Every relationship has conflict occasionally. Whether the trigger is intentional or accidental, feelings are hurt and the battle is on. Accusations are made, voices are raised, blame and counter-blame are thrown, and when things get really out of hand things can get physical.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. Physical altercations within a relationship are at a minimum abuse and often criminal behavior. Nobody deserves to be hit, pushed, or to have another’s hands laid on them in anger for any reason. If this is happening to you, leave the location and get help. Call 911, go to a fire station, family shelter, or hospital, talk to your priest/pastor. The point is tell someone, and get help.

If you are being battered, it is NOT YOUR FAULT, and you DO NOT deserve it!

Recognizing that conflict in inevitable, one of the most important life skills we can teach our kids is how to “fight fair”. This is a skill they can learn to employ as children that will serve them well later in life, and make them more effective professionally and personally. By coaching our children in this critical skill it reinforces these same principles in ourselves, and this makes life easier for everyone.

So how does this work?

It starts with admitting “I get angry”, and allowing myself to be angry. That sounds silly, but it is important to acknowledge your emotions, and to encourage your child to do the same because it helps to separate the emotion from the range of possible responses. When children are little they lack the ability to separate emotion from reaction. A pinched finger causes a burst of tears, sudden anger leads to hitting or throwing as a means to lash out at the object of the anger.

With toddlers, we tell them not to hit or throw things at people, but as they mature we never seem to get to the next step, teaching them effective communication.

A child of four is coming to a point where they can learn to say “I’m mad at you!” instead of lashing out physically, so start the communication when you see the child acting out by asking, “Are you mad about something?” If the child says yes, then ask questions:

  • “Who are you mad at?”
  • “What made you mad?”

Then sit back and listen to the answers.

Parent: “What are you mad about?”

Child: “You always yell at me when I spill juice on the floor.”

Listen for “absolute” words like “always” and “never”.

The first rule of fighting fair is to stop using absolute words. Nobody “always” does something. It is not possible, so focus on concrete things that can be proved and agreed upon by all involved parties.

In this specific instance person A did B that made me feel C.

“You spilled juice on the floor, and that made me feel angry.”

By changing our focus to the act and acknowledging your feelings that resulted from the act, we have given the conversation a focal point that can be discussed in a calm and intelligent manner. This is important because the act, whether accidental or intentional, is not as important as how it makes you feel.

Let’s take a moment to consider how the recipient of the statement would perceive, ”You spilled juice on the floor, and that made me feel angry.” The first word is a shot to the chin. By saying “you” it puts the listener on the spot and makes them feel attacked, so their natural response is to become defensive. What they heard is “You make me angry.” More or less accurate, but a person that feels attacked only wants to lash out at the attacker, so the game of dragging out past incidents to use as weapons to hit the other person begins, and the game gets louder and louder because nobody is feeling like they are being heard. A child can’t play at this level, so you get a tantrum instead.

None of this really helps solve the base problem of juice on the floor, so let’s change the statement again. “When juice is spilled on the floor, I feel angry.”

Now we have stated the issue correctly, and we have removed the accusation from the situation because I have avoided pointing the finger at the child. This defuses the sense of being yelled at, and avoids invoking an automatic defensive response.

Think about how it makes you feel if the boss comes by and in a harsh voice says, “You were supposed to have those reports to me by the end of business yesterday, and I still don’t have them. What’s wrong with you?!”

Feel a little defensive and upset?

Feel a bit put out?

Feel like the boss really cares about the cause of the delay?

Feel like he’s going to hear anything you have to say?

Young children are not very skilled at logical thinking. They are very close to their emotions, so an assault like the one above would most likely result in tears and possibly a tantrum, but the child will definitely feel like they are being yelled at even if your voice was never raised above a normal conversational tone.

How would you feel if the boss had said, “I was expecting those reports by end of business, yesterday. This is very urgent. Is there something I can do to help get them ready?”

I bet your reaction and resulting attitude would be completely different. Same goes for your child. This approach clearly states the issue, and more importantly, it shows you are open to communication. Let’s go back to the spilled juice.

“How did the juice get on the floor?”

“I spilled it.”

“It hurts my feelings when that happens. It needs to be cleaned up because someone could fall and get hurt. Please be more careful. Now help me clean it up.”

What is the likely result of this conversation?

We have clearly stated the problem of juice on the floor.

The child has taken ownership for creating the problem.

You have clearly expressed your feelings and expectations without making the child feel like they are being attacked.

You have engaged the child in resolving the issue. This is important because even if you give the child the towel and have them wipe up the mess, they do not feel rejected because they made a mistake.

Everyone gets what they want.

Will there be more spilled juice? Almost certainly, but its juice. How much energy are you really willing to put into a big fight over a 5 second clean up job? Is it really worth it? Does it make you feel better about yourself?

Go love on your kids by teaching them to fight fair. To acknowledge their feelings, to express them clearly, and to work with the other person to address the issue in a calm loving way.

Additional Reading

Fight Fair: Winning at Conflict without Losing at Love


Some folks will read this and question my qualifications as a therapist. I have no training as a psychotherapist or family counselor, and I don’t play one on TV.

By profession I am a Software Project Manager with a lot of experience handling people who communicate in many different styles. On one side I have the people who need the software to perform their work. On the other I have the technical staff who need to build the software. Two groups of people, worlds apart in their perceptions of the world.

When these worlds collide, things can start to sound like a riot at the Pre-K because even though both sides are talking, nobody feels like they are being heard. Feelings get hurt, and a meeting dissolves into a screaming match between otherwise normal professionals. Sound familiar?

My solution is a simple question, “Please help me understand…” I use this to get people focused on the issue by asking for their help. They need to help me, and they feel like they are being listened to, so they re-engage in the process. A simple question that strips away the energy that had been going to emotional displays. The name-calling stops, and work happens.

Peter Falk used to play a detective character named “Columbo” on TV. He used the same gimmick to trick the bad guys into confessing. Give it a try sometime.