Rules for Family Conflict

Conflict can be dangerous. In war, the outcome (who wins) is more important than the process (any means necessary) because victory is all that counts. In families, the process (how people communicate) is more important than the outcome (the resolution reached) because protecting the future of the relationship is paramount. Adults who were “attack trained” in fighting growing up are at risk of using wartime tactics in family conflict, to destructive effect.
In caring relationships, learning to fight well is the work of a lifetime. Being able to confront, discuss, and resolve significant differences without anyone's ever suffering harm takes disciplined conduct. To teach this discipline, it helps to have guidelines and restraints in place to keep conflict constructive. A few such “rules for family conflict” are listed here.

  • Keep conflict safe. Conflict is never an acceptable excuse for doing another family member harm. “Well, I only said that because I was angry” is no excuse. If anger caused anyone to do or say something hurtful, then another way to manage that anger must be found. Any injury received in family conflict should be accidental, never intentional.
  • Have an injury agreement in place in case conflict ever causes, or threatens to cause, harm. Whenever, in the course of conflict, anyone feels endangered or actually hurt, the issue at difference should immediately be put aside and the hurtful behavior addressed in such a way that it will not occur again. Then conflict over the difference can safely proceed again.
  • Offer both parties the right of separation and a responsibility for return. Anytime either party in a conflict is getting too worked up emotionally and feels at risk of saying or doing something he or she might later regret, that person has the right to declare a separation, or a timeout to cool down. At the same time, that person has a responsibility for scheduling a time to return to the discussion when it can be conducted in a more emotionally sober way.
  • Make a commitment not to stop caring. Particularly for an adolescent, there is a need to know from parents that no matter how hard he or she pushes against authority in conflict, the teenager is in no danger of pushing their love away.


Most acts of family violence and social hate crimes are preceded by namecalling.

  • Exercise your right and responsibility to speak up. All parties are entitled to their say, whether others agree with what they say or not, so long as they don't say it in a disrespectful or abusive manner. They are also responsible for speaking up if they want their desire or opinion known. There is no mind reading. Family members can know only what they are told.
  • Agree to discuss the specifics of your differences in specific terms. Conflicts cannot be resolved by resorting to abstracts and generalizations. Stick to objective descriptions of happenings and events each side wants or does not want to have occur.
  • Avoid meltdowns. Conflict creates resemblance, with each party tending to copy
  • influential tactics used by the other. Therefore, parents have to model constructive communication so the teenager is encouraged to imitate their conduct and not the reverse. When parents imitate impulsive adolescent behavior in conflict (voice raising, interrupting, and insulting), then a meltdown has occurred — now the parents are communicating on the teenager's terms.
  • Do not allow namecalling. Namecalling, attaching a negative label to the other person in conflict, is like loading a gun. The bad name can be used to justify bad treatment. “If you're going to act like a crybaby, then I'll really give you something to cry about!”
  • Avoid making extreme statements. It is easy to trade “You always” and “You never” accusations, both of which distort the other person's record. “On this occasion” is closer to the truth.
  • Do not carry over emotion or issues from one conflict to the next. There are no carryovers. There is no unfinished grievance left over from a previous conflict to become activated in the next, and there is no anxiety about the next conflict based on how the last one was conducted. Any carryover of either kind needs to be addressed, or your next conflict will be harder to resolve.
  • Remember that the goal in family conflict is intimacy. There are two ways to get intimacy in relationships — by sharing human similarities and by confronting differences. The goal of conflict is to safely confront differences, talking them through to reach a settlement that both parties can live with, each coming to better know the other and feel better known by the other than was the case before, their relationship strengthened by the understanding and agreement between them.
  • Be empathetic. Instead of focusing on achieving what you want to get, express concern for what the other person is feeling and needing emotionally. Then discuss your feelings and needs in return, and on the basis of that exchange begin to explore resolution based on mutual understanding of, and empathy for, each other. This is a far more productive way of resolving family conflict than both sides arguing to win their way at the other person's expense.

If you follow these guidelines in conflicts with your teenager, you can handle the inevitable differences between you in nondestructive ways.

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