Opinion: How To Have An Argument With Your Child (Without Damaging Them Or Your Relationship With Them)

This is probably going to be a somewhat controversial post, but I think it’s something that needs to be said, but it’s rarely, if ever, spoken about. No parent wants to argue with their child (or at least I would hope not!), and I’m not suggesting that it’s ever a good thing, but let’s face it, it’s going to happen at some point, and potentially on a frequent basis. This is because, by its very nature, parenting involves making and enforcing difficult decisions, and because children will always want to test your authority.  But, and again this is rarely spoken about, arguments have the potential to cause deep, and lasting, damage to relationships as well as to self-confidence and self-image, especially when things are said in the heat of the moment. This is bad when it’s between two adults or two children, but it’s so much worse when the argument is between a child and an adult who they trust and love, and who is meant to love them back. Under these circumstances, the damage arguments cause can create life-long scars to the child which may never heal, leaving them lacking self-belief and robbing them of the ability to achieve their full potential.

So, if we accept that arguments between parents and children are going to happen, how, then, can they be conducted in such a way as to minimise the damage that they can potentially do, both to your child and to your relationship with them?

Well, the first thing to always keep in mind is that you are the grown-up, and you need to act accordingly – no matter what. The moment you descend to their level, you enter the danger zone where you are likely to say and/or do something that will leave a lasting scar on your relationship, on their psyche or, quite possibly, both.

The next thing is to make sure you do all you can to prevent spill-over. This is how small, insignificant arguments grow into dangerously large ones that have the potential to cause long-lasting damage, and it’s caused by an argument spreading beyond its initial starting point. A good example of spill-over is when a parent says something like ‘why do you always do this?’ Suddenly, the argument has gone from one about a specific incident into something that your child will perceive as an attack on who they are and not what they have done – and this is much more damaging.

Spill-over is usually the result of a parent becoming frustrated by their child’s repeated wrong-doing or refusal to act as they have been told and saying something that they regret as soon as it comes out of their mouths. The ways to prevent spill-over are relatively easy to state, but are much harder to implement, especially when emotions are running high. So how can you stop spill-over happening? well, you can prevent it by:

  1. Keeping an argument specific and on-topic, and trying to avoid it spreading beyond the original flash-point. If it does, bring it back to it as soon as you can.
  2. Keeping it focussed on what they’ve done and don’t let it spread into an attack on who they are (e.g. don’t say things like ‘why don’t you think before you act?’ or ‘this is so typical of you!’). Even though you don’t mean it to, this will leave lasting damage and will cause them to attack back, leading to a spiralling escalation of tensions and emotions.
  3. Not making it about you (e.g. don’t say things like ‘why are you doing this to me?’). A child rarely does things just to annoy or offend a parent, most of the time they are just not thinking at all before they act, so don’t assume that their action was directed specifically at you.
  4. Not dragging up past events. Past events should stay in the past, it will just open old wounds if your bring them up at every possible opportunity. It also leaves your child feeling that no matter what they do, their errors will never be forgotten, and this is not healthy for them. This is particularly an issue if you are continually throwing their past mistakes back in their face.
  5. Avoiding the use of absolute terms (e.g. don’t say things like ‘Why do you always do that?’). Absolute terms turn an argument about a specific incident into an attack on who they are as a person.
  6. Avoiding comparisons to siblings, friends, other relatives, or to yourself as a child. Comparisons are never helpful in arguments as it leaves a child feeling that you prefer other people to them, or that they are simply not good enough, and never will be, no matter what they do.
  7. Not bringing other people into it, or allowing other people to become involved. An argument should be between two people, and only two people. As a result, it is best done when only those two people are in the room, and not in front of an audience of any kind. Having an audience also makes it less likely that your child will be willing to share their true emotions, or work with you to reach a mutually agreed consensus to bring the argument to a successful end (see below).

The third major point is that you need to try to stay in control. Arguments, by their definition, are emotionally charged activities, but you need to make sure that you don’t lose control. This means avoiding shouting, and resisting rising to anything that your child says to bait you. If you do lose control, you will most likely say something you will later regret, and it will be impossible to take back. If you feel like you are losing control, or are about to, then state that you are too upset to continue at the current time, but that you feel that it’s important that you resolve it, and you will come back do so later, and then leave the room as calmly as possible (without shouting or slamming the door behind you). This sends a strong message that you are not walking out on your child and that you see them as being important enough to want to resolve the situation. Only come back once you are sufficiently calm to continue the argument in a rational manner.

Similarly, if you feel that your child is losing control, you need to give them space to calm themselves down before you continue. The best thing here is for you to leave before it gets to the point where they storm out, again stating that you will come back and continue later, once they have had time to calm down, because it’s important that you resolve the situation. The reason you need to be the one to leave is that it indicates that you still care about them, and about how upset they feel at that particular moment in time.

The final major point is to remember that an argument with a child (or indeed within anyone else you care about) is not a competition, and it is most definitely not about point-scoring or winning. It’s about trying to get your point across so that your child understands how their behaviour makes you feel. Whether they choose to act upon this information is up to them, and if you try to force them to, it will damage them. As a result, it is important that you re-assure them that you love them for who they are, and that the problem you have is with what they have done in that specific instance. It’s also important that you make it clear how their actions make you feel inside and not just on the surface. For example, simply stating that their actions make you feel angry is not sufficient because anger is a surface expression of many different internal feelings. Instead, you need to dig deeper and explain that their actions make you feel angry because when they do that it makes you worry about them and their future. This makes it clear that you are not angry at them personally, but rather that you are angry about how their actions make you feel.

However, when you are doing this, you need to be very careful to avoid using ‘but …’ links between statements. This is because of how they are interpreted by your child’s brain. Specifically, they feel that ‘but …’ links mean that the first bit is negated by the second bit and so is no longer true. For example, if you say ‘I love you, but it makes me very upset when …’, what your child understands it as meaning that because they made you angry, you no longer love them. It seems illogical, but then children are rarely truly logical beings. The solution to this is to use an ‘and …’ link instead. This makes it clear to the child that both statements are true, rather than the second cancelling out the first. So in our example, ‘I love you, and I’m very upset that you …’. This is makes it much easier for your child to hear that you love them as a person, even if you don’t love what they’ve just done.

You also need to respect how your child feels, even if you don’t understand or agree with why they are feeling a particular way. This means you need to avoid using emotional blackmail (e.g. ‘if you really loved me …’) and you need to give them space to share with you how your actions made them feel. Sometimes the best way to do this is with silence. The chances are that your child is wrestling with a lot of emotions and that they’re struggling to work out exactly what they feel and why. A period of silence will give them time to work this out, without having to also try to listen to and decode what you’re saying.  When they do share their feelings, it’s very important that you don’t over-rule, dismiss or demean any feelings they choose to share, and you need to be prepared to be the bigger person and be willing to apologise for any part you played in causing or escalating the argument – and let’s be honest here, you’ll almost always have played some part. Respecting how they’re feeling also means not forcing them to apologise. If they mean it, they will say sorry (maybe not during the argument, but at some point), and if they don’t, not only will they not really mean it, but you are teaching them to over-rule their own feelings just to please others – and this is not a good lesson to learn.

Since arguing is not about winning (or rather it shouldn’t be about winning), it’s important that you make sure that you always leave your child with a way out without losing too much face. This will leave them feeling respected and listened to. This means avoiding having arguments in front of other people and trying to end every argument by reaching some sort of consensus on how to move the situation forward, or avoid it happening again in the future (even if that consensus is that you’ll come back to the point you were arguing about at a later date). Note that the word I use here is consensus and not compromise. A consensus is something that leaves both of you feeling like you have won and both will be happy(ish) with the outcome, a compromise leaves you both feeling like you have lost, and leaves no one feeling in any way happy.

Such a consensus will never be reached by using threats or imposing punishments (especially if they are out of proportion to the original action that started the argument in the first place). Similarly, there is no point in reaching a consensus on what happens next if you are not willing to enforce it, so you should never suggest solutions which you are unable, or unwilling, to implement. A good starting point for consensus-building is to ask your child to put themselves in your shoes and think about what they would do when faced with a similar situation. This can then be used as a position to build on. This has the added advantage that if they are actively involved in building the consensus, they are much more likely to stick to it, even if it ends up not being quite what they wanted it to be.

This, then, is the basic framework for having an argument that will not damage your relationship with your child, or their self-confidence and self-belief, and it can be summed up in three points:

  1. The point of an argument is not for one side to win, but for those involved to honestly share their feelings about a specific incident, so keep it specific and avoid spill-over and point-scoring.
  2. Each of the participants needs to respect how the other feels, even if they don’t agree or understand why.
  3. Successful arguments end with a mutually agreed consensus on how to move on from it, and not with one or other participant storming out and leaving it unresolved.

If you can stick to these rules, then you may well find that, over time, your arguments become less emotionally fraught and less combative, and you may even be able to reach the point where you can state your feelings and come to a consensus without even having to raise your voices at all. However, if you break these rules, then the arguments you have with your child are likely to grow in scale and power as your child grows, causing more and more damage each and every time you have one, until it reaches the point where the only thing that’s left of your relationship is the arguments and the negative emotions associated with them. This will almost certainly lead to life-long damage to your child’s self-confidence, their self-belief, their ability to lead a successful adult life, and their relationship with you, and while it is possible, this type of damage is very difficult to heal.

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About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.


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