Saturday, August 7, 2010

Conflict or Connection?

Where does conflict begin?

Sighing, eye rolling, and selective hearing. Feet planted, arms crossed, and scowling face.

Does this describe your kid?

Do you say any of the following:

"Don't you use that tone with me!"
"How many times do I have to tell you?"
"Weren't you listening?!"
"You can't always have what you want."
"That's not for you."
"Why can't you get it through your head..."
"Grow up!"
"Act your age!"
"Stop that Right Now!"

Sighing, eye rolling, and selective hearing. Feet planted, arms crossed, and scowling face. Parents do these things, too. We direct them at our children. Chances are that there are times when you send less than respectful, non-verbal messages to your children, when you are feeling annoyed or frustrated or worn thin. Why then do we feel justified in getting angry when our children do the exact same thing back? Our children who are new to this world, who have less experience coping, and many more frustrations than we are often willing to admit.

Now read the quotes again and imagine times when your child would have reason to say them back to you.

"Don't you use that tone with me!"
Do you use a sarcastic or sassy voice with your child?
Do you use a mean, harsh, threatening voice?
Do you speak to your child in a voice you would never use with another adult?

"How many times do I have to tell you?"
Does your child have to tell you over and over what they like and don't like?
Does your child have to remind you how to cut their sandwich or what shirt is their favorite? Does your child have to remind you that it hurts when you brush their hair?

"Weren't you listening?!"
Do you tune your child out?
Does your child start talking only to realize that you have glazed over
and are thinking about what's for dinner,
or the game you are playing on the computer,
or that vacation, without children, you want to take with your spouse?

"You can't always have what you want."
Do you insist that things go the way that you planned?
Do you get frustrated and angry
and let your children know about those feelings loud and clear
when you don't get what you want?

"That's not for you."
Do you lack respect for your child's personal property?
Do you invade your child's privacy?
Do you fail to recognize that children have special places or possessions
that are private and not for you?

"Why can't you get it through your head..."
Do you insist that you know what your child needs
even when they are trying to let you know that their needs are different?
Do you tell them to go to bed because they are tired,
when they know they aren't sleepy?
Do you tell them there is nothing to be afraid of,
when they know that their fear is real?
Do you tell them they need to sit still
when they really need to go run around outside?
Do you try and make them discuss
things when they really just need some time alone
to sort out how they feel?

"Grow up!"
Do you get tired or hungry or over stimulated and throw fits?
Do you yell and scream and stomp your feet?
Throw things?

"Act your age!"
Do you act less like an adult some times
and more like the child of your past
who didn't get their needs met?

"Stop that Right Now!"
Do you get into a project and ignore your children?
Do you ever just need a good cry?
(Imagine your child saying "Stop Crying Right NOW!")
Do you ever get really excited about something
and feel the need to jump up and down?
What about laughing so hard you just can't stop?

Getting back to the original questions, "Where does conflict begin?" Who actually creates the conflict? Most parents will point to the child. "My child won't do what I ask. He has a bad attitude." "My child needs to learn how to control her behavior." "My child can be very disrespectful."

Watch this interaction with me:
A mom is sitting in the shade watching her kids play at the beach. Her teenage daughter walks up and asks, "Mom, where's the sunscreen?"
The mom sighs loudly, "It's in the bag."
The daughter asks,"Where's the bag?"
The mom makes a face and points somewhere vaguely to her left, "It's over there."
The daughter is not sure where the bag is so she asks, "Will you get it for me?"
The mother snaps, "No! You can get it yourself."
The daughter still doesn't know where exactly the bag is and is feeling frustrated, a whining tone creeps into her voice, "But I don't know where it is."
The mom is clearly angry at the daughter now,"You need to stop it with the attitude!"
The daughter is upset, "Fine, I won't put on sunscreen."
To which her mom replies, "You can't go swimming without sunscreen."
Now it is the daughter's turn to sigh. The argument continues until the girl gives up and goes to search in the general direction of the bag with the sunscreen.

I didn't make this story up. The daughter wanted the sunscreen. That's a good thing, right? The mother was annoyed from the beginning of the interaction because of the inconvenience of having to answer a question. The girl was clearly uncomfortable wandering through a group of people trying to find the bag with the sunscreen. As soon as the girl was gone the mother smiled and started chatting with the woman next to her. It never crossed her mind that she could have gotten up, found the bag, offered to put sunscreen on her child and in the process connected with her teen daughter. Instead, the mother created the conflict, blamed it on the daughter, and they both ended up feeling irritated and unhappy. What a lovey day at the beach.

The next time there is conflict in your relationship with your child look at your body language. Are you open to conversation, are you willing to hear their perspective, are you showing them with your body that you want to hear what they have to say? What tone of voice are you using? Are you focusing on them and not your cell phone, or the computer, or another adult? Even if you are convinced that your child is the source of the conflict, ask yourself what you can do to connect with your child. What behavior on your part will help you both feel better in the situation? Who started the conflict is not nearly as important as finding a way to create connection. When we focus on finding solutions and meeting needs, instead of focusing on who is to blame, it becomes easier to find ways to connect with our children.