Parenting is likely the most difficult job in the world. It’s easy to get into fights that turn into parent-child power struggles. Regardless of the magnitude of an issue, however, whether it’s a relatively minor one of brushing teeth or bigger ones over homework and curfews, there are several reasons parents want to pause and consider before getting into arguments – in fact, it’s best to avoid them altogether (like a plague).
Let me clarify. This does not mean to allow children to do what they want; parents are responsible to fulfill, and not abdicate, their role as leaders. There is a clear difference, however, between dealing with disagreements in your parent roles of teacher, mentor and guide, and habitual patterns of dismissing, talking over one another, and attack-counter attack interactions.
There are at least five reasons to (seriously) consider before arguing with your child (or spouse for that matter).
1. It teaches children to either argue back — or to avoid conflicts all together.
If you’re someone who thinks it’s a good thing to “avoid conflicts,” think again! Both extremes of “arguing” to get your point across by dismissing the others — or withdrawing at the first sign of conflict — are “problem patterns” that activate defensiveness, struggles over who’s in control, which are equally damaging to parent-child relationships. Even worse, apart from quick-fix bursts and illusions of power during the fight, both sides are left feeling powerless, ineffective, unloved, unseen, unheard, unappreciated, unimportant, etc. You are a powerful influence to your children. They are wired, however, not to do what you say, rather to do what you do (or the opposite of what you do, which is the opposite side of the same coin).
Like it or not, you are always “teaching” your child “how” to resolve differences and what to do or not do to get what they want. They’re always learning, the question is whether they learn healthy or unhealthy ways of getting what they want. Ideally, you want your child to learn to express their wants, needs, and point of view in ways that treat others with dignity, and simultaneously preserves their own. (Of course they also need to learn no one always gets what they want, and how to deal with their feelings, etc., but that’s a topic for another post!) Respect is an exchange that conveys mutual respect (for self and other). Name calling, tearing the child down to size, using force and harsh treatment to “teach them a lesson, etc., are all desperate ways of getting quick-fix feel goods that leave both the attacker and attacked feeling powerless and ineffective, and even worse feeling unloved and not valued as a person.
In contrast, listening to understand where another person is coming from, to want to know their vantage point, and so on is critical relationship-building skill that allows one person to hear what the other says without dismissing them or getting defensive. The goal in healthy communications is for each to feel heard, important to the other, valued — even though neither may agree.
2. It teaches children that arguments are a competition you must either win — or lose.
If you think you must “win” an argument with your child to have “power” or “status,” and the like, it’s a costly illusion. It’s not possible to win an argument with your child (or spouse, for that matter). That’s because, when one person feels they’ve been shortchanged in a relationship interaction, both will “pay” a cost. When an argument escalates, and hurtful things are said, both parent and child are reactive, there is no “real” communication, because no one is really listening. In the meantime, both are feeling “unhappy” with the quality of connection (mostly, subconscious!), with a sense that their wants and feelings are not important, therefore, losing ground and the ability to influence one another! The child may stop listening to more and more of your “rules” and even look for ways to express their anger and let you know they feel disrespected, by disrespecting you. This increases chances you will either get even tougher, harsher, more rigid — or feel worn down, overwhelmed, and throw up your hands to show you “give up.” Both of these extremes, literally, give away your power, a healthy power to stay emotioanlly engaged, find ways of resolving issues that still help a child feel heard, understand, that their wants matter, even though they may not get what they “want.”
As a general rule, it’s best to discuss issues when both parent and child are in relatively calm states of mind (and body), and thus open and ready to listen, to understand, and most importantly, to treat one another with dignity.
3. It puts their brain (and yours) in defensive mode when they attempt to handle “differences.”
Why is this a problem? Basically because whenever your defenses (or their’s) are activated, your brain and body switches to survival mode, which means that your “real” thinking brain is offline. As soon as you argue, get upset or defensive, forceful or punitive, and the like, subconsciously, your brain and body send signals to the child’s that you’re in defensive mode. Translated, this means the primary emotion molecules in charge of your body in that moment are: fear-based. Most likely, your conscious mind does not “think” of your response as a “fear” response, in fact, if one of your primary go-to emotions is anger, you likely hold a belief that you need to get angry, punitive or forceful with your child to get them to take you seriously. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The language of the body is emotion, also known as neurotransmitters or molecules of emotion. This language is universal, and the human body knows this language from birth, needing no translator to decipher whether the message or action of another person is primarily fear. There are after all only two options, overall love-based or fear-based emotions, and they correspond with the two divisions of the autonomic nervous system.
4. It tells your child you are not in control of your self, mind and body.
Whenever the sympathetic nervous system of your body takes charge, it means you’re brain and body are in survival mode, and this tells your child that you are afraid of the child, in particular, their hardwired sense of agency, or capacity to make choices. This weakens you, in the same way it would if you sent signals to a competitor that you’re afraid their winning. If fear is the primary force shaping your behaviors, unless the situation poses a real threat to survival, you want your brain and body to remain in learning mode, as happens when your parasympathetic division of your autonomic nervous system is in charge. It is so important to learn not to use elevated emotions of fear and anger in managing the behavior of your children. It is not easy, in truth, it’s likely one of the biggest challenges to parents because they have to pull away from (rewire!) old reactive patterns imprinted in memory cells of their body. The other reason to never argue with a child is that it literally trains their brain and body to use arguing and fighting as a way to solve problems. After all, if you’re using these methods with your child today, who did you learn them from?
Of course, a parent is a leader. A wise and effective leader, however, leads by inspiring, mentoring and treating others as leaders-in-the-making. The carrot and stick managerial model is incomparably less effective. A smart parent conserves energy by making sure his or her brain and body remain in a relaxed mode, that is, the parasympathetic nervous division is in charge.
5. It teaches your child how to form future adult relationships.
What you “teach” your child today is information that is recorded, stored, and will emerge in full force, in their future adult relationships, especially with their children — and spouse. It’s an unalterable reality that the human brain, yours and your child’s, are relationship organs. Because the health of our relationships is directly connected to our physical, mental and emotional health and well being, as well as personal happiness and fulfillment, the most important thing the human brain (or the subconscious mind in charge of learning, memory, habit formation etc.) is always in the process of learning, and needing to learn, has to do with “how” to form relationships (preferably healthy ones!), especially with our self and those closest to us.
What children learn about “how to resolve conflict from you teaches them “how” relationships are formed, what is most important to you in relation to the other (i.e., will it be who’s right, and how effectively you can prove the other wrong?). In short, children continually learn what practices they will repeat, and reenact, in the future with their partner in life, and their children. Your discussions may be on common sense behaviors or logistics, however, while you argue over the details, both of your brains are mostly concerned over matters of the heart, that is, how you’re being treated, how to get through to feel heard or understood, how safe you feel to express yourself honestly, or how secure your relationship (strength) is. The language of the body is emotion, and when intimacy fears are activated — they trump logic. Once the survival system is activated, there’s no contest. How you treat one another is a relationship concern, connected to core emotion-drives to matter, and underlying core fears of inadequacy, rejection, and so on. It’s not about whether they brush their teeth as much as it is wondering how you’re going to get them to “make you” feel heard, valued, respected as a parent.
It’s because you care and love your children so much, and want them to be happy and enjoy healthy relationships with their spouse, that it’s worthwhile to do the extra corrective work today to change any “arguing” patterns you learned and brought into your adult relationships.
Is arguing ever okay? Yes and no.
- If “arguing” means an exchange of automatic knee-jerk reactions; or shame-, guilt- or fear-inducing comments or actions, then the answer is no. (Since, in this case, no one is listening to anyone else, it is simply a waste of time.)
- If “arguing” means exercising your ability to engage, discuss and resolve differences, then yes. This, however, is not what we’re calling “arguing” here. (It’s rather a set of essential skills parents can use to effectively teach children responsibility, to foster cooperation and teamwork and to overall build healthy working relationships.)
If you’re currently in “arguing” patterns with one or more of your children, there are a few steps you can take to break the pattern, and form healthy ones instead.
This is the topic of Part 2.