For the majority of children, growing up with a strong sense of personal worth and pride is difficult, even in the most supportive and loving family. As they grow, the values we, as parents, try to instill are challenged by day-to-day pressures and outside influences.
Every family experiences problems. Parental conflict can range in severity from minor disputes over child care to explosive arguments where both parents criticize and condemn each other's opinions and values. Parents can fight over a wide variety of issues ranging from where the kids are going to summer camp, to where the children are going to live-if, unfortunately, the marriage ends.
As each parent becomes more entrenched in their position during a dispute, the conflict increases in intensity. As the conflict increases, too often children are left in a physically and psychologically uncomfortable position.
When children are the subject of parental or extended family conflict, the impact can be devastating. Children caught in the middle of a family conflict feel that they have done something wrong. They feel that the conflict is their fault. They worry that if they express their opinion regarding an issue it might lead to even greater conflict. They experience divided loyalties because each parent is blaming the other for the argument.
This negatively impacts the children at any age because the people they love and trust the most are engaged in an all or nothing battle of wills. The tug of war they experience is debilitating. It can lead to low self-esteem, destructive or anti-social behavior and failing grades in school.
Often parents engaged in conflict may feel trapped in a helpless situation. They may feel that the conflict is spiraling uncontrollably towards uncertain resolution. They may feel that the issue is now untenable and the relationship between parents has suffered irrevocable damage.
There are methods of resolving parental conflict but it takes work. A balanced focus on the issues of contention rather than emotions is the first step. Here are some tips on common pitfalls and how long-range thinking and planning may help resolve disputes and bring the focus back onto the children:
Don't allow difficulties with the other parent or family member dictate your actions and attitudes toward the children. This means that you must learn how to separate your feelings about the other parent from your feelings about the children. Remember, your children love both of you and it's unfair to your children to speak of the other parent or family member in a negative manner.
If your children ask you to explain the other parent's behavior, show them that this is your opinion and encourage them to draw their own opinion. You are not in a position to discount the other parent's opinion or behavior because you have engaged in the dispute. You might feel justified in your opinion but that doesn't necessarily mean that you're right.
If enmeshed in significant conflict, consider alternative methods of dispute resolution. Yes, there are people out there who are specially trained to help you resolve your dispute. Consider attending counseling with a qualified facilitator such as a mental health professional or a social worker. As well, many parents report that family mediation is a collaborative approach to resolving disputes and are happy with the results.
Embrace diplomacy. There must be a reason why the other person is reacting the way they are: consider their values and opinions and compare them with your own. Look for similarities in their reasoning and use those similarities as a foundation to negotiate the issue.
Focus on solutions.Too often, parents focus their energy on the emotional aspects of the conflict. Though emotion is a big part of why you feel the way you do, you can move beyond the conflict by looking for solutions rather than playing, "The Blame Game."
Develop a series of proposals and offer them as a method to resolve the dispute. Empower the other parent or family member to resolve the issue by asking them to select any one of your proposals-this shows that you trust the other person. A little trust can go a long way toward resolving the issue and repairing any hurt feelings.
Wage Peace. Be persistent about resolving the dispute. Give the other person every reason to find resolution. Anger that you have toward the other person can be derailed by developing a new focus toward meeting the children's needs, so clarify your differences with honesty and kindness.
Set a positive example for the other parent by refusing to engage in "schoolyard tactics" in a dispute. Conflict resolution strategies are a skill that must be learned.
Consider seeking out ways of establishing an alternative to the dispute you are facing. Remember, no child should be placed in the middle of a conflict. Put yourself in their shoes. If you feel overwhelmed by a dispute, find the energy to resolve it by remembering this one important rule: An angry parent cannot teach a child to heal, to forgive, to compromise or to solve problems-if the conflict has been hard on you, it's much harder on your children.Sean Cummings teaches divorce education and is the Executive Director of Calgary Divorced Parents' Resources.
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