How to Deal with Conflict While Stuck at Home
Conflict is unavoidable. Having a strategy can help. Divorce rates have increased in some countries under lockdown from Covid-19. When can a relationship not be repaired? How do we teach our kids to deal with conflict? Lisa covers the research on how to get out of an impasse, especially when parenting teens. Reena shares high school teacher Mrs. Jackson’s words on conflict resolution. How do we come to terms with negative emotions and hit the restart button? How do we get along when we're all stuck at home?
August 28, 2020 | 26 min
Transcript | How to Deal with Conflict While Stuck at Home
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA NINAN: So Lisa, I noticed back in March in Wuhan as they opened up, divorce rates skyrocketed.
LISA DAMOUR: I saw that too.
REENA: Did you see that? Like people coming out of COVID suddenly realized they didn’t like their spouse as much as they did at the beginning of this.
LISA: They like them better when they go places.
REENA: It is hard though, right, we’re not meant to spend this much time alone together with our children or partners.
LISA: No, I mean this really is one of those things. Like we all want more family time, but this is a lot of family time. There is no question about it. No question about it.
REENA: So how do you deal with this because I mean, I think there are a lot of people who are even co-parenting who might even be living in the same house but are forced interact more closely than ever before. And then you’ve got relationships of people who’ve been together a long time, not doing so well in the start of COVID and to have just deteriorated.
What’s your advice for dealing with people who are trying to cope with their children, whether they’re young adults or elementary age kids and partners, spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends. People realize a lot about the other person in the midst of quarantine.
LISA: All right, so let’s think of this in two categories. One is where the conditions of living in a pandemic become fault finders right where where you know if there is a crack, the pressure on that crack really causes it to you know open wide open. So maybe a relationship that was not in such good shape before, either between adults or between parents and children, the strain of living through this pandemic is definitely making whatever wasn’t working well before, now work really not well. So there’s that, and then let’s come back to this question of like relationships that were perfectly fine, but we’re just annoyed with everybody, all the time, or they’re around all the time and making themselves annoying, or we get annoyed. So my experience of COVID-19 is it it just accelerates things, it just exacerbates things, and maybe it accelerates some positive changes, I’m sure it will, but I’m not surprised that we’re seeing divorce rates go up in some countries, you know we’ve got China, leading the pack in terms of just being out ahead of everybody in the timeline on this, because stress is cumulative and if you were under stress before COVID-19 or your relationship is under stress before COVID-19, then the strain of COVID-19 just lands on top of that and worsens at and it may bring people to places they didn’t think they get to in a relationship. I’m not convinced this is the worst thing ever. I’m not convinced that being forced to make a change that may be had been able to avoid or get around is a terrible thing. I know it’s painful. I am sure it’s awful in many cases but it also may be one of those things where people make changes and address problems that they had been effectively kind of brushing under the rug in the past.
REENA: How do you know when your relationship is just unable to be repaired? Whether it’s with a child or it’s with a partner?
LISA: I think you can repair any relationship with the child, so let’s let’s assume there’s always good work to be done in that department. Now between adults, there may come a breaking point and one of the things I learned along the way in my training is you know you’re at a stopping place when you can no longer negotiate the terms of the relationship.
REENA: What do you mean?
LISA: So what I mean is if I were to say to my partner, my theoretical partner, listen I feel like we’re not spending the kind of tied together I want. I feel like you’re not treat me the way I want to be treated or I feel like you’re not hearing me when I say this. And it becomes clear that we’ve arrived at an impasse where that person has no interest in trying to meet me halfway or negotiate or take seriously my concerns. That’s usually where things can come to grief, and they come to grief in one of two ways, which is that me again in this theoretical role, I might say well okay so I accept that I’m not gonna get everything I want out of this relationship and I’ve tried and I will take what I can get and I will give up on what I’m asking for. Or it may come to grief of me saying you know what I’ve put on the table here is non-negotiable you’re not willing to come to the negotiating table I’m ready to move on.
REENA: And then what about relationships where it’s just COVID?
LISA: Okay so then there is just like garden variety too much family time problem. So one thing that I think a lot of people are starting to discover is that we don’t have to be together all the time. You know I think in the early days we were like okay this is terrifying and we’re home together and like let’s have theme nights and let’s family game nights unless a movie nights, and and that was adorable and cute and I think on the cuteness has worn off and the need to be cut to get through it constantly has worn off. What I am loving hearing about are ways in which people have found time apart in a way that doesn’t feel like a rejection. So one parent told me about what they call yo-yo dinners, which is you’re on your own for dinner.
REENA: How often can a mom do that? Can a parent do that?
LISA: It’s more like how often must we eat together I think is the question here, and so one parent or another could call like, tonight’s a yo-yo dinner, night which is basically feed yourself you know and and I think that’s brilliant and I’ve called that several times since learning it. I have a daughter who’s 16 who is an incredible diplomat and I would say a couple months ago out of nowhere she said, you know I think this weekend we should take a sabbatical from another.
REENA: I love it.
LISA: So cute and and we you know I negotiated some terms with her because I was like, well can I hang out with Daddy? And she’s like yeah you can do whatever you want but I will be on sabbatical over in my room and I’ll see you guys on Sunday. And I loved, I love that kind of positioning of it’s not that I don’t love you guys it’s that we do not need to be together all the time. So I think that that’s a place to start in terms of reducing friction is recognizing we are not nearly accustomed to being together so much.
REENA: When you look at the relationship of of being under quarantine, you and I talk about this all the time, it’s wonderful to be able to work from home in a way that I would be on the 7:55 a.m. train to New York every day, and at the same time you know finding the separation from your children who you love and are not meant to be around 24 hours a day. What advice do you have for parents who are are also struggling with their own identity of working, of trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, but not letting their kids feel that they don’t want to be around then?
LISA: Yeah I was talking to one of my clinical colleagues the other day and she said a brilliant thing. She said, you know we’re moving from coping to adaptation, and I think she’s really right like that that just has been you know kind of knocking around in my head for a few days since she said it, and I think it’s really useful to frame things in that way because we are now really having to adapt to the idea of being in our homes a lot for work and school, both extraordinarily strange conditions, and so it means we probably have to articulate things that we have yet to articulate. And and so what I mean is, I’m getting ready to get us into a school schedule where I am home all the time, and I think my daughters will be home all the time, that’s what their school district es saying, and to a to start to articulate, okay from 8:15 to 11:30, go to school, I’ll se you for lunch at 11:30 then go back to school, I’m using school in a loose term here, remote, hybrid who knows what it’ll look like, and then I’ll see you again at 4. But to actually lay out the expected times of when we’re going to be able to chat in the middle of the day and when we’re each supposed to be doing our activities despite the fact that we will occasionally run into each other when we stopped to use the restroom, or run down to the kitchen to a snac.
REENA: So should there be rules of engagement with the family and I’m thinking particularly now with school starting and trying to figure out a sense of normalcy to be productive at work, or if you’re looking for work to be able to have that time to look for a job. How do you show your children that you care, that you’re engaged, they’re likely doing school from home. Do you set up guidelines ahead of time, with your partner or spouse or you know if your co-parenting with somebody else? What would be your road map this fall for dealing with conflict, whether it’s with a partner or or with the child?
LISA: So in terms of engagement, I think the more we can be clear about what the expectations are. Who’s where doing what if we’re all going to be in the house together doing our thing? You know I think that’s a good place to start. Even within that there’s going to be friction. People are going to do things that are bothersome hat are going to interrupt, you know, us, we’re gonna get interrupted we’re gonna interrupt our kids, and this is tedious, right, the pandemic at best can be described as tedious. We’re all worn thin. I find my own patience can be very very short, and in very short supply, so then the question becomes, when we crash into each other, not if, when crash into each other, how are we going to handle it, and I actually I love talking about conflict because I think it’s one of those incredibly human things that we don’t take seriously enough in terms of how to do it badly and how to do it well. And this is something I wrote about a lot in Under Pressure, my most recent book, because especially as we think about girls at school and girls in their peer groups, you know they can get into some pretty nasty stuff, and we can fault them for that, but I feel like well we didn’t teach them how to do conflict well, so why are we shocked when they do conflict so badly.
LISA: So what I articulate there and that I find very helpful is to think about three metaphors that, for me, describe on healthy conflict, like the kinds of conflict we can easily slip into that are not very good for us, or not very good for other people too. So the first is to be a bulldozer, meaning just like run people over, so maybe I’m working and I get interrupted and I just get angry, you know just get icky about it. The second is to be a doormat, which is where you let yourself be run over, so maybe I’m working I’ve made it clear I can’t be interrupted right now and then I get interrupted and I’m just kind of like, oh poor me, and I just feel frustrated on my own but don’t do anything to resolve it. The third, and this is the most common, I think generally and also where I began which is to be a doormat with spikes, basically passive aggressive behavior. I’m not proud but I have a very powerful passive aggressive streak. You can actually articulate subdivisions of of doormat with spikes so there’s using guilt as a weapon, there’s playing the part of the victim, and there’s involving third parties in a dispute that’s really between two people. So it might be that I get interrupted and I’m like, what are you doing? How can you do something like that? Do you start at one of these do you have a if you’re caught on a bad day? Where would you go?
REENA: You know it’s interesting, I think I identify with all of them. Is that a bad thing? Every single one. It depends on the day, but you know it’s interesting how you talk about these different methods of metaphors of dealing with conflict because you were talking about you know how do you do conflict well. What’s the key to doing conflict well? Like we all know there’s going to be conflict in our lives, right, so how do you master that before you even get into it this?
LISA: The key here is to try to not do those three things. And part of I think how you do them is you name them, and you acknowledge them and you figure out where your first impulse is. So you try to catch it before you act on it, and the metaphor the I like for healthy conflict is to be a pillar. Where you stand up for yourself or being respectful of the other person. It’s hard to do it and and yet I think, you know, when we’re doing a good job of conflict, we can get there. So maybe a kid interrupts and we say, hey look you and I both know that we set out a schedule to prevent this. I’m gonna ask you to respect that schedule and I’m gonna respect it with regard to you. So something like that where we both are direct inclined but also clear about what needs to happen to keep this particular conflict from occurring repeatedly.
REENA: When you go in to a conflict like this. You talk about be a pillar standing up tall for for yourself, I think a lot of times the other person than feels like they haven’t been heard, right?
LISA: Yeah I know it can be you get to some conflicts where you do feel stuck, right that even if in articulating your own position you feel like, look this is fair I’m being clear you know what I’m saying makes sense, and the conflict I’ve watched unfold this summer that has been so painful to hear about in my practice and in my community is this one between parents and teenagers around teenagers wanting to see their friends because of course they see their friends. They’re teenagers this is what they do. This is their oxygen and parents being rightly reluctant to let that happen. And I have to say in my 25 years of caring for kids and families this is the worst situation I have ever seen families put in, of a teenager’s absolutely understandable right and wish, well I guess wish to go out with their friends in the most benign ways, right, and the parents understandable concern that that in and of itself is dangerous, even the most you know kind of mild activity now feels dangerous. And it’s been excruciating to watch families try to work through this conflict because it is unlike any other I have seen in terms of both parties being 100 percent right and in disagreement with on another. So on that one I’ve fallen back on some research that I looked at a long time ago that I thought was so smart about how to get out of an impasse in the conflict, and it’s where we ask each party to articulate the other party’s position. So if a teenager is saying, come on like just let me go over to Billy’s house like come on, and the parent is saying no you cannot go you cannot go, right and you can just see how this could get so ugly. As corny as it is, a really helpful next step, is for the parent to say the teenager, Articulate, say in your own words why I am scared for you to go to Billy’s. And for the teenager to have to think through and say what the parent’s position is on this and ideally the teenager would be able to say, okay well you’re scared I’m going over abilities because you have no idea who will be over there really. I am telling you I intend to social distance but you’re worried that I’m not really gonna social distance, I’m going to get there and it’s just gonna be lots of kids who I’m psyched to see and we’re gonna all flop over each other like teenagers do and the teenager could lay it all out and what what works best the parents as yep yep all that end there’s also this others about your grandma so say that too and the teenager was a okay and you’re worried about the fact that Grandma you know we see her and you’re worried about her safety. So really making the adolescent say the parent’s position and then trading. Having the parent fully articulate the teenager’s position and really having a parent make themselves say, as a gesture as an important gesture, say Okay I’m a teenager, here’s my concern. Everyone’s over at Billy’s. All of the activity is there. Friendships are being made. Romances are blooming. There’s all sorts of cool stuff going on there. I’m totally missing out. I’m going to be completely out of the mix socially and cut out socially and unaware of what’s going on socially. That feels awful and then say to the teenager, did I miss something? You know and see what they say. Now this doesn’t obviously solve it but it loosens it. It gives it some oxygen for the teenager and parent to try to figure out some kind of solution to more than anything move out of the posture of being at odds with each other and move into a posture of, okay we have the shared a problem of COVID-19 and we have to figure out some reasonable path that lets both of our concerns be addressed.
REENA: Do you find that teenagers are willing to do this? Because essentially what I hear is it’s teaching the other side. Both parents and the teens a sense of empathy, of feeling what the other person is going through at this moment.
LISA: That’s exactly right and it’s corny as all get out. So if you see if you ask a teenager to do it you have to say that. Say, look I know this is dumb but I want you to do this for me and I’ll go first. Teenagers, I think, will often do it, especially if the teenager hears the parent go first and go in full earnestness, you know really try to name the teenager’s experience, and there is something so mind shifting about having to say the words yourself about what the other person is thinking and feeling. And to try to get accuracy there. And and it does it cultivates tremendous empathy to have those words come out of your mouth. And and that’s true both for the parent and teenager.
REENA: You know this reminds me of high school, I took this, I think everybody in the country should be required to take it, it was a law enforcement class taught by Mrs. Jackson at King High School, and she did a mediation class and what she taught us was when you’re trying to articulate another side, your side to someone, you say, when you do X it makes me feel X. And in the future I would really like it if you X. And I think being in high school it taught a lot of students how to articulate where you’re coming from in a way that isn’t explosive or reactive and sometimes it’s hard when you’re impassioned and you’re feeling these emotions and trying to get it across to someone who really is not in a space to hear where you’re coming from.
LISA: Yeah. What Mrs. Jackson gave you was basically a pillar formula. But you’re right, I mean part of the problem is these interactions are hot, and it’s very hard in that heat to be sometimes the parents we want to be and you know certainly kids and teenagers are not at their best when they’re angry or upset or don’t feel heard. But what I think we could get with this is to really be accepting that there will absolutely be conflict, that if if humans are together at all, especially together like we’re together now, there’s going to be conflict and and then you can do it better or worse, right, you can do it you know as a bulldozer or doormat or doormat with spikes, you can do it all hotter you can do without considering the other person’s perspective or you can tell your way you can try to take the other person’s perspective you can try to to cool off a little bit before engaging fully. But the conflict’s a done deal and and even accepting that advances where we are so much further than most people start because a lot of people feel like, oh no we’ve got a conflict. We shouldn’t have a conflict. All right. conflicts, they are happening, yo-yo dinners give you a break sometimes. but I’m always cautious of anything that sounds sort of silver lining-ish about the pandemic. But we’re gonna have a lot of practice at conflict and living with each other in close quarters. We could get better at this. There’s no question we can get better at this. I think some of the things you’ve told me over the summer was this, right now. Expect conflict, I think that’s pretty big, but also saying that being sad or depressed, that you should acknowledge it. That we’re in this pandemic and that’s not a crazy emotion or an emotion that you should just, you know, let go lightly. Like acknowledging that you feel that way is also something.
LISA: Yeah. I know, if we had a big cosmic reset button on how people feel about negative emotions, I’d actually be okay with that. We have spent, I mean since 1980, since prozac came on the scene, we have decided as a culture that we don’t like negative emotions. That was never helpful. They are part of life. Conflicts are part of life. It all needs to be managed. It could be managed better, it can be managed worse, but maybe we could stand down a little bit from trying to not have conflicts and trying to feel good all the time. It’s both, in some ways a tough pill to swallow, it’s also a huge relief, if you can say to yourself, you know, what I’m going to get annoyed with people. We’re not always going to get along, we’ll try to handle it well. I’m gonna feel crummy sometimes, mostly I’ll be able to handle it well. I don’t need to be scared of feeling upset.
REENA: I think we’re so eager to chase happiness and feeling good all the time that we don’t know sometimes that it’s okay to feel down, and let that run.
LISA: If you’re not feeling down in a pandemic. I guess another way to sort of put a happier note on it is, you can still have fun in a pandemic. And I think as we move from coping to adaptation we’re discovering that too.
REENA: So , Lisa, what would you say your top parenting to go tip would be for today?
LISA: Parenting to go, thinking about conflict to stick with our theme, one thing I know is true with kids and teenagers is sometimes when they’re upset they say stuff that the second it is out of their mouth they wish they hadn’t said it. This happens with grown ups, too. They’re impulsive. Stuff gets out in front of them, their mouths get out in front of them, and it’s super inappropriate and the parent knows it and the kid knows it instantly. A gracious and also tactical maneuver as a parent in that moment is to say, I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that. And it both draws the line, it is very reassuring and totally expected by the kid, and lets the kid restart and do over and spares the parent having to go after the kid for what they did or said. It just lets them hit a reset button.