Fighting the 'good' fight: Families find constructive ways to handle discord

Published: Tuesday, May 14 2013 4:10 p.m. MDT

Sydney, Jacob and Hannah Alltmont sometimes fight, but the whole family is developing new strategies to make disagreements constructive, effective.

Copyright 2013 Olivia Grey Pritchard Photography

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a "trifecta" kind of morning, rain splashing down, kids drifting instead of bustling to get out the door. Their mom figured she'd said "Hurry up, we are going to be late" 70 times. She felt her jaw tighten and knew she was about to say something to make things worse, so she took a breath and hustled her bickering brood to the minivan.

That mom, Meghan Leahy, is a parent coach in Washington, D.C., who teaches better ways to handle conflict: What to fight for and what to let go, even how to apologize — an important part of fighting fair.

She practiced what she teaches. Inside the vehicle, out of hearing of neighbors, she wanted to lay into her kids, 9, 6 and 3. She didn't.

"I often tell parents, you always have that moment to change the conflict," she said. "All three children were screaming about something. I waited for them to settle down. And I started laughing. 'By a small miracle, we are all in the car. We are not yet late. The sun is now shining. We can do this.' I got a lot of eye rolls. When we got to school, I said, 'I love you. Have a great day.'"

She had recalibrated the trajectory of a day that began badly.

People who love each other still make each other mad. They disagree. Conflict is like wildfire. It either clears debris and jump-starts healthier growth or it burns down the forest. The right skills can change a family squabble and strengthen relationships. You must be willing to use helpful tools — even practice with them, experts say.

"Disagreement is inherent in what it is to be in a relationship," said John Stewart, psychologist at Tufts Medical School, who wrote "Beyond Time Out" and owns familytherapyvacations.com, providing intensive therapy retreats in Nicaragua. "It is like building strong muscle: a process of connect, tear and repair. Conflict is part of a strong relationship, but it can strengthen or destroy."

When arguments get heated, some people throw gas on them. Others know how to cool things down.

Kin or kindling?

Family fights may be among the most common conflicts, but they're also among the most complex, said Laurie Puhn, lawyer, family mediator and best-selling author of "Fight Less, Love More." A bad fight doesn't reach a resolution, because it gets off track, something family fights are prone to do.

"It's because they are long-term relationships and you have a ton of stuff in the past that happened, the present and things that can happen in the future," she said.

Spouses may not reach common ground when they argue because they are each intent only on delivering their own messages, said Leahy. Or a parent yells at a child but doesn't listen. The child fights back or shuts down.

Since their son Jacob, 8, was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia three years ago, Jeff and Rachel Alltmont have been learning new ways to handle conflict. The boy and his parents were often frustrated because of the many arguments. But the diagnosis came with unexpected blessings, said the New Orleans mom: They are better at negotiating and when they argue, they do it more fairly with each other and with their children. A psychologist taught them not to placate just to avoid temper tantrums and fights. They collaborate more.

Recently, their daughters were having a spat. Hannah planted her hands on her hips and thundered at Sydney, "I don't like the words you're using." Her mom smiled. Hannah is 3.

Voices off, ears on

David Cunningham, communications expert for Landmark Education, believes most family fights stem from undelivered communication, thwarted intention or unfulfilled expectation. Expressing affection goes a long way to resolving disagreements.

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