By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on March 7, 2021
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Q: Fight, fight, fight. That’s what my two teenaged kids do all the time. In my opinion they’re equally guilty of starting the fights and equally responsible for keeping the conflicts alive through their complaints. It’s been like this for years. I’m concerned they’ll end up like me, having an estranged relationship with my brother because we never seem to have gotten past the childhood arguments. Any suggestions? – Edwardo
A: Have you ever watched a couple of cats tumble around together, snarls and claws being thrust at the other and fur flying? These events occur throughout the animal kingdom. I recall watching my daughter’s three Anatolian Shepherds engage in a fight. It was clearly a two-on-one attack, and I wasn’t certain that the female dog was going to survive the aggression of the two males. She could do little to protect herself. At one point one of the attacking dogs grabbed her leg and dragged her perilously. But when the event ended no blood had been shed, no bones were broken. In fact, the three dogs trotted off to a shady location and casually laid down together for an afternoon nap.
These are examples of constructive fighting. These cats and dogs were learning how to increase their confidence in fighting, which in turn enhances their survival skills. Just as observed in the animal world, human fighting (verbal, never physical) can be constructive. It is not uncommon for stress to accumulate in our relationships. Sometimes the tension builds and builds until the pressure becomes too great to handle, resembling a champagne bottle that has been shaken just before the cork is removed. The irritation inevitably spills over. The unhappy person now has an opportunity to share with the other person what is bothering them and how they’re feeling about it, rather than continually stuffing the hurt. This unhappiness can be expressed in arguments, squabbles and disagreements experienced in the relationship.
This aforementioned form of fighting (using words, never fists) is not only healthy but is a necessity in establishing better communication. We all have a need to feel understood and heard by others. Having the other person listen to our feelings and concerns can do much to help us resolve issues that trouble us. Sharing our problem with the other person enables us to broaden our perspective on the problem, moving closer to resolution.
As humans, we get into trouble when our conflicts become destructive. Dirty fighting, including physical, emotional or verbal abuse is destructive to relationships. But it needn’t be that way. You are wise to be proactive in ensuring that your children are learning how to constructively move beyond conflict and preserve important family relationships.
You can help your kids understand that when arguing we tend to think in black and white, meaning that one of us is right and the other is wrong. Who is at fault is not always clear-cut, and what they’re fighting about may not be what they believe it to be. The issue at hand is often just the tip of the iceberg, and what’s beneath may be a lot of previously unexpressed hurt emotions. For example, feelings may be fuelled by an imbalance of power, or a lack of respect for one another that leads to anger, conflict and repetitive quarrelling. Knowing this fact can empower them to listen differently to the other.
You can teach your kids that it is easier to speak with each other when they have confidence they will be heard. Approaching the other with a need expressed in a positive manner is better than grinding the other with complaints, because with the latter a destructive dynamic occurs. A criticized person is likely to put up a defensive wall of protection. In just a heartbeat’s amount of time, this person will likely feel hurt and respond with a hurtful comment right back at the other person, this time with even stronger words than spoken by the first person. In a matter of a few moments and just a couple of sentences both are hurt, anger escalates, a war is declared, and as a parent you’re watching from the sideline.
It is valuable to learn the methods or techniques to fair fighting. A helpful tool you can teach your children is the skill of listening not only for the words spoken but also the emotion behind the message. Encourage them to repeat back to the angry sibling what they believe they heard the person say and ask for confirmation on this interpretation. This reduces misunderstandings and can ensure they are both on the same page regarding the topic being discussed. Also, explain to them that understanding the angry person’s feelings can go a long way in opening the pathway to a successful resolution of the conflict.
When others validate our feelings we feel we’ve been heard. It’s a good feeling and reduces our resistance towards the other party. In turn, we’re more inclined to be open to listening to them.
This lesson on fair fighting can be relationship changing for your kids because they’ll discover that working to fix their problems, rather than trying to be the winner of an argument, will bring them closer together. They’ll learn that it is safe in this relationship to express their true feelings. Instead of expressing their feelings sideways by bickering and potentially misunderstanding what the other person really means, they will know that they can communicate directly with each other in a more successful way. Anger can be replaced with understanding and frustration with trust. Apologies may even follow, further helping foster trust and feelings of concern for each other.
It isn’t easy to make these changes, and likely won’t happen unless you gather them together and discuss a plan for more successfully resolving the next conflict. Your love, guidance and support can help them remember to create new habits; to think before they react, keep focus on what they want from the other and consider the role they play in productively meeting their own needs. Fair fighting is both a skill and an art form. The techniques I suggest for fair fighting can help them not only in their relationship with each other but in their future personal and business lives.
Wishing you well,
Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.
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