Why You Can’t Really “Win” an Argument with Your Child

by Janet Lehman,  MSW


Why does arguing with your child give  him power? When you engage in fights  with your child, over time he will begin  to believe that he is your peer and  that he has the power to challenge you. This  is a loaded situation because your  child doesn’t realize that this empowerment he’s  feeling isn’t real. The more  powerful he thinks he is (and the more the defiant  behavior gets him what he  wants) the more he will use fighting as a way to  solve his problems.

It’s so important to learn how to  manage this type of behavior in your kids.  I know this isn’t easy—in fact, it’s  probably one of the most difficult things  you have to learn as a parent. The  lesson here is, “How can I let my child  mature and individuate with the least  amount of fights possible?” Remember, the  goal here is for your child to learn  how to be responsible, communicate well  with others, and develop problem-solving  skills.

Related:  Does your child fight with you constantly?

Is it ever okay to argue?

Let me be clear: there is a  difference between a disagreement and a habitual  pattern of arguing with your  child. You want to teach your kids appropriate  ways to communicate a  disagreement. Knowing how to express disagreements in an  effective way is an  important life skill. Generally, it’s best to talk about  things you don’t agree  on when both of you are calm. Your child should learn  how to state his or her  point of view in a respectful way (without name-calling  or being rude).  Listening is also a critical skill here, because you want to be  able to hear  what the other person has to say without negating them or becoming  defensive.  In the end, you may not change your mind, but at least each side has  spoken and  been heard.

Fighting=Losing  Ground

As a parent, I understand how easy it  is to get into fights with your child.  Power struggles can occur over issues  large and small, from getting your child  to clean her room to arguing over homework  and curfew times. Something James  and I always said to parents was, “You don’t  have to attend every fight you’re  invited to.” That means that you don’t have  to get sucked into an argument  every time your child wants to have one.

An important thing to realize is that you can’t  really “win” a fight with  your child. When an argument escalates, hurtful  things are often said, people  become reactive, and there is a likelihood of  continued miscommunication—and  when that happens, nobody wins. When you get  into argumentative patterns with  your kids, you will simply end up losing  ground.  Your child will stop  listening  to your rules, because he’ll know that if he argues with you, there’s  a chance  you’ll give in. After all, one of the main reasons kids continue to  fight with  their parents is because they know they might be able to wear us  down and get  us to change our minds.

Related:   How to give effective consequences to your child.

The  First Step: Know yourself.

The first step in changing this pattern with your  child is for you to know  yourself and know your triggers. What pushes your  buttons easily? There may  even be times of the day when arguments seem to happen  more easily. Maybe in  your case, it’s the morning rush to get everyone out of  the house. Be aware of  those times and plan around them.

My trigger was coming home from  work and seeing my teen age son lounging in  the living room eating potato  chips—usually leaving a mess. It would push my  buttons and we would get into it  immediately. I really had to work at not  getting angry, giving myself a break, and  giving myself some down time after  work. I would go up to my room, change, and  decompress from my day. When I was  calm, I could talk to my son about cleaning  up in a reasonable way without  blowing up.

Know that when you get into patterns of arguing, it  makes it difficult to  respond thoughtfully to your kids. You fall into a trap,  so to speak, when a  morning fight becomes a habit in your household. It’s a bit  like having  quicksand in your living room; you keep getting sucked into it  every day, even  though you know it’s there!

Related:  Tired of yelling?  How to stay calm and keep your child from pushing your   buttons.

I understand that parental stresses in our lives can  really make us feel out  of whack. Sometimes we just don’t know other ways of  coping, so we lose the  ability to effectively communicate. Unfortunately if we  do the same thing over  and over, we’re going to keep getting the same results  because nothing’s going  to change.

Step  2: Ask these questions.

Once you see that fighting with your child has become a pattern, you need  to  stop in your tracks and re-evaluate how you’re interacting with him.

  • What happens right  before you get to that place?
  • How does it happen?
  • What’s the sequence of events  that often leads to the  argument?
  • Are there trigger words, trigger  requests, or  trigger times of day for you?

Answering these questions will help you have that  insight you need, so the  next time you’re there with your child, you’ll be able  to stop yourself.  Remember, no one ever usually “wins” an argument—it’s really  about what gets  avoided through arguing. And what your child generally wants to avoid  are consequences, limits  and being held accountable for his behavior. Fighting becomes an  ineffective habit, one that might lead your child  to believe that he can use  arguing as his main “go to” to get out of things he  doesn’t want to do in life.

Step 3: Plan to change the pattern.

If you start  acknowledging this pattern, you can start to make a change.  Plan a strategy for  the next time you see a fight emerging. What will you do  when your buttons are  pushed? When your child  tries to pull you into a power  struggle, decide that you’re not going to “play”  this time. To make this more  clear, here’s an example: Let’s say you’ve given  your teen daughter a  consequence and she’s trying to get out of it by fighting  with you. If you stay  in the room and the argument continues, you’re just  giving her more power.

Instead, you can simply say, “We’ve  talked about what’s going to happen. I  don’t want to discuss it anymore,” and then  leave the room. When you leave, you  take all the power with you, and your child  will be left yelling at the  wall.

Related:  Learn how to walk away from a fight with your child—today.

Step 4: Let your child know. Once you’ve  realized that you  have a certain pattern with your child and you’ve decided  that you’re going to  change it, let your child know that you’re not going to  give into these  arguments anymore. Depending on the age of your child, you can  even say  something like, “I’m going to work on not arguing anymore. It doesn’t  work for  us. The next time this comes up I am going to ask you to go to your  room until  we both calm down and can talk.”

Step 5: Act the way you want your child to act. Your kids   are “watching you for a living.” You can teach your children not to argue by   acting differently with them. When you start interacting differently by not   arguing, you’re going to teach your kids a different way of communicating.  You’re  role modeling and you’re offering a different pattern of communication.  Remember,  our kids watch us for a living—our behavior can teach them more than  our words  do.

Step 6: Begin with a small strategy. Begin with  a small  scenario. The first time you walk away from an argument, it can really  feel  like a great thing as a parent. You made the plan and followed through.  Your  child may not be happy that you did it, but you probably will. Change may  start  with a very small scenario. It could be “the next time my child argues  when I  say no, this is what I’m going to do.” Plan it out, and then follow   through.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t  easy. Your child might not respond the way  you want him to right away, but don’t  get discouraged.  Just stick with  it, and  know that it may take time.

Related:  Having a hard time getting your defiant teen to  comply with  rules?

Step 7: Experiment with different strategies of   communication. As parent, instead of arguing with your child,  think  about how you want to come across. Sometimes changing the way you  communicate  can have a big impact. Instead of raising your voice, lower your  voice. Instead  of being wordy with your child, be direct and to the point. A  good thing to say  when your child is not complying with a request is, “What are  you supposed to  be doing right now?” When your child answers, simply say, “Then  go do it.” Change your style, especially with things that cause a chronic  argument. I know  a family who writes notes or emails each other when they’re  angry, rather than  exploding into a fight, and this really works for them. Be  creative and think  about different ways you can communicate in the moment in  order to avoid fights  with your child.

Figure out different kinds of  places to have those conversations with your  kids. If you always argue as  you’re rushing off to school in the morning, plan  to have a different  conversation or deal with that topic at a different time.  Or if your kid is  older, you can ride in the car and have a tough conversation  when you might not  otherwise do so. If they’re even older, maybe go to a  restaurant or sit at a  coffee shop and have a conversation there, or try going  for a walk. The changes  you make now with your children are going to require  you to be brave and courageous.  This is hard work, but making these changes can  break the cycle of arguing. It will  really pay off in the long run—it’s so  important for your kids to learn better  communication skills that they will  need as they get older.

Related: “What will you do differently next time?”

Step 8: Don’t take it personally. Sometimes  arguments really are hurtful because someone escalates and says something mean   or cruel. As a parent, if you can take those words your child hurls at you less   personally, it can be immensely helpful. It’s more about the argument (and your   child wanting to “win”) and less about how he really feels. (Please note that   I’m not talking about threatening words or verbal abuse here, which should be   dealt with more sternly by you as a parent. You can read more about that in   these excellent EP articles on “Kids  Who Are Verbally Abusive” here  and here.)

Step 9: Get outside help. If you find  you’re arguing with  your child all the time, consider getting some outside  support. Keep reading Empowering Parents and interact with the online community here, or try  a parenting program like The  Total  Transformation for tools to deal with your child’s behavior. Use  our Parental   Support Line to get help using those tools. Try to connect with  those who  you trust. Talk to a friend, a guidance counselor, your spouse, or  your  partner.

It’s good to remember as a  parent that everyone makes mistakes and that  there is a next time. We don’t learn how to do everything the right way  overnight.  This is something we have to work on. The good news is that we’re  able to learn  from our mistakes, and change and grow as parents.

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