How to deal with conflict at home

From SEA co-founder Justine Kiely-Scott: ‘I know that with this second lockdown, my three kids are up and down all the time. Often they can’t name their emotions, and my guess is they’re feeling flat or confused or unsettled. One is back in the classroom and is stressing about someone testing positive for COVID-19; the thought of more online school in Year 12 makes him worry. Another child isn’t loving remote learning and is struggling to sit at the desk all day before doing more homework at the desk after school. The other one likes aspects of online school but seems more quiet than usual and I think is missing friends. It’s easy to start bickering or nitpicking over small things when we’re all feeling unsettled, especially because I’m worried and feel sad for them on top of my own feelings about the lockdown.’

We all experience times of tension at home. For Victorians, in our second lockdown, this might be a particularly difficult period. No matter how much we love our family, spending all our time with a particular person or group of people is likely to lead to at least some bickering (especially if there’s teenagers involved). As parents ourselves, we’ve been there. Each family will have their own dynamic and particular ways of dealing with conflict, but we’ve also put together a few tips we’ve found can help.

Keep a level tone. When we’re in a dialogue with someone, we naturally try to match the other person’s tone. In an argument this can become a one-upping of voice levels. Keeping a calm and level tone can help stop arguments from escalating. 

Use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements. Rather than saying ‘You do this thing!’ or ‘You are this thing!’ it becomes, ‘When this happens, I feel like this.’ Talking in this way helps to stop people from becoming defensive about their behaviour, as well as avoiding helping the both of you to avoid saying hurtful comments in the heat of the moment. 

Try to listen. This can be a tough one when feeling angry or exasperated, but making sure your child/partner/whoever feels heard can be all that they’re after. So not interrupting, asking questions, and letting them know you understand. That’s not to say you shouldn’t argue your point as well, just provide the time and space for theirs.

Stick to the point. This means not veering off into other unresolved arguments or bringing up past pain. You’re more likely to find a solution and move on, rather than talking for hours, re-hurting each other. 

When arguing with children, remember who the adult is. Your 16-year-old might feel at times like a master manipulator, or your eight-year-old an impossible adversary, but remember the parts of their brains that control emotional regulation still have a lot of developing to go. And an off-the-cuff comment from you that you’ll forget overnight, they might remember for years. 

Don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s rare that an argument needs to be sorted out then and there. If things are getting too heated or going on too long, push the pause button and go take some time away. If you can, do something releasing or relaxing, like going for walk, reading a book, or having a bath. 

When the conflict is between two siblings: First of all, don’t always jump in. Learning conflict resolution is an important skill and sibling quibbles are one of the first and most important situations where a child can develop this. If you do feel it’s necessary to step in (say, if the fighting has been going on for longer than 15 minutes), you can be the mediator who applies the above steps. Make sure each child gets to say what they need to, that they stick to the point at hand, and they use ‘I’ statements. Ask them both what they think is a fair compromise and be the final judge.