My family gets along just fine . . .
By Erik Fisher, PhD., AKA Dr. E..., www.ErikFisher.com
How often is it that we see people in our extended families and our community that believe that their family gets along just fine and doesn't have any problems, only to find that screaming, yelling, name calling, and physical aggressiveness is almost the norm? There almost seems to be a denial that there is a deeper issue, and because of this, the conflict continues and people believe that destructive behaviors are acceptable. Whether it is sibling rivalries, parents behaving badly, physically or verbally abusive behaviors, and/or conflicts between extended family members, these patterns of conflicts often endure from generation to generation. What are the factors that start these conflicts and continue them across time?
The Power Trip
The underlying issue that drives all conflicts is power in the way we are taught to look at power. It's that simple. In our world we are often taught that there are different levels of power that people have, and we are either supposed to find where we fit in or advance our position by undermining, controlling, or manipulating other people's power. This is no different in our families. After all, this is where we are first taught this. We often grow to feel that our parents manipulate our feelings of power through threats, punishments, and painful words, and it is from these behaviors that we develop a mistrust of our parents and then the world. The unfortunate result is that we believe that we have to be the ones to protect our own power, often at any cost. These challenges to our power are often played out in the conflicts in our families and extend.
In my years of experience in working with families, I find that most families with problematic conflict either have parents that 1. Are manipulative and try to push the buttons of their children with threats, empty promises, or gifts; 2. Are directly controlling and try to force their kids to do things that breed resentment and conflict; 3. Are inconsistent and send mixed messages to their kids without consistent guidance or support letting their kids try to establish dominance among themselves and against their parents; and/or 4. Have unwittingly or purposely pit their kids against each other, regardless of their motivation. In almost all these situations, the parents are either blind to the way they're approaching these issues and/or are unable or unwilling to admit that they do these things even when confronted. When your children feel that you as a parent are looking out more for yourself than them, they stop trusting you. Where there is no trust, there is no sense of safety or security. When people do not feel safe, they live with a feeling of fear and often feel that they need to take matters into their own hands. Therefore, they will either challenge you and/or others for power and control or will surrender their wants and needs to others and let themselves be controlled.
The emotion that underlies our drive for power in our world is fear. If we feel that we are in a position of powerlessness, we fear others have more power than us to harm us or control us. If we feel that we are in a position of power, we fear that the people "below us" either want to take it or we are responsible for them and the risks of failure are increased. Keep in mind that although we may live with his underlying fear, we don't want to show that to others because we are taught to look good and/or strong and/or right that we can win (we hide our feelings or perceptions of feeling bad, wrong and/or weak).
If you look at most family conflicts they often continue because one and/or both people are looking to try to prove that they are better, stronger, more correct in a belief or attitude than the other person. Kids are often competing for love and acceptance from their parents, and parents may indirectly encourage these conflicts while wanting to push their kids to be better. Because parents have to feel they are good, strong, and/or right, they have a hard time admitting when they may have made mistakes. This then teaches their kids to deny that they make mistakes. The outcome is a family full of people that don't accept responsibility for their actions and everyone blames the others.
Solution to Resolution
Whether the conflicts are passive aggressive or outwardly aggressive, they often don't get resolved and continue from childhood into adulthood. It is going to be the way that a parent handles these conflicts that is going to help resolve them. Here are some tips to help you resolve these conflicts so that you can live in a more peaceful family.
- Take a look at your family of origin and see if you can find some similar patterns that are happening in your current family. Often the patterns are played out from generation to generation if people can't or don't want to see them. What did you learn about trust and fear in your family? How did you work out conflicts? How did you express love?
- Look very closely at your own behaviors and motivations and ask your spouse to do the same. Be willing to seek help from a professional on these issues. Often parents will ask friends or other family members if they see any problems or patterns, and many do not feel comfortable giving honest feedback and/or may have some similar issues and therefore don't see them.
- Look for patterns of conflicts in the relationship with your spouse. Did your kids learn how to fight and argue from the two of you? Is conflict the norm in your family? Do you think that all families fight and argue? Do you think that screaming, yelling and hitting are signs of showing love? Hopefully your answers to these questions are no. This is not the way that families have to be.
- Communicate with your kids. Don't turn conflicts into lectures and punishments. There may be consequences after your kids get into a conflict, but ask them how they may be feeling. Parents are often surprised to find out that their kids feel unloved and/or treated unfairly.
- If your kids do share their feelings with you, be careful not to excuse their feelings or explain them away. It can feel frustrating for parents to hear that their kids feel betrayed, cheated, unloved, rejected, or treated differently than siblings. The temptation is to tell them how they are wrong. Listen to how they may be right and look for solutions.
- Find consistent consequences for your kids and follow through with them.
- Encourage your kids to find solutions to their conflicts. Don't always come to the rescue, and be careful to notice if you take one of your kid's side over the others.
- Don't use age or gender as an excuse for a child's behavior or responsibilities. Try to focus on their strengths and weaknesses instead. For example don't say, "Your little brother's younger and doesn't know better." or "She's just a girl and . . .". Kids will figure out your attitudes and beliefs and will play on them to their advantage.
- See if you can find a creative way to have your kids work towards a common goal. Often when we have something that we're working for together, the differences and are conflicts start to fall away.
- If you and/or your spouse is having a consistent struggle with one or all of your kids, look at yourself more closely and know that you may need help. It takes more courage to admit to weakness, faults, or failure in our culture than it does to accept that we need to learn.
About the author:
Erik Fisher, PhD, aka Dr. E..., is a licensed psychologist and author of two books whose work has been featured on CNN, NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at www.ErikFisher.com.
If you like this article, we'd be honored if you shared it using the button below.