When Conflict Doesn't Go Your Way
- 2003 21 Aug
The good news: Your conflicts can be put to work to improve your relationship with your teen. The bad news: Poorly managed conflict can damage your relationship. But don't be discouraged. Understanding the negative possibilities is the first step toward getting motivated to do better during your disagreements with your teen.
When conflict is not handled in a healthy manner, a number of negative things can occur. In this chapter, we'll talk about four of them: withdrawal, escalation, belittling, and exaggerated or false ideas.
Have you ever been in the middle of a disagreement with your teen when one of you completely shuts the other out? "I'm not talking about this anymore!" "End of discussion! If you bring this up again, I'm leaving!" Doors slam and feeling are hurt.
So much for feelings of resolution-or for the feelings of achievement that come when two people work their way through a disagreement. Withdrawal closes the door to all the relationship opportunities we've been talking about.
Think of escalation as a kind of spiraling volley that moves an argument in uglier and uglier directions. When one person becomes defensive or insistently tries to win, it's easy to start shouting, blaming each other, using degrading names, and so forth. You'll recognize some signs of escalation in the overuse of the word you: "Don't you accuse me!" "You always--." "You never--." "You're just mean/stupid/selfish." There's a kind of crazy one-up-manship going on here, as if the two of you need to best each other in a match of temper or intensity.
Escalation will take your relationship in a direction away from closeness and connection by bringing in an element of competition and allowing negative emotions to spiral out of control.
When a conflict escalates, it's a short stretch to belittling. It's not long before you start accusing each other of being stupid or inferior. This is some sort of defensive move to make yourself feel better than or superior to your opponent in conflict. Ever heard statements like these in your arguments? "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard!" "When will you ever get it right?" "You've been thing from the wrong part of your body." "No wonder you get poor grades." "I wouldn't want to go out with you either!"
If your much-loved child suddenly turns into an opponent to attack, things have strayed a long way from the kind of conflict-management that validates and seeks mutual resolution.
Exaggerated or false ideas
In the heat of conflict, it's easy to develop exaggerated or false beliefs about your teen. For example, it might feel to you or him that one of you is purposely trying to ruin or weaken the relationship, although that's rarely true. Heard statements like these? "You always want to be around your friends. You don't care about me." "You don't even try to understand where I'm coming from. You'd try if you really cared." These negative beliefs are powerful because they affect how each of us perceives and interprets what the other does! Those perceptions are often more pivotal in shaping our relationship-and our level of satisfaction in the relationship-than the realities are.
Humans tend to see and hear what they want to see and hear about another person, even if it isn't true. In other words, what you believe about another person-positive or negative-clouds your perspective about that person. And soon, you'll find evidence to support what you believe in everything that person does or says. If you think your teen isn't very smart or is awkward in social situations, you'll begin to focus only on the negative behavior that supports that image. It doesn't matter what reality is; you will view it from the lens of your beliefs about your child. It's the same thing that Paul wrote about in Romans 14:14: "To him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" (NKJV).
Ever heard of the "Self-fulfilling prophecy"? The idea is that, once you've got an idea in your head, you'll begin to look for and notice behaviors that reinforce that thought. Once you've negatively "framed" your teen in your mind-as only average in intelligence, for example-you'll tend to treat him as if he's not very smart. That effectively shuts the door on positive reinforcements. People tend to live up to our beliefs about them (thus, the self-fulfilling prophecy). When negative thinking consistently invades your relationship, it produces an environment of hopelessness and demoralization. The teen who's been negatively framed is robbed of motivation and action.
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