Parent-child disputes

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Most parents and children argue from time to time. Arguments can create a tense family atmosphere and bring up unpleasant emotions such as anger, disappointment and sadness. They can also damage the parent-child relationship if they are intense and frequent. Fortunately, it is possible to resolve, reduce and even prevent arguments.

Why do we fight with our child?

To reduce the frequency of arguments between parents and children, it is important to understand why they occur:

Toddlers are very self-focused. Indeed, they learn to take into account the point of view of others only around 4 or 5 years. And it’s not until they’re about 8 years old that they begin to really put themselves in the other person’s shoes, to understand their point of view and their emotions.

Children have not always learned how to negotiate or how to do so respectfully. It’s important for parents to set an example by showing toddlers how to handle conflict. Does your family resolve disagreements calmly or in anger? Do your family members treat each other with respect as they work out their differences?

Toddlers have not yet learned that compromise is necessary to get along.

Children sometimes argue simply to feel independent. They are trying to define their identity and need to assert themselves. This is a normal part of a child’s development.

Arguments often happen because of a build-up of emotions. It takes time for toddlers to learn how to manage their emotions and clearly state how they feel. That’s why anything small can trigger a strong reaction. In addition, children’s words or behaviors can provoke an argument if the parent is not in control of his or her emotions.

A parent’s mood, energy level, work day and accumulation of minor stresses greatly influence their reactions to their child. Parents may have less patience on certain days and, as a result, react strongly, which can lead to an argument with their child. For tips on how to keep your cool, see our Lose Control fact sheet.

How do you resolve parent-child arguments?

When it comes to settling arguments, your toddler needs your help to learn how to work together and, when she’s older, how to compromise. You’re a role model for your child, even when you’re the one who started the fight. Here are some tips on how to resolve your conflicts.

Take time to calm down. This is the first thing you should do before trying to resolve the conflict. You can tell your child that you will take time to calm down. If necessary, step away, move to another room and take deep breaths.

Help your toddler calm down. You can give her a hug, invite her to hug a doggie or encourage her to take deep breaths. Directing him to a secluded area can also help him calm down. Some children may need to vent to calm down. If this is the case with your child, you can offer to bang on a pillow to release tension.

Put words to your and your child’s emotions. Tell your toddler how you feel and try to explain your emotion. Say, for example, “I’m upset because you’re throwing your blocks instead of putting them away.” Also, help your toddler recognize his or her emotion and say what he or she is feeling. For example, “Are you mad because you want to keep playing instead of going to take your bath?”

When you help your child name his emotions, he feels heard and understood. This reassures him and makes it easier to find a solution. This approach can also help reduce bickering.

Express your expectations. Once everyone is calm and emotions are named, talk about what you want. For example, say, “I want you to put your toys away because it’s late. It’s time to take your bath.” Also encourage your child to say what he wants. If your child’s request is unrealistic, for example, “I don’t want to take my bath. I want to keep playing,” repeat your instruction clearly, in a positive way: “I understand that you want to keep playing, but it’s not possible right now. Now it’s bath time.”

Look for solutions. Talk to your child about what you can do to resolve the situation. Offer your ideas, for example: “I’ll give you 5 more minutes to play. Then I’ll help you put your toys away and you can take your bath. Also ask your child for his ideas. For example, he or she might say, “I want to play even longer!

Choose the best solution together. Your child’s solution may not be possible. This is a good time to teach your child to compromise. Say, for example, “Okay, I’ll give you 10 more minutes to play. Then I’ll help you clean up and you can take your bath.” You can also look at how you might improve the situation next time. For example, you might say, “Tomorrow we’ll be able to have dinner earlier and you’ll have more time to play before bath time.”

Of course, it’s not always easy to calm down and work through all these steps to resolve a dispute. The important thing is to try to do it as often as possible. And if you can’t do it at the time, don’t hesitate to pick yourself up later to resolve the conflict. If you have yelled and reacted strongly, apologize to your toddler. This way, your child will learn that it’s okay not to be perfect, but that it’s always possible to correct mistakes.

Consult our Infosheet Should you apologize to your child? to understand why it is important to apologize when you get carried away.

Behaviors to avoid during an argument with your child

Some behaviors and words are not helpful in resolving a dispute because they only make the conflict worse. Here’s what to avoid:

Don’t argue with your child. Your toddler is basically arguing because he or she disagrees, but this can quickly become a way for him or her to avoid responding to your request and deflect the discussion. It’s best to bring him back to your original request: “I understand you don’t want to do this, but I asked you to stop playing because we’re going to eat.”

Don’t respond to your toddler’s attacks. Your toddler is still struggling to qualify his words and express his displeasure. He may say things like, “You’re not fine! I don’t love you anymore!” It’s best to ignore these hurtful words instead of retaliating so as not to fuel the conflict. When things calm down, you can say to your toddler, “It hurts me when you say things like that. But I understand that it’s because you were disappointed and angry, right? Next time, you could tell me you’re mad at me instead.”

Don’t exaggerate his behavior. In the heat of anger, your words may also go beyond your thoughts. But it’s important to avoid generalizations and labels. Instead of saying, “You never listen to me,” say that right now you are angry because he is not listening to your request. Similarly, instead of saying, “You’re a liar!” or “You’re a pain in the ass,” tell your child that you don’t like it when he or she tells you lies or doesn’t listen to instructions.

Avoidance is a bad strategy

Some parents who don’t like conflict tend to avoid arguments. Instead of dealing with them, they move on to another topic or change their child’s mind by doing another activity. A parent may drop the instruction or change the decision to avoid a conflict. For example, a parent who has been refusing a chocolate dessert to their child may end up letting them eat it because their toddler gets upset and they don’t feel like dealing with a fight. However, this is not a good idea. It shows your child that he will eventually get his way and that boundaries don’t really have to be respected. Avoidance can also lead to a build-up of unpleasant emotions and frustrations that can lead to conflict in another situation.

What can be done to prevent arguments?

It is possible to maintain a more harmonious relationship with your child on a daily basis and prevent many arguments. Find out how.

A mom talks about emotions with her child.

Talk about your emotions. Emotions are a part of everyday life. Don’t wait until a fight comes up to talk about emotions with your child. Make it a habit to tell your child how you feel. Encourage everyone in the family to do so as well. Whether your emotions are pleasant (joy, surprise, pride) or more negative (sadness, anger, stress), it’s good to talk about them. For example, schedule a time like dinner for everyone to talk about their favorite and least favorite moments of the day. Not only will this get your toddler used to expressing himself, but it will also prevent bad emotions from building up and causing conflict later on.

Take your child’s emotions seriously. Let them know that you understand that they can be sad, angry or happy, depending on the situation. This will make them feel understood and comforted. This will make it easier for them to accept their emotions and less likely to express them in unacceptable ways. Encourage your child to listen to what others say. Gradually, he or she will learn to take others’ points of view into account.

Be clear about your expectations. When you have clear expectations about your child’s behaviour, he or she will better understand what is and isn’t allowed. This avoids misunderstandings that often lead to conflict. Make your rules clear, concrete, short and age-appropriate. Then enforce them consistently. For example, focus on a small number of important rules, such as “be gentle with friends,” “put toys away without throwing them,” “speak in a soft voice.

Establish routines. Routines, such as bedtime routines, reassure your child that he or she knows what’s coming and where he or she stands in time. When a toddler knows his routine, he feels more in control because he knows what to do and in what order. For example, this can prevent your child from becoming frustrated when you ask him to put his toys away for the bath because he knows it’s his bedtime routine.

Give yourself permission to be imperfect. If one day you are more tired and, therefore, less patient, don’t hesitate to tell your child: “I had a big day at work, I’m tired and I don’t have much patience tonight.” This doesn’t mean that your toddler will automatically become very well-behaved, but it can encourage him to cooperate better and thus avoid conflicts.

Remember, you are talking to a child. In a dispute, as in any other situation, your child does not have the same ability to express himself, think and react as an adult. Adapt your language to your child’s age and be realistic in your expectations. You are the role model for your child.

The consequences of parent-child bickering

While bickering is not pleasant, it should be seen as a learning opportunity. If you take the time to resolve your conflicts, you are teaching your child to express his or her emotions, to consider others and to find solutions. This approach builds trust and attachment between you and your toddler. This improves your relationship. And taking the time to resolve conflicts as they arise can reduce their frequency.

On the other hand, arguments can have a negative impact on the parent-child relationship, especially when they are frequent. For example, during a fight, you may say things that go beyond your thoughts. You may then say hurtful things to your child.

Repeated negative comments hurt your child’s self-esteem. Being told that he’s mean or nasty, for example, can make your toddler think that’s what he really is and make him feel less valuable than others. Instead of labeling him, it’s a good idea to focus on the behavior that needs to be improved rather than on who he is. For example, if he hits a friend, tell him that his action is not nice instead of saying that he is not nice.

Also, if, despite your child’s best efforts, you are still dissatisfied with his behaviour and nag him, he may become discouraged. He or she may even stop trying to behave well, which can lead to more conflict. This can lead to further conflict and a vicious cycle.

Things to remember

You are a role model for teaching your toddler how to settle arguments.

Putting your emotions into words, expressing your needs and finding solutions together are good ways to resolve arguments with your child.

Taking the time to listen to your toddler and having clear expectations and routines are strategies to prevent conflict.

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