument. The goal of problem solving is to find a win-win solution in which both side’s feelings and needs are met. In the initial phase of problem-solving, parent and child brain storm together possible solutions. David might suggest that his mother ignore Ms. Sutton’s emails and leave him alone. Maureen might suggest that David set aside his upset feelings and “just do it,” like the Nike ad. Of course, neither of these proposals address of their main concerns. Eventually David might suggest that Maureen talk to Ms. Sutton and tell her he needs different assignments. Maureen might suggest that David go in to school early and get some extra help with the poetry. These suggestions start getting closer to win-win. Finally, they might agree that they will speak with Ms. Sutton together and seek to have the assignments modified to something that David is more comfortable doing. Maureen likes this option because David will get caught up on his work in Ms. Sutton’s class, and David likes it because he has his mother’s support in dealing with a challenging issue.

 

I hope these 5 steps:

 

Step 1: Stop Trying to Make Your Point.

Step 2: Check-in with yourself.

Step 3: Start “Listening and Learning.”

Step 4: Express Your Feelings.

Step 5: Problem Solve.

 

are helpful to you in dealing with the inevitable arguments that arise between a parent and a child.

 

After you give these steps a try, let me know how it goes. I’ve been thrilled to hear from you. Please contact me by email drdavis@challengingboys.com or on

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