How to Walk Away from a Fight with Your Child: Why It's Harder Than You Think

by Sara Bean, M.Ed.
How to Walk Away from a Fight with Your Child: Why It's Harder Than You Think

You’ve probably heard these words of advice before: “Just walk away when your child is trying to pull you into a fight.” And in fact, turning around and walking away is one of the most important things you can do as a parent to end power struggles with your kids. But what should you do when your child won’t let you walk away?

Consider these two scenarios:

You tell your 10-year-old daughter that she can’t have her friend over this Saturday and she is not happy. She begs and pleads, but you stand your ground. When she starts to escalate, you tell her you aren’t going to argue about it and you attempt to walk away. But then she comes unglued and starts crying hysterically. She tells you she hates you, then she grabs onto your arm, still pleading with you to change your mind. You know you need to get away, and you manage to make it to your bedroom and lock yourself inside. That’s when the screaming and banging on the door begin. You try to ignore it but eventually can’t take it anymore. You break down, open the door, completely lose your cool and scream at her.

When you walk away you “win”—and your child doesn’t want that to happen, so he will try almost anything to keep it going, whether it’s calling you names, throwing things, punching a hole in the wall, or slamming a door.

You pick your teen son up from school and inform him that his cell phone has been shut off for 24 hours because he was on the phone past his bedtime the night before. He unleashes a verbal assault on you and you tell him to stop. He demands that you turn his phone back on immediately, and when you stay silent, he blows up. He leans over and yells in your face while you’re holding onto the steering wheel of the car with white knuckles, trying to focus on getting home safely. When you continue to ignore him, he takes his cell phone and throws it as hard as he can into the back seat of the car. You can’t control yourself any longer so you yell at him and tell him he’s lost the phone for a month now. You pull into the driveway feeling horrible.

Related: Does your child act out to get his way?

Why Your Child Wants to Pull You Back in

Disengaging is one of the best ways to stop power struggles from happening or arguments from continuing. But many kids—particularly defiant, oppositional ones—will follow their parents around, prolonging the argument. Why do they do this? When you walk away or stop participating in an argument, you send your child the message that you’re in control. Though they aren’t consciously aware of all of this, they feel the power shift from them to you, so if they can pull you back into the argument they can regain that control they lost. When you walk away you “win”—and they don’t want that to happen, so they will try almost anything to keep it going, whether it’s calling you names, throwing things, punching a hole in the wall, or slamming a door. If they can do something that gets you to react, they feel a whole lot better. And in many cases, they know that if they push all the right buttons, you just might give in to get relief from the torment.

Related: Trapped in daily screaming matches with your child?

There are several common scenarios we hear about on the Parental Support Line. Let’s take a look at each and talk about what to do.

1. You go to your room and your child follows you: Here’s the trick: Once you walk away, say no more. Lock the door and ride out the storm. If your child is screaming outside your door or pounding on it with all their might, ignore them. Do whatever you can to cope until they’ve calmed down. The second you turn that door knob to tell them to stop, you’ve given them what they wanted. Put on some headphones, turn up the TV, read a book, knit. Do whatever you have to do to focus your attention away from your child’s behavior. If they damage something or call you foul names while they’re pounding on your door, give them consequences afterward, when they’ve calmed down—and stick to them. In other words, ignore their attempts to pull you in when you’re disengaging from them, but hold them accountable for anything they damage (or rules they break) later.

Related: How to give consequences to your child that really work.

2. Your child trashes her own room: If your child goes to her own room and starts to throw things around or screams at the top of her lungs about what a jerk you are or how much she hates you, let her. If she breaks something of her own, that’s a natural consequence. She will have to buy her own replacement or do some chores to earn the money to buy a new one. If she makes a mess of the room, she will have to clean it up later when things calm down. It’s more effective to focus on controlling yourself and your emotions rather than your child’s behavior.

3. An over-the-phone argument: If the argument is over the phone or via text message, tell your child that you’re done with the discussion and you will not reply anymore. Then, follow through. Turn the phone off, or unplug it if it’s a landline and get involved with something else. You can finish talking later when things are calm again.

Related: Does your child curse, call you names and become verbally abusive during fights?

4. When you’re in the car: This is one of the most difficult places to get into an argument with your child. The first rule is, pull over. You may not be able to walk away, but you might be able to step outside the car to get some fresh air if it’s safe to do so. Or, you can tell your child you’re not going to continue on until they calm down, because it’s not safe for you to drive while they’re verbally abusing you or acting disruptive. Then, find something to do that will help you cope. This might take some planning ahead, such as packing a book or magazine (or keeping something like that in your glove compartment) that you can pull out and use in these cases.

5. You can’t walk away because you’re busy: Let’s say, for example, that you‘re cooking dinner. Set one limit with your child and then do what you can to focus your attention on the task at hand, not your child. Avoid eye contact and ignore comments he makes under his breath. Find some sort of mental task to occupy your mind, such as counting or singing a song to yourself in your head. If you have a relatively compliant child who will go to his room when asked, you can tell him to do so, but if your child is like most, he will refuse. Since you can’t make him go, the best thing to do is not pay attention to him. The key is to avoid giving his behavior any power. Control what you can—yourself.

6. Your child blocks you or clings to you: This is perhaps the most difficult situation to find yourself in when you try to walk away. It’s very important that you stay calm, use a normal tone of voice, and tell your child this behavior is not okay, while redirecting them to go do something to calm down. They’re probably going to stick around, though—at least at first. Continue to remain calm and wait it out. Yes, this might mean that you literally stand there and wait. You could also let your child know that they need to stop or there will be a consequence later. If your child is not blocking your path, try your best to go about your business—do the dishes, read a book, or surf the internet. The goal is to find some sort of task to focus on so your attention is not on your child’s behavior.

When Your Child Threatens You or Becomes Abusive

If you feel threatened by your child and have access to a phone, you might decide to call the police. A word of caution: do not get into a physical power struggle to escape from your child. Pushing against them or trying to get free may cause some kids to escalate. Also, to be clear, we do not recommend calling the police simply because your child is being defiant. There is a difference between frustrating, blocking behavior and threatening, unsafe behavior.

Related: How to teach your child that “there’s no excuse for abuse.”

A Special Note about Children Age 4 and Younger:

For children who are pre-school age or younger, or who have developmental delays or disabilities that cause them to function at 4 years of age or younger, walking away as described in this article may not be effective. Disengaging and moving too far away from a child at this developmental level may cause anxiety. If this is the case with your child, it might be better to try to stay close by within your child’s sight. It can be really helpful to say something like this: “You’re so upset. I wish I could help you calm down. Why don’t you…” and then suggest a calming activity for them to do. This might be looking at a book, playing some music they like, or playing with a favorite toy. You can model how to stay calm and you can disengage without leaving the room altogether.

Other Techniques to Help You Walk Away

Before you walk away, it’s always helpful to set a limit with your child and attempt to redirect them. For example, “I’m going to go take a break. You should go listen to some music or do something to calm down.” Another example is, “Yelling at me isn’t going to get you what you want. When you calm down, we can talk more. I’ll check on you in 15 minutes and see if you’re ready.” Also, if your child has younger siblings in the home, take them with you when you walk away so they don’t become a target or a pawn that your child can use to pull you back into the argument. If your child has older siblings, you might tell them to go to their rooms until your child calms down. The smaller the audience is, (or the number of potential targets) the better.

Related: Does your spouse undermine your parenting style?

Once you’ve walked away, be aware of any potential safety issues or needs for local supports. If it sounds like your child is being incredibly destructive to your home, it might be a good idea to call the police instead of trying to stop him yourself. Oftentimes, we suggest that parents call the non-emergency number for their local police department ahead of time to discuss how they would handle these kinds of situations if you should call them for assistance. This way, you have an idea of what you’d be getting into and you can make an informed decision.

If your child threatens to hurt themselves or someone else, that’s another situation in which you will need to utilize some local supports, such as the police or a local crisis helpline. When the safety of your child, or another family member, is at risk, you absolutely want to step back in there in some way and make sure everyone is safe.

Will My Child Ever Stop Banging on My Door?

It has been shown that over time, when a behavior is no longer reinforced or rewarded, it will eventually fade away—also referred to as “extinction.” To put it another way, if the behavior doesn’t get what it needs to survive—your attention—it will eventually cease to exist. The key is to be consistent. If you continue to feed the behavior, even just once in a while, the behavior will continue to rear its ugly head. It takes a lot of time, energy, and practice and it will be very exhausting, but do your best to consistently ignore your child’s attempts to pull you back into the argument after you’ve disengaged. Over time your kids will see that you mean it when you walk away—and they will learn they can’t pull you back in. This change in your response will lead your child to adapt or to find new (and hopefully more appropriate) ways of coping.

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Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.


Excellant solutions given. Thank you!!

Comment By : Mom of 2 boys

Excellent! Thank you! This is what my BPD daughter does to me. Glad to know it must happen in other homes.

Comment By : Bethg

Finally advice that addresses what I experience with my daughter! Most advice tells you to walk away or send them to their room - I always found I had a "yea but then what do you do when that doesn't work?" question that followed all advice I've heard until now. Also helpful to know I'm not the only one who is experiencing this. Thank you!

Comment By : JS

Yes, I'm glad that this goes on in other homes too. My stepdaughter has ADHD and oh boy....all she wants to do is argue and we try to walk away or ignore her until she stops arguing. Talk about stress in the family! It's over the top!

Comment By : Becklyn

This is the best article yet! Every time I read something from you all, it seems you are describing the situations I face in my house hourly. Since my friends don't understand ODD, it's great to know I am not alone!

Comment By : corynng

I love that you didn't sugar coat this. Kids can get very obnoxious when they are not getting their way. My son is almost 17 and towers over me. He can get very abusive, and it is all I can do sometimes to not clobber him with something (being honest here). You gave some very good reminders here.

Comment By : Alice

Great article. While I knew deep inside that walking away is the answer to my power struggles with my 11 year old son (this has been going on for years), it's encouraging to see that this is what a professional recommends. Thank you for giving me the tools to hopefully find an end to these battles!

Comment By : NiniMcD

Thanks for the insight to handle behaviors that will bring an outcome that benefits both sides in the long run.

Comment By : Lewellyn

AMAZING techniques, thanks so much :)

Comment By : HappyStepMom

I agree with all of this. But....... when its time for my child to pay for something she broke (phone, remote etc.), there's no money, because she's blows it as soon as she gets it. Making her do chores just opens up a whole new argument.

Comment By : Saddad

Help! My 11 year-old son does all of the above and more. My problem is not getting angry but LAUGHING at him. He then entertains me with antics that I just find hysterical and we both end up carrying on until we are exhauted from laughing. Although I feel good that we can share such fun times, I also know that he is abusing me (initially) then getting rewarded for it. You may think I need to give him this "fun" attention at non-threatening times, but I do. He just can't get enough from me. What should I do???

Comment By : Marie

Marie - I'm not an expert. My two cents would be to bring up the inappropriate language/behavior later and tell her what the consequence is going to be. I'm kinda having to do that w/ my boy tonight. He blew up @ me last night and then after he cooled down he expressed all this emotional angst he has about his Dad & me (his Dad bad mouths me a lot & is a "Disney Dad" - a.k.a shows up once in a while & blows lots of $ on those visits, showering the child in fun & neat stuff). So now that the child has exposed the root of the problem, I still need to apply a consequence for the profanity & the hole in the wall.

Comment By : Sam

Love this article! Thank you. So tough being a parent! Also, good to know that your kid doesn't really want to be abusive to you so disengaging stops him from further hurting you although words hurt it speaks to his frustration and poor self-esteem or better ability to problem solve in a less primitive way. I like to think of it as a reverse time out for parent. Very hard to do though if you have younger children that need you or you need to protect from raging bro. Good luck everyone. You are not alone!!!!

Comment By : exhausted mom of three boys

Thanks Sam, that's a good idea to followup well after i've gotten over my laughs. I'll try it. Sorry to hear about your situation. I think "fathers" everywhere are a major influence --not a good one, either, on thier son's attitude/behavior. Pity.

Comment By : Marie

Thanks for the great article. The trouble I have with my 6 yr old is that he shares a room with his 11 yr old brother. Their 9 yr old sister has her own room and I don't have any "extra" rooms. The 6 yr old gets angry, screams and throws things. If I ignore him, he may damage his brother's things. I don't know how to stop him from doing damage while ignoring him. I'm considering having the older 2 share a room for a bit to get things under control but my husband hates that idea and I'm sure the kids would not like it either. Any ideas?

Comment By : zbell

Wow you have described my kids to a T. When I walk away she follows me, grabs onto me, blocks me and if I manage to make it to my room she pounds on the door. She has twisted the knob so much she broke the lock and so I had to sit on the floor with my back against the door and feet against the opposite wall. This can go on for an hour. I have finally resorted to calling the police, now we are going to juvenille services and she will be on parole.

Comment By : crazy mom of 3 teens

* To ‘Saddad’: It sometimes can be puzzling to figure out how to get your child to pay for things they have damaged during an outburst. If she broke something of her own, she will simply have to live without it until she saves the money to pay for a replacement. You can talk to her about ways that she can save money, or work that she might do around the house or for family to earn the money to go toward the replacement. If she broke something that belongs to someone else, you might put one of her privileges on hold until she either saves the money or does some work to make the money to pay for it (or works off the cost). For example, if a new remote costs $15 you might restrict her computer privileges until she washes your car and cleans the interior for example. Restricting a privilege until she makes things right is the way to motivate her. And don’t forget you don’t need to attend every fight she invites you to! Good luck.

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

* To ‘zbell’: This is a dilemma that many parents struggle with- ignore him and risk damage, or pay attention to (and reinforce the behavior) to keep the peace between siblings? There is no easy answer for this but one thing is clear: if he continues to get attention for his tantrums, they will continue to occur. Seeing how your other two children are of the opposite sex and nearing puberty, it’s easy to see why having them share a room might be uncomfortable for everyone. Whether you have them share a room or not is up to you. What I would encourage you to try is some problem solving with your 11 year old about how he can protect his belongings. Maybe the two of you go through his things and he picks some of the most special things to store somewhere else, for example, while you work with your 6 year old on a calm-down plan. If your youngest still ends up ruining something that belongs to his brother, the consequence could be that he has to make an amends to his brother. In other words, he would need to do something nice for his brother such as clean their room or do a chore for him. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

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

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Responses to questions posted on 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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