Twelve-year-old Bradley Green* wears his jeans so low, his rear and underpants show each time he bends down. His father cannot stand it; he tells his son that he looks like he has just been released from jail. Bradley yells back that this is the 21st century and a free country, and that his father just does not get it. His mother observes the scene with a sarcastic expression on her face, and then sardonically mentions to her husband that his own trousers were so slim-cut 20 years ago, it was challenging for him to bend down, too. In silence, Green Sr. slams the door and leaves. Soon Bradley and his mother hear the roaring of the car engine, dad is on his way to work. Mom then asks Bradley to please wear a belt, saying that then and only then would he be able to go to school. Bradley sighs and goes to his bedroom to find the belt, which he will no doubt take off as soon as he gets on the school bus.
The Greens * are not a high conflict family. They are caring and loving people. However, this seemingly minor conflict happens in their household almost every day. Minor episode times 10 —and you have an ongoing family conflict. Almost every morning, Dad is furious while driving through rush hour traffic; Bradley is upset and irritated 30 minutes before the school starts; Mom feels guilty and angry.
Family conflicts like this are common. If not addressed, they tend to snowball. Negative emotions become attached to one another layer by layer. They do not go away, but may be suppressed and stored somewhere inside the family system.
Usually they are built on assumptions: Bradley’s mom most likely assumes that her husband is overreacting, so she tries to protect her son; Bradley’s dad probably supposes that his son is acting out of rebellious feelings against him personally; and Bradley presumes that Dad is exercising his parental power. In addition, for Bradley, Dad is a “bad cop” and Mom is a “good cop”. In this situation, he will obey his mother and will not listen to the father. This is his way of demonstrating to his dad that he likes his mom’s way of communicating to him better.
What do the Greens need to do to start working on resolving their conflict?
First, they have to recognize that, as a family, they have a problem, and that this problem needs to be resolved. Either parent has to suggest discussing the situation. They need to agree on when this conversation should happen. It is important to find the right time; so many mistakes are made when an important talk begins at the wrong time. “Look, we need to do something about our morning quarrels,” one of them would say. “Let’s talk about it tonight. What do you think is a good time?” When the time is scheduled, there should be no cancellations or postponements, except for emergency situations. The parents will start their conversation on time and with open hearts.
The foundation of a skillful family conversation is based on communicating an I-care-about-you/us message, regardless of the topic. The Greens have to start by talking to each other about their feelings: how he feels when she uses a sarcastic tone with him, and how she feels when he yells at Bradley, and how she cannot help herself attempting to protect him. Talking about feelings is a very sensitive thing, and the conversation may uncover hidden emotions and hurts. There are many techniques of family coaching or education that use affective approaches to help people effectively express their feelings. When each partner hears what the other is saying, both parties’ responses are controlled and valued.
It is good to start with the assertion that though there have been angry words, the spouses have never meant to hurt each other. Kelly Simpson, the award-winning author of the Active Relationships programs, which teaches practical relationship skills, calls this an “assumption of good will”. She writes, “What an insult it would be to me for my partner not to trust that I have, with all my imperfections, at the very least, a well-meaning heart.” Starting with phrases like, “I am sorry that you feel so irritated every morning” will set a friendly and non-accusatory atmosphere.
Below are some tips for conducting a conflict resolution conversation between spouses and with kids, too:
—Do not mind-read.
—Give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
—Listen, listen, and listen! Remember that the main goal of listening is to understand, not to judge! Let your partner know that you are focused on what he or she is saying: stop other activities, look him/her in the eye, and use your body language to express your interest. Respect your partner’s opinion and experience, and accept it. Bradley’s mom may say: “It sounds like you really feel hurt.” Ask for more information: “Tell me more about your concern regarding peer pressure on Bradley.” Summarize by repeating in your own words what you have heard your partner saying.
—Respond with care and respect. Do not use “you” statements; always draw on “I” statements: “I see that you are very disturbed with Bradley’s way of wearing his pants,” instead of, “You react so strongly about Bradley’s way of dressing.” The latter will only cause defensiveness in Green Sr.
—Speak for yourself! Bradley’s mom should be responsible for her own feelings, and not for her husband’s. She needs to listen and accept her husband’s emotions. It is imperative to refrain from judging your loved one’s feelings by saying: “You should not feel like this...” When talking, don’t “talk at”, but “talk with” your partner.
—Do not change the subject of conversation or generalize. Phrases like “You always do this! This is your typical way of dealing with Bradley!” might ruin the whole conversation.
After the Greens have addressed their emotional concerns, it’s time to work together on modifying their morning I-cannot-stand-the-way-you-look routine and to come up with a plan of action that alters their standard behavior. Bradley’s dad will do his best not to yell, but instead might say: “You know, son, if I were you, I would wear a belt. But it is totally your call.” Would Bradley listen to his dad? Most likely he would not. But he would understand that Dad is trying to change the routine. In response, Bradley’s mom might address the whole situation rather than speaking to just one of the participants. Instead of her usual comment to her husband, she might say: “It is so good to hear that you two are trying to talk and not to fight”.
Let Bradley go to school — with or without a belt. And don’t forget to ask him if he is available for a half-an-hour conversation later on. It might be a challenging one — talking to your pre-teen is always an adventure. As Alice in Alice in Wonderland would say: "If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”
* Not real names
MARIA TEVEROVSKY teaches family communication and conflict resolution, working with couples and families as a relationship consultant and/or mediator. She is in private practice with offices in Manhattan and Westchester County. Teverovsky is also a trained family and divorce mediator. She also specializes in helping intercultural and interfaith families come to satisfying agreements on parenting and other aspects of their family lives. Contact her at (914) 980-6470; www.mediatewithmaria.com.