How Do You Model Conflict?


By  Joleen Watson, MS, NCC

I remember being somewhere around the age of 10 and witnessing my parents have a fight about– and yes, I’m being serious– the size of the garden (insert laugh track here).

Even at the age of 10, I somehow knew their fight couldn’t possibly be about the size of the garden, and of course, it wasn’t.  My parents rarely fought, so they were engaging in a power struggle, which just happened to be about the garden.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but their fight about the size of the garden (and both of them needing to prove how “right” they were) was teaching me something about conflict that I would later need to “undo”.  On the other hand, I remember my best childhood friend sharing with me that she never saw her parents fight– not even once!

This was modeling something about conflict for her, as well.

Of course, neither of these are healthy ways of modeling conflict.  You could find as many parenting books as the day is long to discuss different ways of teaching conflict resolution skills, but what is your relationship model for conflict and what is it teaching your child?

Here are some common things we hope healthy conflict will  teach our children:

  1. The art of negotiation– when appropriate.  Healthy relationships are about successful negotiation.  It’s important to model for your children how to do this.  If one person has the majority of the power in the relationship, there probably is not much negotiation going on.  Of course, most relationships have things that are non-negotiable, such as morals and values.  Teaching your child when it’s appropriate to negotiate and when it’s disrespectful will help them learn healthy boundaries with others.
  1. How to have a voice.  Having a healthy voice means teaching your child to put words to their feelings and not feeling like they are “wrong”  or “bad” for disagreeing, even when they don’t get their way.  Sometimes it can be confusing in our family systems about what the unspoken and unwritten rules and messages are about having a voice.  If one person tends to be overly passive and the other more direct and forceful, a child may not learn to incorporate the two and have a healthy voice.
  1. You can still feel love when you are angry.  Many times, people who grew up in households with a lot of conflict feel like they aren’t loved when someone is angry with their behavior or a choice they made.  Confusing the two can cause a person to bottle up anger for fear that they will be “unlovable”.  It’s important to teach a child that you can feel angry (in an appropriate way), while still feeling love.
  1. Anger is NOT rage.  Anger is a feeling;  rage is a behavior.  If we grow up in an environment that confuses the two, we will most likely become afraid of a feeling that is healthy and normal.  Anger can sometimes be confusing though, because it can be what we call a “secondary emotion”– meaning that often times, there are more vulnerable feelings underneath our anger.  For example, if your spouse arrives late for your date night, your instant feeling might be anger, but underneath it, you might really feel hurt or rejected.  It’s important to learn how to communicate the underlying feelings to show your child that anger can be expressed appropriately, and without having to “act it out” in an unhealthy way that is rage.
  1. You don’t always have to be right, especially if you want to be happy. In other words, you don’t have to be the one who is “right” in knowing the exact size of the garden!  I doubt either of my parents felt very fulfilled when they found out who was “right” that day.  And I doubt that either of them felt more emotionally connected and pleased with their relationship after one of them was crowned the “right “one!  Long before the days of Dr. Phil, I had a graduate school professor who used to say “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?”.  This also includes not doing everything perfect!  There is no such thing as a perfect parent, no matter how hard we try.

While these lessons certainly don’t encompass all of the things we hope to teach our kids about healthy conflict, hopefully it provides a good starting place for evaluating your own relationships and how you manage conflict.

How do you model conflict in your relationship and what are some important lessons you hope to teach your children?


Photo Credit