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How to Stop Fighting with Your Child: Do You Feel Like the Enemy?

by Debbie Pincus MS LMHC
How to Stop Fighting with Your Child: Do You Feel Like the Enemy?

Does it seem like you have a war going on in your family—with you on one side, and your kids on the other? Many parents feel like they live in the middle of a battle zone and that at any given moment they might step on a landmine. Maybe you have a teen who is disrespectful and says rude and insulting things to you. Perhaps you have a child who won’t stop badgering you and fights with you when you set limits. Maybe your preteen insists on having the final word on everything and puts you down all the time. Or it could be that you, like many parents, feel like your kids act entitled and ungrateful and take advantage of you—and it drives you crazy. Debbie Pincus, author of The Calm Parent AM and PM, has worked with kids and parents for more than 25 years, and she can teach you how to stop fights with your kids. Read on to find out what you need to do to gain peace in your home, starting today.

When you need something from your child so you can be calm and feel like the responsible parent, you put yourself in a vulnerable position because they don’t have to give it to you.

Parents today complain more and more about their kids being entitled and rude, as witnessed by the recent “Facebook Parenting Dad” story in the news. This father was angry and upset by his daughter’s tirade against him on Facebook, so he decided to teach her a lesson by shooting her laptop with a pistol. While this isn’t a tactic I would ever recommend, I understand his frustration in part. Parents have started to feel “bulldozed” by their own kids. They can’t imagine ever treating their own parents this way when they were young—let alone living to speak about it! Many parents get to a point where they feel so angry and victimized by their own children that they start to see their kids as an “enemy” that must be defeated. They respond by yelling more, invoking harsh punishments, and feeling overwhelmed and at odds with their child.

Related: How to parent calmly and effectively—no matter what your child says or does.

So just how have we gotten to this place? We all know that times have changed—and parenting is much more difficult as a result. Years ago parents valued obedience above all else. They would use hitting, fear tactics, threats and withdrawal of love to scare kids into good behavior. And if we use these tactics today, we would probably get kids to act the way we want them to—at least temporarily. The problem is that this parenting style does not lead to good long-term connection, trust, or security and can easily backfire and cause major rebellion. While we still value obedience, now we also value connection, communication and independent thinking. But problems arise when we find ourselves at a loss when it comes to getting our kids to be respectful, grateful and under control. Instead, we can find ourselves in a state of war 24/7 in our homes.

3 Critical Changes That Shut Down Fights

Here’s where I believe the problem starts: the moment we convince ourselves that we must teach and lecture our kids into better behavior. Often, we don’t stop lecturing until they change or until we are confident they “get it.” We panic and wonder, “If my child doesn’t learn now, when will he learn?” Or we think, “If I don’t teach him how to do things right, who will?” While rooted in natural instincts (who doesn’t want their child to be happy, healthy and successful?) this can cause a cycle that leads to a series of escalating battles.

Related: Tired of battling with your child over everything? Learn how to stop.

Let’s take a closer look and find a way out of this madness and toward a better way to parent.

Shine a light on yourself, rather than on your child. Get out of the mindset that your child is the enemy and you must win. Win what? No matter how your child behaves, you must commit to parenting from thoughtfulness, not anxiety and reactivity. Keep in the forefront of your mind that even at times of high stress, no matter how obnoxious your child’s behavior, you must remain a calm, steady leader. What are the characteristics that make up a strong leader? Strong leaders focus on the preservation of their own integrity. They have a willingness to take responsibility for their own emotional wellbeing and do not try to “make” other people happy by changing their character. Being a strong leader is a quality that will actually help your child want to be led by you, rather than to battle you.

Stay out of your child’s way. As long as there’s not a health, safety or other dangerous risk involved, let your child make his or her own mistakes—and then let them face the natural and logical consequences for their actions. When you step out of your child’s box and let them make their own choices, there’s something crucial you’re not giving your child: ammunition. Simply put, there’s nothing for them to fight with or against. Staying out of their way allows them to grow.

Related: How to give effective consequences that work to change your child’s behavior.

Stay on your child’s team. Remember that you’re on your child’s team, not on the opposing side. Don’t become his adversary. You are his coach and limit setter, not someone who needs to “win” a battle to prove you’re in control. The truth is, every time you give in to the urge to wield the parental hammer—when you lose your temper and yell, scream or give an overly harsh punishment—you’re bringing yourself down to your child’s level and showing him that you aren’t really in control.

Putting Advice into Practice

How do battles begin and escalate? How do our once sweet little angels turn into our enemies? And what does this actually look like in real time with our kids—particularly our teenagers?

Let’s take a peek into the homes of Sara, age 13, and Daniel, age 9. “I want to sleep over at Lily’s house tomorrow night,” Sara says. Mom responds, “I’m sorry, but not tomorrow. I want you fresh and alert Saturday morning for our visit with Grandma and Grandpa.” Over at Daniel’s house, dad says, “We’re going to eat in a minute. Please set the table.” Daniel is playing a video game and says, “Not right now, I’m busy.”

What’s happening? In each case, the child wants one thing and the parent wants something different. Both children are being asked to accept limitations they don’t like, so they throw down a gauntlet.

Sara: “I’m going to that sleepover no matter what you say and you can’t stop me. I’m not going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I can’t stand my family!” Daniel gets mad at his father and shouts, “Why should I have to do all the work around here? It isn’t fair!”

What’s happening now? The parent has stated their position—and the child has stated their opposition. The stage is set for a battle which will truly begin if either parent picks up the gauntlet by responding at all.

Related: Feel like you’re wearing a target and your kid has the arrows? How to take the ammunition away for good.

Let’s pause the tape for a moment and talk about your role here with your child, because this is a very important moment in the anatomy of a fight. If you are going to preserve your integrity at this point and care for your own emotional wellbeing—and be the leader in your family—what would you do next? The answer: Stop participating. At this moment, the best thing to do is state your well thought-out position one more time—and then walk away.

“Easy to say,” you might be thinking, “but what if my child continues to battle by screaming at me, tantruming, calling me names, following me into other rooms, or throwing things around? I can’t let her just get away with that! I need to show her who’s boss.”

But here’s the truth: When you need something from your child so you can be calm and feel like the responsible parent, you put yourself in a vulnerable position because they don’t have to give it to you. When the message becomes, “I need you to behave. I need you to stop badgering me. I need you to be respectful. I need you to listen to me,” you have effectively put yourself at your child’s mercy. Feeling at a loss, many parents go to desperate measures to try and get what they need from their kids—respect and obedience. The child resists the parent’s effort with equal intensity and now the power struggle is in full force. They bribe, cajole, threaten, punish, appease, to no avail. And their once darling child now feels like the enemy that must be taken down.

Related: Stop the battle in your home and become a calm, effective parent.

So let’s go back to Sara and Daniel’s scenes and push “play.” Let’s say that in each case the parent wasn’t able to disengage from the fight, but instead started yelling back. The fight is now in progress and the argument is escalating. Now Sara says, “I’m going to Lily’s house no matter what you say or do to me. I hate you! I wish I had a different mom.” Daniel says, “You treat me like a servant around here. I get asked to do everything and blamed for everything. It’s not fair!”

What’s happening? These are maneuvers by Sara and Daniel—predictable ones. If your child tries this, don’t get thrown by them. Kids are good at strategies that push our emotional buttons, especially when you allow them to work. The purpose of this kind of manipulation is to pull you back into battle when you hear your child’s threats of leaving, bad language or cries of "poor me." They know how to push your buttons and they desperately want to get a reaction from you. Why? Because once they have you in battle, they gain a sense of control and power. They also have a feeling of connection with you, albeit negative. This feels good to your child, at least in part. She prefers this to feeling alone or feeling the pain of her disappointment. Teenagers particularly both need and want to be independent of you. By battling, she gets to feel independent and engaged with you at the same time. Trying to get her to stop by jumping into the fray will only escalate the battle.

Remember, defining your well thought-out position and not letting yourself get thrown off course is true leadership. The argument will end if you don’t continue to engage. When you drop your end of the rope, your child must wrestle with herself instead of with you.

Related: Learn how to stop engaging when your child tries to pull you into a fight.

If the parents in our two scenarios are able to disengage, the scene might look like this: Once she calms down, Sara might think to herself, “I really want to go to Lily’s, but I don’t want to get in trouble. I guess I’d better stay home.” Or Daniel might reason, “I don’t want to set the table, but I really should if I don’t want to have a consequence. I’d better go do it.”

Defiant Kids

What if you have a defiant kid or are in an ongoing, entrenched battle with your child? You’re probably reading this and thinking, “My kid will never calm down and comply.” And you might be right—he might walk out or defy you in some way. That’s when you have to decide, from your own place of integrity, what to do next. You have a choice as a responsible parent. You might let the scene play itself out. You might disengage from the argument and set down limits around his behavior. If your child is destroying property or being physically abusive, you might choose to call the police. Be the leader you need to be as a parent and ignore the gauntlet that gets thrown down. Respond from a thoughtful place with limits and consequences, and keep reminding yourself, “We’re on the same team.” The important thing is that you continue to show up for your child.

Our children are not our enemies. They just need grownups to help them grow up. By staying out of your child’s way and in your own box, regardless of how defiant your child is, he will have the chance to face his own conscience. This is exactly what he needs to do in order to grow up. And staying in your box is exactly what you need to do to grow as a parent.


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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

Good Advice. If you're reading this and saying "but my child won't" "but what if he/she" then read it again. Take yourself out of the fight! Your kids don't have to be happy about the situation, they just have to comply, in the end.

Comment By : Mom of 3

I'm not getting it. I tell my daughter to get out of bed. She won't. I tell her again, and she won't. I walk away and let her sleep? Allow her to be late for school, make me late for work, and let her off the hook? I'm not seeing how that works. What am I missing?

Comment By : maureen

It's frustrating when parenting articles stop there. I get what it's saying but what if, in the "setting the table" scenario, Daniel just doesn't do it. What do you do then? Set it yourself? My son doesn't think "Hmmm, I might get in trouble, I'd better set the table!" How does the situation end if the child is defiant and simply won't do it. And a consequence like taking away video games only makes him more angry and unwilling to help out.

Comment By : Discouraged Mom

I agree with Maureen. Just walking away allows my daughter to "win". She will just continue doing whatever it is she wants to do. I have withheld getting a driver's license, a cell phone, etc. to no avail. She continues to do whatever it is she wants to do whether or not I attend the fight or not. She *knows* she's winning and continues to aggravate and I have absolutely NO recourse.

Comment By : Fed UP!

I agree with disengaging from the argument or even before it ensues, but what is missing here is EXACTLY how to get the child to comply in the end or if compliance isn't the only goal here then what should be done about the noncompliance? How do you handle this?????

Comment By : deborah

I think if the daughter won"t get out of bed then she is told that it is her job to get herself to school. If late there will be consequences such as loss of cellphone until x number of days on time to school. If she defies then it escalates to other things she thinks is valuable. Eventually she will get sick of this. Then back to square one that she must get up for school. If totally defiant to all this then you have one of those rarer small percentage who need multifaceted, intensive help around family roles and parent skills, presence of drug/alcohol or psychiatric disorders, or a trial with a wilderness program (suitable for defiant and drug using but not psychologically sensitive or complex teens as it may create more problems). At this stage you need a serious network of parents and counsellors to provide ongoing support. So, depends on where your child fits. If just a spoilt and defiant brat then the wilderness camps such as ALE can be expensive but helpful.

Comment By : Dadinthetrenches

I have the same question as Deborah. If the teen doesn't comply with setting the table or accepting the limits, what do you do? My 14 yr old knows the rules and just chooses to ignore them. As a result he is failing school. What is the point?

Comment By : tweetyssweety

* Maureen: What is important here is to take a responsible parental position. It is so easy for us to miss this step when we operate from anxiety rather than from thoughtful principles. When we “fuse” with our kids, we end up engaging in battle or avoiding conflict by sticking our heads in the sand. As "Mom of 3" said, don't look for their happiness or stamp of approval. Think of what you will do as a leader and then follow through matter of factly. For example, you might decide that your child has to find another way to school. Go do what you have to do, and your child will have to face the consequences of being late. Even if the school doesn't give much in the way of consequences, you're going to follow through, nonetheless. Your daughter will have to walk in late and face getting detention after a number of times, for example. Another choice is for you to take her to school, but then make her "pay you back" in some way for the time she cost you. Or you might decide to wake her up an hour earlier each morning. Bottom line: she sweats more than do, and you are sticking to your guns. You want to be in charge, not be controlled by her. In order to be in charge you need to decide how you will preserve your well-being while being a thoughtful, responsible parent. If instead your focus is on how to get her out of bed, you will end up fighting or letting her off the hook because you have let yourself be at her mercy. Think how you want to behave instead of trying to get her to behave and you will develop the strength you need to parent her in these difficult situations. Your child is looking for this from you. Best of luck and thanks for your comment.

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

Great Article! I've been trying for years to do this with my three kids all early teens now. They are all diognosed with RAD, PTSD, Defient Disorder, etc...because of trauma prior to moving in with us. Who would have known? I have had to learn that changing my behavior is the only way to help myself, and with that said; I've noticed that it has helped them. The most complicated child cries when I end the discussion because she will not make eye contact,shows with her body language that she is not listening, etc... We don't talk again about ANYTHING untill she is ready to talk about the negative behavior. This includes signatures for school, purchasing school pictures, parties, TV, holiday or play activities. It's extremely difficult, and I know I look like a mean parent to most, but she will come around within hours and sometimes days. In the mean time I speak to her when needed. I know her behavior is about control, and continue to remind myself that I am doing this for her. It's the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. We have missed many fun activites and functions, but with the consistant response we are making baby steps. Did I mention how embarassing this can be? As for the daughter that will not get out of bed, my only concern about tardies or missing school would be how the parent will be held responsible by law. That is one that I would reference our therapist on, and make a plan. My husband and I have listened and worked through The Total Transformation Program more than once and it has been a great help. I would suggest going back to listen again. At the comment about calling the police for destruction or damage; We have recently explained that we would do that if our child continues to destroy property. Once she had a full understanding of what it meant to be liable legally she has developed a new ability to control her anger/self from destruction. The conversation didn't happen during or right after the destruction of property, but with our therapist and in her office with a laundry list of things that were destroyed. It's proven to me that my child has self control when she desires to apply her effort to do so. I commend her every time for such strength and acknowledge what she felt like doing and how great it is that she didn't do it. Again, only give the acknowledgement when she is calm and time has passed. Most of all I have to be calm and caring when I/we deliever the message and to me that can be very difficult. I still have alot more work to do and much more to learn! I pray that I will make it through the teen years.

Comment By : OneDayatATime

* It is frustrating to think that your child is winning when you refuse to engage in an argument with them. As Debbie mentions in the article, in the moment of the argument, that is the best thing you can do to reduce your anxiety and not react out of your emotions. It is important to keep in mind that the ultimate goal is not to “make” your child do things, as he or she might decide not to comply with your requests. What is going to be most successful is deciding how you are going to hold your child accountable for his or her choices, whether positive or negative. In order to hold your child accountable, it is most effective to respond to your child from a calm, business-like place. When you have taken a few minutes for yourself, most times you are able to think through what has happened, and what an appropriate consequence may be. In the table-setting example Debbie mentions in her article, Dad might choose, instead of arguing, to set the limit that the video games should be turned off, or there will be a consequence. If Daniel chooses not to turn off the video game, then Dad can hold him accountable by telling him that because he chose not to turn it off and set the table, Dad is holding on to the video games until Daniel does his chores without arguing for two days. For more information about this, check out these articles on EP: How to Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home & Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill: The Three Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

No, it does work. You have to start with the first step which is "what behavior do I want to correct in my child". For me at this moment is my son's laziness. He knows - because I have been using this program for a long time - that when I say "if you don't do that, this will happen" it is a true consequence to his actions. So if I come home from work and his homework is not completed (because it is behind for the past two weeks) he loses his cell until it is completed and turned in to the teacher who emails me that he/she has received it. Pick a battle and fight it till the bitter end parents - you will taste victory! Take care!

Comment By : luvmykidz

* Dear Deborah, I think the struggle is that we get frustrated as parents. We’re at the end of our ropes sometimes and it’s overwhelming. For example, with setting the table, you have many options. First, you have to stop, calm down, get control. You stand at the door, lower your voice and say in a matter of fact tone, “I need you to do it now.” Even if they’re doing something else, you don’t let them off the hook. If you end up setting the table yourself because they refuse, let them k now you weren’t happy with that choice. Later, you can say in a calm, neutral way, “I didn’t like how you refused my request. As a result, I’m not doing you that favor I promised. When you don’t listen and fight with me when I ask you to do things, I’m not going to have that goodwill to go that extra mile for you.” This has to be said from a calm place, though—not from a vengeful one. You might also decide to give some kind of consequence to your child for not complying—something that’s not just punishment and that comes as a response to your child not doing their part. As James Lehman says, “You can lead a horse to water, and you can’t make them drink—but you can sure make them thirsty.” This way, you’re not letting your child off the hook but you’re not going into battle. If your child digs in their heels and you’re in a power struggle with them, again, you’re not going to go to their level of fighting. You’re going to get quieter as their voice gets louder. Remember that there’s somewhere you do have leverage: “You don’t get the keys to the car this weekend—I’m not happy with the choices you’re making.” Again, this can’t come from a place of revenge inside of you, but from a place of, “Where do I stand? Where’s my bottom line? How do I want to approach this?” If you take your time to think about it, you’ll come up with what you can and can’t do and what you can live with. Calmly sit down with your child and work at developing a relationship. For your own respect, say, “This is not against you or get back at you. It’s for my own wellbeing and integrity. I need to give you this consequence unless I see something else happening here.” By not fighting in the moment, it doesn’t mean that you will let yourself be disrespected, that you won’t give consequences later or hold them accountable. But in the mean time, you’re preserving your own integrity rather than yelling or losing control.

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

Great job Debbie, i always enjoy your insight

Comment By : Peter A

My teen started these 'show downs' many years ago which resulted in her running away from home. I put in not 1 but 5 missing persons with the police to find her. She then ran to her Grandfather, told him a pack of lies and he took me to court. I am bad mouthed by my child on facebook etc... but now am getting 'I miss you Mum' letters. When I try to respond to her letters I get told to f*** off and stay away from her, especially if she is in public. I can't win either way. So I can tell you that letting them stay in their own box don't work either - it didn't for me. I have two other kids who so far are doing great.

Comment By : Jen

* Jen: Staying in your own box will not guarantee a transformation of your child. We may not be able to "fix" them, but we can make things worse by getting in places where we don't belong. It is helpful to make a plan and think about what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for when it comes to your child. Make sure to act on what you are responsible for - what is "in your box" - and let go of what you are not responsible for - what is not "in your box." Knowing the difference requires calm thoughtfulness. When we are clear about boundaries, our relationships have a better chance of thriving. For example, if your child is being rude to you, you are responsible for not allowing yourself to be disrespected by her - you are responsible for helping her gain a better repertoire of problem-solving skills so she can cope better when she is upset with you - you are also responsible for providing her with some natural consequences if she treats you poorly (you might not take her to the mall when she asks next time). You are responsible to look to see what else is going on with you and in the family that might be heightening anxiety which she may be reacting to or to consider what else might be contributing to her rudeness. The best we can do as parents is to act on what we are responsible for and to know what we are not responsible for. How she reacts to what you provide is not in your hands. You can only guide her by responding with natural consequences for the poor choices she makes.Hope that helps to clarify.

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

I send these articles to my 18-year-old son who is dealing with his immature dad. His father is the one who likes to "engage" and try to get a rise out of my son so he can put him down or say "see how you are?" It's like the roles are reversed. I explain these tactics to him and hope he understands. I encourage my son to bite his tongue and not feed into his dad's mind games. His dad & I are divorced and for convenience sake, he stays with his father. I believe you can stand up to him by not responding or over-reacting to his nonsense... the same way you'd do with a child! Amazing, huh?

Comment By : Smow

I can relate to this article. Last week, my son didn't want to go to Church. My husband and I told him if he didn't, the Wii would be gone for a month. He refused, and I packed the Wii into the trunk of my car. It's been 5 days now, and he hasn't asked for it yet!!

Comment By : Heidi

I wish it was as simple as staying in your box sounds. I have a 15 year old and divorced his father when he was 4. His father has an anger management problem and so does my son. He is so disrespectful to me and uses drugs. I have sent him to in-house treatment centers, he's going to behaviorial counceling, and he is going to NA (narcotics annonymous). He ran away from one of the treatment centers with another 15 yr old boy and I won't get into all he did. He was expelled for the 3rd and final time from his school. I am faced with what do I do now. I can never have a relationship with anyone because he runs them off on purpose. I have tried to stay calm and telling him the consequence for each action, but he would rather take the consequence every time. I've tried not speaking to him, but he reverses it and says I am acting like the child because I won't let it go. (This is less than 24 hrs after he does something really bad). I tried giving custody to his dad, but he does the same thing with him and he doesn't want him living in his house (he's remarried) because he doesn't trust him. I have been through many counseling sessions with my son, but nothing is working. He is facing juvenile detention soon for some of his actions. Defeated in Louisiana.

Comment By : Helpless Mom, Fay

* Dear Helpless Mom, Fay: You sound like you have a very difficult situation on your hands and that you have done what you can. Sometimes we can do everything we can possibly do to help our kids and they are not able, willing or ready to make their own changes. All you can do is keep showing up (lovingly, non-reactively but with firm boundaries) and accept that this might be the way it is for now or always. You can decide under what terms he gets to live under your roof and stick to your guns. Staying in your box will require you to accept the way things are, not the way you wish them to be, and get on with your life while staying authentically connected to your child. Recognize the limits of the relationship, manage your expectations and get the support and love that you need from your friends, family, counselors, etc. Hope this is helpful.

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

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