The Dance of Conflict
Sometimes, parents will object to the notion that they have a role in supporting unwanted conflict with their teenager. Thus, a single-parent father will describe a ritual conflict that unfolds five days a week with his adolescent daughter, who he truly believes is responsible for the end-of-day fighting between them. “As soon as she walks in from school, she starts it,” he declares. “She won't do as I ask. She won't begin her chores. It's all her fault.” But diagramming the interaction tells a somewhat different story.
As soon as she walks in the door, her father asks her to begin her chores. In response, his daughter complains: “I'm tired. I'll do them later!” Now the father stops asking and demands: “I told you to start your chores now!” In response, his daughter argues: “You never give me a chance to unwind after school. I need some time to relax.”
Now her father, to show he means business, adds on an additional assignment: “For refusing to do your regular chores, you can have some more to do as well!” In response, his daughter refuses: “That's not fair! There's no way I'll do extra!” Now her father threatens: “If you don't do as you're told, there'll be no going out this weekend!”
Now his daughter explodes: “You always punish me when you don't get what you want!” Now her father explodes: “You never do what you're asked!” The fight, which has by now become a ritual of daily life during the week, commences, father and daughter trading angry accusations back and forth to no good effect.
Parents who blame their teenager for fighting with them all the time are not taking their share of responsibility for the conflict. If they want to reduce the fighting, then they need to cooperate in conflict less.
This conflict is so well practiced that it takes less than a minute to fully develop. Then, when both parties run out of angry energy and separate to get relief, the daughter does what she was initially asked. Asked why she went through all that conflict only to end up complying with her father's initial request, she replies, “Because I don't like being pushed around when I get home. He doesn't have to always greet me with a chore right away. He does have different choices, you know!”
And she's correct. They both could make different choices. He could choose not to immediately ask, demand, add on, and threaten. She can choose not to immediately complain, argue, and refuse. But this sequence has become so automatic on both sides, that each feels trapped by the other, totally blames the other, feels helpless and a victim, and so has no way out.
The way to stop the conflict is not for them to change each other, but to take individual responsibility for the cooperative choices each of them is making. By changing those choices, they can keep the conflict from happening. So, the father might make some changes in his choices. “When you come home, the first thing I want is to hear how your day was. The second is to give you time to unwind. And the third is to get some help around the house.”
The daughter could also make some changes in her choices. “When I come home, the first thing I want you to know is that I don't want you to do all the family work yourself. The second is I want a couple of minutes to catch my breath. And the third is I want to start giving you the help I know you need.” So now they start to work with each other and not against each other.