How to Prevent Small Conflicts From Turning Into Battle Patterns

Last week I heard myself say in an over-tired and annoyed retort to my kids, “I have asked you every morning this week where your masks are!” What followed was a well rehearsed morning scramble punctuated by exasperated exchanges on all sides. This was far from the morning ritual we aspire to as we all head off to greet the world. 

In the grand scheme of transitioning back to school during a global pandemic, scrambling to find masks is admittedly the very least of our concerns. How could finding masks generate conflict every morning when the world needs us to move forward with anti-racism work, transform public safety, get the pandemic under control across the globe, and on and on? 

Parenting through a pandemic has been a constant psychological collision between large-scale urgent concerns and wildly mundane details and interactions that many of us still have limited bandwidths to handle. 

Pile of cloth masks worn for COVID pandemic on a yellow background

Sweating the little stuff? Your brain is tired.

The reality is that no matter how mundane, it is easy to escalate small interactions when we are worn down. We often remind parents that kids “unpack their emotional backpacks” where they feel most safe and secure. In other words, they might manage their feelings and behavior well all day long at school and then end the night with a slew of exhausted demands and tantrums at home.

We adults can repeat the same dynamics if we aren’t careful – taking out our frustration and stress on our parenting partners or our kids and losing it over things like misplaced clean masks. 

Understanding that stress and “high demand” emotional experiences tax our resources is useful because it explains our lack of patience for things that otherwise “should be” manageable. The reality is that while smaller irritants are often not a huge deal they can serve as triggers for bigger emotional unloadings. 

When we are worn down we are also more likely to lose perspective and default to the extremes when it comes to challenging interactions. We end up nagging, avoiding, or pleading. Worse yet, we might fall into avoiding, yelling, blaming or shaming. It’s understandable that we end up acting in ways that are not reflective of our “best selves” through this slog. What we want to avoid, however, is creating patterns that undermine connection

We have all kinds of tools in our toolkit that might help us disrupt these patterns including managing our own stress, playing, family rituals, using the strategy of limits and consequences, and avoiding power struggles. But if we find ourselves escalating consequences or engaging in predictable and frequent power struggles, it can be helpful to step back, call on the power of your cortex, and problem solve with your child. We can name the patterns we don’t like and work together to start a new one. 

Here are four steps that might help:

Invite a conversation:

When things are calm and you aren’t in active conflict, start a conversation.

“I’ve noticed that _______________ can you tell me more about it / how does that feel for you?”

Listen to your child’s perspective:

Share your perspective. Invite your child to share their perspective.

“I see it this way __________________.” “How do you see it?”

Problem solve and make agreements:

Work together to come up with a solution.

“How can we try to do this differently? What can we each agree to?”

Check in:

Make a plan to check in to talk about how each of you think it is going.

“Let’s try this plan for three days and check in on Friday.”

Let’s figure it out together.

No surprise, it turned out that neither my kids nor I liked the get-out-the-door-mask-scramble.  After actually chatting about it during a calm moment, we made some embarrassingly simple agreements that included making “finding masks” a part of our before-bed routine the night before. So simple! So difficult to get in front of when we are worn down and our cortex is out to lunch.

Of course some of these problem solving conversations of course will be more difficult, emotional or complicated. Sometimes our attempts to communicate are met with stony silence or our agreements fall apart quickly. But regardless of the outcome, we all learn an important lesson through our efforts: when things are hard, we work to figure them out together.