Eliminating Arguments and Conflict

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D,

Parents will often ask me how to eliminate the arguments and conflicts they have with their children. Getting children to listen and do what you want is not nearly as difficult as you might think. There are approximately 20 techniques that can virtually eliminate argument and conflict. None of these techniques involve spanking your child. Here are two techniques that work with most of children - especially when they are five years or older. The remaining 18 techniques are for the "hard cases."

"I want… I understand. I don’t agree. Never the less I want…"

The first technique involves telling your child what you want, that you understand their objections, that you don’t agree with their objections, and then telling them what you want again. Here are some examples of phrases that you can use with your child.

"I want you to… (insert a specific request).

For example, "I want you to take the garbage out to the trash right now and then come back and tell me that you are done." Using the words, "I want…" is far more effective than saying, "You need…" A disagreeable child can easily take the position that you do not know what they need. Or, "What I really need is what I want." "What I need to do is certainly not what you want." Regardless of what your child may be thinking or saying, that is one good place to start.

If your child objects, whines or gives you a lame excuse, tell your child, "I understand" and wait to see if they have anything else to say. Better yet, you could say, "I understand. Is there anything else you want to say or tell me?" My favorite one is to say, "I understand what you are saying. I do not agree. But regardless, I still want you to take out the garbage."

At this point you assume the role of listening while telling your child that you understand. Then tell them again what you want.

Avoid Answering "Why?" Questions

The "I want…, I understand…, I don’t agree, and never-the-less…" approach will usually be challenged by most children. But the challenge is simple to deal with in most cases. It helps if you realize that children believe they have a right to ask "Why?" whenever they want. They also think that parents are required to answer any questions they might ask. Young children ask questions in order to learn. But older children often learn to ask questions in order to find fault, to get what they want or to make parents feel bad. They do this all the time with their friends and become rather skilled. I can tell you that children have repeatedly told me that they believe they should get what they want if the reasons people give them are not fair. Of course, a child’s view is very different from the parents perspective - "I am the parent and you don’t always get what you want. You have some freedom and some choices."

Parents win arguments when their children are young, but children are naturally motivated to get better and better at arguing. Trying to beat your child at arguing can be a real mistake. Most children become more argumentative each time you argue with them and each time you answer any question that results in an argument. Remember this. The more you argue with your child, the better your child will become at arguing.

Here are some ways to avoid answering "why?" questions. The first best thing you can do is not answer your child’s question right away. I suggest you wait at least 10 seconds and a little longer if necessary until you know exactly what you want to say. The next best thing you can do is to ask them why they should get to do something or why they think they should get out of something. After listening and not interrupting you should say, "I understand. Is there anything else you want to say?" After you listen to everything else, then you can say, "I understand. I don’t agree." Then tell you child what you have decided. Never explain the reason for your decision unless you want to encourage arguments. Before you answer those "why?" questions, always ask yourself, "Does my child want to learn from me or do they want to see if they can find a way argue with me in order to get what they want?" Either way, it is usually better to wait for them to finish what they have to say and then tell them "I understand. I don’t agree. And I still want you to do what I asked."

There is one thing I can promise. Most children will understand and accept what you are asking when they don’t want something else from you. It is better to talk to your child before they challenge you. Talk to them about what you expect when they aren’t trying to manipulate you. Children are more likely to understand what you want and why you want something when they are not angry, defensive or trying to get what they want. Tell your children what you want and why you want something long before you even need to ask them.

What If My Child Defies Me?

You are dealing with a hard case if a children does not respond to this approach within a month. A child who defies their parent is either testing the limits of what they can get away with or they have had arguments with their parents in the past that created power struggle and resentment. A power struggle is any situation where a child challenges a parent’s authority and the parent then threatens a child with a severe consequence if the child doesn’t give in. Parents usually win power struggles when children are young, but they get harder and harder to win as the child gets older and bigger. Eliminating arguments and conflict gets harder the longer parents and children have engaged in arguments and power struggles.

So what can you do if your child says, "I’m not going to do it", or "I’ll do it later", or "I’m going outside anyway"? One thing is for sure. This is not a good time to threaten your child with a consequence that you just made up. If you do, you might find yourself arguing about the consequence being unfair. Giving a child another consequence for arguing is a power struggle and will usually create even more resentment and drama.

Threatening a child on the spot with a made up consequence is much less effective than reminding a child that you have already established and talked about the consequences for defiance. Making up consequences during an argument or after a child expresses their defiance creates resentment, but it also creates a desire to get even.

My best advice is that you never threaten your child unless you don’t mind creating a risk that your child will learn how to threaten you back and try to get even later. The best response to defiance goes something like this, "You have a choice, and you know there are consequences." At this point, any child will decide if the consequence is worth it, or they will wonder whether you will follow through with a consequence.

Copyright 2002 to 2008, Michael G. Conner