If your children are anything like mine, you know that from time to time (and some days it definitely feels like ALL THE TIME), they are going to disagree with you. When that happens, how tolerant are you? Do you try to hear them out, or do you immediately shut them down? Can you engage in a give-and-take dialogue, or do you fall into the trap of a lose-lose shout fest?
Moms and dads who adhere to a more authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway parenting philosophy may have little patience for a child’s verbal pushback. Conversely, those who embrace a more permissive, hands-off parenting approach may be quick to give in or give up.
Wherever you fall on the parenting-style spectrum, when your child challenges you, don’t run from it, ignore it, or try to suppress it. If you can, embrace it. Yes, some days you may feel annoyed or disrespected, but try to reframe your thinking. See disagreements as opportunities to teach, learn, and grow… for both you and your child.
Conflict can be healthy.
There will certainly be some disagreements where no compromise can, or should, be made, such as issues involving your child’s physical and emotional safety and well-being, or anything that violates your family’s values and beliefs. But the everyday disagreements about bedtimes, schoolwork, friends, chores, screen time, family meals, extracurriculars, and whatnot can be opportunities for cooperation and compromise rather than control.
When our kids disagree with us, they are speaking up for themselves, thinking for themselves, and showing greater independence. Those are great attributes and skills, which need to be nurtured and encouraged. The key is, however, making sure they understand how to disagree and handle conflict in ways that are healthy, appropriate, and, ultimately, constructive.
So how can a parent or caregiver do that?
Consequences can be motivating.
Kids, being kids, will provide all sorts of moments where you can practice and reinforce the skills of compromising, listening, and disagreeing appropriately. Take my boys, for example. They love their gaming devices. When they’re told to stop playing, even if it’s only for a brief pause, they can get annoyed and talk back or they might flip on their “Ignore Dad Switch.” That’s when I tell myself to take a deep breath, relax, and teach.
When I have my emotions in-check, I try to say something like, “I can see you’re having a lot of fun, but I need you to get this done. I’ll let you play for five [or 15] more minutes, but then it’s time to unplug.” Usually, that’s the winning ticket. However, on occasion, they will try to push for an extra 30 minutes or some other reward. Depending on what has to get done and how long they’ve already been playing, I may engage in a bit of negotiation. When I do that, and we can come to an agreement, then I set a timer. This helps set my boys up for success because when they hear the buzzer go off, they know the extra time they agreed to is up and their game must end.
If they choose to ignore the timer, they are not living up to our agreement and there are consequences. Two that have proven quite effective involve putting more restrictions on when they can play and how long they can play their gaming devices.
When my wife and I first used those consequences, the boys got so upset we had to send them to their rooms to calm down. But they learned a valuable lesson. Now, they understand that when they disagree with a request or an instruction, they will make the situation much worse (losing access to things they enjoy) if they get mad, ignore us, or don’t follow through. But if they can listen, communicate calmly and honestly, and be respectful, they won’t lose access to their gaming devices. (They might even earn more playing time!)
Consistency is key.
Helping kids learn how to disagree appropriately requires time, patience, and practice. It’s not a skill they can acquire in a day or even a week. But with consistent teaching and modeling, they will eventually learn to use the skill independently. When they do, they set themselves up to have more success and better relationships at home and in school. And that’s what every parent wants to see.
You can find more information and insight into helping your kids learn healthier ways to deal with conflict and disagreements, including the specific behavioral steps to disagreeing appropriately, by checking out my latest storybook, That’s Wrong! It includes an entire page of tips written just for parents. You can also visit Boys Town Parenting to download a useful parenting guide that has expert advice for anyone raising toddlers, teens, and every age in between!
Bryan Smith is a school counselor and an award-winning children’s author whose writings include four storybook series: Stepping Up Social Skills, Executive FUNction, Without Limits, and Social Strategies. You can follow Bryan on Facebook and Twitter.