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Expecting a Fight with Your Child? (You'll Get One.)

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Expecting a Fight with Your Child? (You'll Get One.)

You’re driving home from work, and you call your teen and tell him to clean his room and finish his homework. Before he grunts a response and hangs up, you swear you can hear the T.V. blaring in the background. You feel your stress levels rising and think, “I know the house is going to be a mess when I get home. Jake won’t have done his homework, and I’ll bet he’ll be playing video games.” Sure enough, when you walk through the door, the scene is exactly how you pictured it, and you’re steaming mad. The fighting starts immediately.

No matter how your child acts, he does not control how you behave.

If you’ve gotten into a pattern with your child where you’re arguing all the time, understand that if you’re already geared up and braced for a fight as you walk through the door, you’ll probably get one.  Learn to recognize when you have this type of anxious expectation. You might say, “Well, I expect it because my child always acts like that.” For example, I expect my daughter to give me a hard time in the evening. When I walk in the door and she doesn't say hello, I react to her from my anxious expectations and assume that she's rude or disrespectful. And because I have this expectation, I don't stop in the moment and objectively look at the situation. I react to her as if she's disrespectful. She gets upset for being misunderstood and now I get just what I expected: a fight with my child. You always look at, “Is there any way I might contribute to a behavior that I see?” If you can ask yourself that question a lot, you might be able to discover why you tend to perceive your child that way. Is it possible that it’s coming from some anxiety or worry rather than how they really are? You have to step back and look through objective lenses, rather than just from your emotional state. This is not easy to do. But somehow, try to get that difference between the feeling versus “What’s really going on here?” When you always expect your kid to respond the same old way, why is that—and does that expectation have anything to do with his behavior? Be as objective as possible. Get on the roof, go as far up as you can and look down from above, and then think about what you see.The truth is, when you’re in that fight with your child, you tend to take things more personally—which is not effective in changing that behavior.

Related: How to stop the constant power struggle with your child.

So first, make sure you're being as objective as possible before you walk through the door. Realize that anxiety can cause you to be highly judgmental and not see things as they are. Take a deep breath and try to leave any negative assumptions outside the door. No matter what the behavior is that you find, try to see your child through clear lenses, and give her the chance to do well.

If she is then disrespectful and behaves badly, your first goal is to work to calm yourself down. Have a plan and prepare how you want to behave regardless of how your child is behaving.  Just think about how you want to act no matter what your child is doing. Put yourself on a movie screen and see what kind of parent you want to be, and how you want to behave. Remember, no matter how your child acts, he does not control how you behave.  Say to yourself, “I’m going to decide, based on my own principles, how I want to parent. If my teenager screams at me, I’m not going to yell back or respond in an angry voice. I’m going to take deep breaths. If I need to, I’m going to say, “Let’s talk about this after we both calm down.” Stay clear, calm, and matter of fact. If your child continues to be upset or agitated, do whatever it takes to not go there and lose your cool. Think about how you want to parent; try not to base your reaction to your child on the feeling of the moment. I know this isn’t easy—it’s something all parents really have to work at.

I also think you should try to expect better rather than worse from your child; try to respond from that place of believing in him. When you’re carrying an expectation, your child reads that. He can read an expression that says, “My child is a loser,” just as he can read one that says, “I have faith that we can do better on this one today. Let’s figure it out.”

Here’s an example. Let’s say you walk in the door after work and the house is a mess. Your kids are fighting, and they’re on you immediately, accusing each other and calling one another names. You feel the mercury rising and want to scream. The question becomes, What do you do at that moment instead of losing it?

First, simply tell yourself that you’re not going to scream. Say, “I’m not going to go there no matter what.” Don’t give yourself permission to get reactive. Instead, take some deep breaths, do whatever it takes. And then pull out your emergency plan.

Here’s one that I recommend—I call it the “STOP Plan.”

S: Stop what you’re doing. Pause and take your own timeout rather than jumping into the fray immediately. Do not respond until you’ve taken that pause. You can say to yourself, “I need to take a timeout and get myself together. I want to respond from the right place and get myself centered so I can think better and then come up with a plan.” Your responsibility is to get yourself under control before responding to the child.

T: Think about what you want to say or do. Once you get yourself down from 100 to zero, get some perspective on the situation. Talk to your spouse or a friend, take a walk, do whatever you have to do get yourself down. Once you’re calm, your brain can think better and you’ll be able to problem solve. But pause, pause, pause.

O: Options. Consider your options. Depending on the situation, you have options about how you want to behave, how you want to act, and what you want to do.

P: Plan of action. What comes next? How can you disengage from the fight? Can you send the kids to their rooms? What consequences should you give your kids, if any?

Related: Want to learn how to give consequences that really work?

Have your emergency kit on hand. Use slogans or sayings that help, like, “This too shall pass,” or “This is how my child is dealing with his own anxiety; I don’t need to get hooked into it.” Just take that minute to pause; it’s in that space that you have control.  Now, decide how you will take charge of how you want to be.

Be aware of the negative expectations that you might have of your child. Recognize that much of the time, these expectations are about your worry, fear and anxiety—and that you are projecting them onto your child. Try to see your child as he is, rather than what you fear he is going to become. 

Recognize that when you get angry, you’re going to have judgments—and with judgment comes anger. Breathe into the moment and just recognize your emotions. You may have feelings of grief or sadness or frustration or something else. I advise clients to put these feelings in a balloon and let them float away. Don’t get caught up in the judgments that go with negative feelings, because that will only make the reactivity stronger.

It’s also important to know your triggers. Is it a look your child gives you, or is it coming home to a messy house? Know your triggers and have a plan on how you want to respond to them. Think about the consequences of fighting with your child—you’ll feel upset and the problem may not get resolved. Then, think about the positive consequences if you handle it in a different way: you won’t be drained and frustrated all night. Always remember that there are two different directions you can choose—and the best one is to have a plan and go at it calmly.

Related: A parenting plan to help you change your child's behavior.

I know it’s not easy to be a parent, especially when our kids hit adolescence. Kids and teenagers don’t always make the best decisions or do the right things. But try to have faith in your child. Don’t let your anxiety overwhelm you so you feel like, “Oh my God, this is the end of the world” when he makes a mistake or behaves badly. Have a basic belief that your child is a work in progress—and that he’s learning the skill set he needs to function in the adult world.


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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

READER'S COMMENTS

I am so thankful that I signed up for this site to get e-mails from I just came across this subject just in the Nic of time. I'm so thankful for the advice that I've been reading I'm actually going to try this advice. it totally hit home for My teen and Myself.Thankyou soooo much !

Comment By : shawn

Sometimes when simple things are written in black and white they hit home!

Comment By : khurley5

Reading this article was just what I needed to help me let go of my anger toward my teenager. Thank you for assisting me to be the best parent I can be and want to be.

Comment By : Cynthia G.

Thank you so much Debbie for this vital parental coaching. I just know I am going to be a better parent with the help of Empowering Parents. What an awesome and priceless legacy James Lehman has created, and such a valuable service to people everywhere. Take care and may this work continue on for as long as their are parents struggling to be better.

Comment By : Karl West

Wow! very good description of my every day life! Thank you for this article. You are totally right, is not easy at all. But it is the best way to help our kids to learn non-violent ways of reacting to frustrating situations. We are constantly being watched by our kids, and they learned a lot from us, so we really have to make sure that we are the best models we can be. That way we might say less often "where did you learn that, or who taught you this?

Comment By : castanodi@gmail.com

Your article is right-on-point. However, where do I go from here? There is no fight. The chores aren't done - for months. The house is still a mess. The child still expects the quick fix of a blow-up & looks for one or will not interact. The child will not answer questions regarding related issues. And all I have is an empty feeling or wonder when I will trip over the next trigger. How much failure to meet any responsibility must a parent put up with? Why should we always be the doormat for our child's sensitive, hair-trigger, ego? He is my 3rd child and my 1st abject failure!

Comment By : Wayne

I am with Wayne.After implementing these strategies on my part the teen has done nothing to better himself, or rectify thge situation.

Comment By : belle

* To Wayne: It sounds like there is a lot you really would like to change about your son. James Lehman felt that kids act out because of a lack of effective problem solving skills. Your other children might have learned just fine but something tells me this child may need you to use a different approach than you did with your other children. An effective parent teaches his children how to solve problems and manage emotions, accepts that the child can choose whether or not to do what is asked, and focuses on how he will hold his child accountable for not following through. We recommend that you choose one very specific behavior to start with such as doing a couple chores each day. Come up with a structure and a way to hold your son accountable to this and then tell him about it. If he refuses to sit down and calmly talk and hear you out, put all of his privileges on hold until you complete a conversation about what you will be focusing on, what he can expect from you, and what he will do differently in order to meet your expectations. Then, put your plan into action. Continue to focus on one behavior at a time, slowly putting the individual pieces of the puzzle together. Here are a couple articles about chores for you to refer to if you’d like. If you choose a different behavior to focus on, feel free to search our site for articles regarding that behavior instead. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.
"I'll Do It Later!"6 Ways to Get Kids to Do Chores Now
Kids, Chores and Responsibilities: 5 Questions to Help Them Get on Track

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Thank you so much for this article has had an amazing transformation of change for me and my 12yr old daughter.My expectation are now more reasonable and when chores are not done I ask her can she take care of her responsibility and when its done I'll say thank you politely.Sometimes I'll even help her finish especially when homework was the cause of her not doing her chore

Comment By : nickz

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fighting with your child, teenager, teen, arguing, how to stop a fight

Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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