Working through Disagreements

Do not shrink from disagreement.
—John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, English historian

Disagreements: they’re a common part of parenting. You want your child to do something. Your child disagrees. How do you work through these differences? Consider these ideas.

Tips for . . .

  • all parents
    • Disagreements and conflicts are a good sign. It means your child is becoming an independent person—one who thinks and acts differently than you. Even though disagreements are not fun (and can make your life more difficult), they mean that you’re raising a child who can make his or her own decisions.
    • Notice personality differences. Some kids are more contentious than others. Don’t worry if you have one child that you’re constantly squabbling with and another who is more flexible. Every person has a different personality, and some personalities are more likely to clash than others.
    • Focus on the issue at hand. When a disagreement occurs, work through only that problem. Don’t pull in other issues that may be bothering you.
    • Observe how you act during a disagreement. What do you tend to do? Say? Not do? Not say? Which of your words and actions are most helpful?
    • Use gentle humor to defuse tension in a disagreement—self-deprecating humor can be especially effective. (Some children may not respond well to humor, however, so use your own judgment on how your child will react.)
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Expect resistance and to hear the word “no” from your older toddler or preschooler. People talk about the terrible twos, but few mention the turbulent threes, the frustrating fours, and the finicky fives. Kids at this age are becoming more independent, and their declarations of independence can create conflict.
    • Switch tactics. For a long time, giving your child simple choices will work: “Do you want orange or apple juice?” Then one day, your child will not like either choice. Expand the choices. If you still disagree, be honest. Say, “I wish there were more, but these are the only choices we have.”
    • When you disagree and tensions rise, give yourself a time out. Tell your child, “I need time to calm down.” Your modeling will teach your child how to deal with intense emotions. For more ideas on dealing with specific issues of conflict, see the book Parenting Preschoolers with a Purpose.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • As children get older, focus more on problem-solving techniques. During disagreements, work with your child to identify the conflict, talk through what the disagreement is about, and how to work through the disagreement. For example, maybe your child wants to watch TV all the time. You disagree. Working through the disagreement may result in the plan of your child getting to watch TV after he or she has finished homework and cleaned up his or her room.
    • Pay attention to your child’s mood. When your child is required to do too many things that go against her nature, she will be in a bad mood most of the time. Finding activities that get her excited will help to cut back on disagreements and improve her mood.
    • Reassure your child, particularly if you’re having a lot of disagreements lately. Children don’t do well if there’s a lot of tension in your home. Remind your child that you love him.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • As kids go through puberty, they may disagree with you about many things. They may call you old and claim you don’t understand them. Kids usually do come around eventually. As Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
    • You may be tempted to remove yourself from frustrating situations when your children are feeling argumentative, but it’s important to work through the disagreements that matter.
    • Take advantage of times when your child is more open to talking. You’ll be more apt to work through difficulties together when you’re both relaxed.
    • Be firm about which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. Kids at this age can experiment with cutting, smoking, sexual behavior, gambling and other risky behaviors. Be clear that these are unacceptable. For ideas on how to handle specific issues, see the book Parenting Preteens with a Purpose.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Be clear about which disagreements are most important to work through. For example, it’s more important to deal with differences regarding driving a car than those dealing with fashion.
    • Provide perspective. Some older teenagers don’t understand why it’s important to continue doing their best in school, rewrite a poorly written essay for a college application, or fill out a job application legibly.
  • Tell your teenagers when you’re proud of how they handled a disagreement. Remember that you’re teaching them how to deal with differences and that the more specific you can be about what they’re doing right, the better they’ll be equipped to leave home and do well on their own.

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