Parental conflict is a huge source of stress for parents and children alike in so many families. All family members need and will likely crave more harmony. Everyone wants and needs to feel emotionally safe and supported, to feel seen, heard and understood. Many couples struggle on assuming things can't get any better, feeling powerless, yet there is much that can be learned and changed to bring about more satisfying communication and cooperation. As co-parents, there’s usually so much to be learned and worked out to move towards better communication for both partners. Coming on to the same page and learning to communicate together better requires very adult mature management of our emotions. Healthy communication skills need to be learned and practised in the same way as learning peaceful parenting.
It’s much better if both parties can learn to use similar communication skills that peaceful parenting teaches, like I statements, active listening, reflecting back what you hear, learn to acknowledge each other’s perspective even when you disagree, learn to slow down and get better at finding other safe outlets for their frustrations like in an agreed active listening partnership or through counselling or co-counselling. Just blurting, or indeed spitting, out our grievances, although very understandable when we feel hurt, frustrated and perhaps powerless, yet this usually results in one’s partner getting defensive and then feeling entitled to do the same. I’m a great believer in having talks about how you talk; talking about talking at a time when you both have time and headspace to really work to create some healthy guidelines.
- It helps to begin tricky conversations by aiming to create common ground through empathizing, or affirming that these issues are difficult and stressful for you both, by affirming that you both want what's best for the child, by reassuring that you believe you can work together to find solutions.
- Organizing a specific time and space to talk and be heard tends to result in more constructive communication for both parties.
- The more charged the topic can be, the more important it is to negotiate guidelines that maintain emotional safety.
- To set up safety guidelines, both parties can express what they need to feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings, then work together to write out agreements both parties are willing to agree to.
- Weave into the agreement permission for either party to negotiate a pause when they start to feel overwhelmed or triggered, a word or hand gesture or both.
- Include in the agreements that both parties avoid labelling, black and white statements that start with "you always" or "you never".
- Avoid stating the other's intentions or emotions, but instead ask open questions like "in these situations, what do you feel?" or "it seems that what I just said was upsetting, what are you feeling about what I just stated?"
- Aim to hear, understand, reflect and acknowledge each other's perspectives even when you don't agree, this meets needs to feel heard and increases cooperation.
Arguments create a high risk of damaging the warm connection. Some couples can argue in a way that they speak in a very raw way from the very hurt parts of themselves and express some big character judgments towards their partner and then move on to actually having a mature conversation where both are willing to hear and acknowledge each other, yet for the majority of individuals they just won’t be able to do the emotional gymnastics that this involves. More commonly arguments that include character evaluations and harsh judgments tend to be remembered and can damage the warm connection.
On this Parental Conflict resource kit (available to Premium Village members), Genevieve responds to a parent's question relating to when she gets into an argument with her husband as a result of her intervening when her husband gets into conflict with their child.
Anger tends to give people an over-inflated sense of being entitled to express that which they believe to be the truth, yet when in the stress response the brain’s job is to scan for threats and our thinking becomes very black and white and lacks the complexity and ability to be compassionate or considerate or sensitive. How conflicts were dealt with in our family of origin is where we learned the first rulebook about relationships and without huge scrutiny of how we operate when conflict arises, we are at the risk of re-enacting similar ways of communicating that may not unhealthy and dysfunctional.
This is why it’s very important that we all maintain impulse control when strong emotions rise up. This might read or feel like emotional repression but it’s more about healthy and responsible management of our emotions.
We all do need to really listen to and have safe places where we can express those raw emotions. Often valuable insights that feeling the pain of conflict in a relationship gets lost because of our inability to express those insights in a way that our partner can heal and digest and gain understanding. When feeling attacked or misunderstood, very few people can operate from the heart and work to truly understand the other with care and compassion.
Organizing an active listening partnership with another adult - also equally relevant to organizing shared listening times with your partner.
Most adults grew up in families where they rarely if ever gained the emotional support and empathy that they needed. If a parent wasn't listened to sensitively when they were young, they may not have learned how to tune in and listen to their feelings. It's this inner reflective work of tuning in to, identifying and expressing our feelings that help us work through our anger, frustrations, rage and resentments. When painful emotions are not sensitively tuned in to, some of the very important needs driving those feelings may not have been met and a pattern of consistently invalidating one's feelings can develop.
In emotionally dysfunctional families, the most painful emotions tend to be either repressed or expressed destructively and aggressively. Both repression and verbal aggression (including harsh criticisms) compromise the bonds, the trust, the open lines of communication and ultimately the love in close relationships. As adults parenting our children, we have a huge responsibility to learn to communicate differently. We have a huge responsibility to our children and their children to break the cycles of emotional repression and the patterns of communication that lack empathy and sensitivity and lost trust.
Strong emotions compromise our ability to think clearly or be compassionate. It’s very hard to be diplomatic, level, encouraging, generous, reassuring and affectionate with our partner when we’re managing stress and when we disagree with how they are parenting, especially if we’re concerned about the impact on our child and especially when there’s also a huge backlog of unresolved and possibly even unexpressed thoughts and feelings, when there’s wounding and resentments. It helps when we share our difficulties “I often get frustrated as well when it takes so long to get her shoes just right, it takes so much patience when she’s struggling with her sensory issues” this way you’re aiming to relate and show understanding while reminding him of her needs – as a place to start at least.
When a couple or co-parents have built up some hard feelings and resentments, it becomes very difficult to communicate on the tricky subjects in a way that’s emotionally safe and actually constructive. Yet it’s only through calmer and emotionally safe and constructive communication that either party will actually get to the point of having their needs met. Both partners need to feel seen, heard, understood, to have their good intentions acknowledged and ultimately to feel cared for and supported around the issues that are the toughest.
Common ground creates a space for each party to meet in the middle. As well as talking through the particular issues and there are so many issues to work through when parents are not on the same page and that’s all very important, yet we also need to carve out times where we talk about our patterns of communication and aim to create more common ground and aim to really hear and understand each other’s perspective, then work together to make agreements. It’s particularly good if you could both agree on what the best approach would be in these kinds of situations. As a couple of others have said, it’s good when the parent who's in a calmer state can intervene in a way that brings relief to the parent whose at or near the end of their patience.
When one person is in defensive mode, it’s hard for them to be aware that the other feels attacked. For most couples I talk to this process doesn’t tend to be very smooth and indeed leads to lots of defensiveness (denying that he said what he said is often a defensive tactic that people use to attempt to avoid possible conflict). So for the parent on the outside whose calmer to come in and intervene in a way that feels supportive and helpful, this usually needs to be agreed previously. The agreement helps the parent intervening to feel less anxious about the reaction, hence more able to stay calm and be empathic and supportive. And the prior agreement helps the parent losing their patience in the midst of a power struggle with their child to be better able to perceive the intervention as support and not feel so threatened/ criticized/ defensive.
Unfortunately, most people didn’t experience a lot of truly peaceful loving support from another family member when they got into conflict as a child with a parent or sibling. Most of us learned that these were highly risky times and learned to expect criticism, anger or rejection at these times and these patterns are deeply hardwired.
Approaches that I’ve tended to use a lot over the years with hubby (not that I always manage to do it well!) is to acknowledge that it seems like a really stressful situation for them both (hubby and DS/ DD). I aim to touch DH knowing that he’s the one who's likely to worry about me disapproving of his interactions (he and the kids basically know that I tend to sway more towards empathy for them in these situations). I often have to manage my judgments and centre myself to be able to stay open-hearted towards him. As much as I might like to thrash it all out there and then and come to a solution and resolution, those bigger conversations about the dynamics tend to work best at a calm connected time when the kids are otherwise engaged. I attempt to start with expressing empathy “that was really stressful wasn’t it when yourself and …. we're trying to work out …., it’s so hard when you just get in the door and you’re already exhausted and I know it’s been a big week in work for you and …. ” that kind of thing.
If Dan's approach was not quite PP, he’ll know that I have thoughts and feelings about. He also will know that I’m working hard to be diplomatic, and in doing so, I’m helping him shift from being defensive to instead of talking about his feelings. For most people, parents and children alike, we can make our way towards truly wanting to resolve things when we feel cared for and heard. We have more empathy when we feel empathised with, we have more generosity of heart when some of our needs are met. Sometimes when I talk with my husband afterwards and help him see the situation from DD/ DS’s perspective, he’ll have the urge to go and say sorry but I’ll know that it’s going to come across as defensive/poor me (because I can see he's still stressed or upset), so I’ll encourage him to wait until he’s feeling better before seeking to resolve it. These are really similar mediation principles that I teach parents to use in resolving conflicts between the children; connection before correction, speaking to and empathising with the feelings beneath the needs, using I statements, problem-solving and loving limits when needed.
"But I'm not his mother or his counsellor"
When talking through parental conflicts with clients, something that's often voiced is that my client, be they the mother or the father, feel that they're the one doing the majority of the emotional work. They express that they feel the pressure and burden of taking more responsibility for the children's emotional needs and doing more of the reading and learning. I also see that when I have both parents in front of me and I facilitate the communication in a way that each person ends up getting to express what they need to express and hear their partner express back what they understand they've heard and the whole process is held in this way, many misunderstandings surface and get cleared up. Usually one party has been attempting to make similar communication happen at home, but the emotions that get evoked are so very painful and intense and again and again, things have resulted in explosions, be it verbal attacking, raised voices, globalised accusations (you never/ always) or storming off and stonewalling.
It's very difficult to give that which we wish we were receiving. It's very difficult to extend more grace towards someone who doesn't seem to be doing the same for us. Yet for couples to improve their communication, there are a lot of changes that are generally needed to break out of the dysfunctional dynamics and