The Conflict Code
Co-creating a Signal When the Family Heat Intensifies
“When my daughter and I disagree, it escalates so quickly. We end up both yelling even though I never want to yell. How can I stop the escalation?” A workshop participant and Mom of a teenager asked. When an argument is heated, the conflict can become emotionally super-charged quickly. And when it does, we can risk saying things we really don’t mean. Personal attacks and stabs at the other person’s character can escape from our mouths without much thought until later, when we feel the searing pain of regret and our inability to turn back time.
We know from research on how the brain responds while stressed that, in those moments, we act on impulse. Our limbic system, or the survival center for the brain, takes over quite literally and our only thoughts turn to flight, fight or freeze depending upon the situation. In parenting, this auto-response – our default system – can actually work against our goals. We want to influence our child’s positive choices — either their words or actions or decisions. We may want to set clear boundaries or show how rules have been unfairly broken. We may want to demonstrate how our child can disagree in healthy ways that do no harm. Yet, when our limbic system takes over, none of those goals can be met if we are merely fighting back without our reflective consideration. Our child will be on the defense, their limbic system in high gear. They may be afraid of us, poised to fly away or freeze. Or they may be angry and ready to fight back.
“Just leave. Walk away.” Uttered another workshop participant. And there’s a helpful intent here. Taking a pause, a break away from one another does offer the space necessary for calming down. But simply walking away can be misinterpreted by a child. Particularly if we are angry, they can fear we are storming off and won’t return. Intention and motivation matter! And our child just may make up stories about why we are leaving that have nothing to do with emotional intelligence. Stonewalling, or giving the silent treatment, is a form of nonverbal aggression and can do damage to a trusting relationship, not at all a healthy, constructive conflict tool. So if our child thinks we are stonewalling, they can hurt from yet another form of aggression.
So what can you do? There are a few ways to ensure that these kind of escalating conflict situations stay in the healthy zone.
Create a conflict code.
In fact, I suggested to this Mom to create a conflict code with her teenager. And weeks later, she reported, it worked. She went to her and asked, “what can we say to one another when we recognize that our fight is escalating and we need a pause to calm down before figuring it out together?” They came up with the phrase “code red.” And they decided to keep one another accountable. They were both responsible for looking for those moments or opportunities to use the code and when either one spotted the chance. Each would have the chance to call it out. When one did, they would respect the code and go to their respective rooms to take some time and breathe. The Mom returned to me to let me know how this simple step had transformed their conflicts. Her daughter now felt empowered to use the code. And when they did, they both respected the code and took a break. They were able to come back together after a time and figure out next steps with their cooler heads (and fully functioning brains). It was key that she co-named the code with her daughter. They solved the problem together proactively and both felt a sense of agency in shaping how their conflicts were managed. Other examples family’s have used for code words are “break,” “stop,” “pause,” “red light,” and “no go.”
Talk about conflict when not upset.
Another key part of the code solution is that they discussed their arguments when they were not in a conflict. This helped both Mom and daughter become reflective about what happens when they are upset with one another. Because we are unable to think logically or reflectively when we are experiencing challenging emotions, that reflection in non-emotional times can make all the difference. We have the chance to agree. Also, a child becomes aware of a strategy like walking away and taking a break and views it as such – a strategy – not an angry action to worry about.
Create a plan.
To fully plan for our most challenging feelings in family life is to take full responsibility for the fact that we will have moments when we over-heat. We admit and allow for our humanity, messy as it is. And we provide an example for our children of taking responsibility for our emotions so that they too can learn these all-important self management skills. Check out this easy-to-use one page template called “the Family Emotional Safety Plan” that guides you or your child – or your entire family – through key questions to determine what you’ll say, where you’ll go and how you’ll calm down when emotions run high before trying to resolve an argument.
Springtime can produce many new activities, outdoor exploration and go-for-it energy. After all, we are feeling pent up from the long winter. But this forward moving energy can also create more conflict in family life. So taking a moment – maybe its a family dinner? – to talk about how you will handle it when those challenging emotions inevitably arise is just a smart step to ensure that you are protecting your family while promoting essential skills for getting along. With a plan in place, you can feel free fully to enjoy the sunshine!
Check out these other supportive tools for family conflict: