July 9, 2020

Effective communications strategies can derail conflict during high stress times.

Spring 2020 will be remembered for many things. One of the biggest memories will be the tremendous stress people felt hunkering down for weeks with family members without the support, outlets, and buffers that the outside world normally provides. If social media posts are any indication, many people experienced conflict with their child's other parent. Sometimes the disagreements were COVID-19-centered, such as when parents had different interpretations of social distancing. This issue was particularly charged in two-household families.

Even families where parents are married or partnered, intense disagreements over discipline, routine, schoolwork, and working from home quickly surfaced. While co-parenting during a pandemic may be a unique experience, disagreement between parents is inevitable. We all need to develop some skills for navigating these conflicts.

Navigating conflict in the same household

For couples living together, it is easy to slide into tense daily exchanges around what has or has not been done in terms of childcare or housework. A fair division of labor is not necessarily a 50/50 split, but rather an arrangement that feels equitable to both parents. Being appreciative of each other's contributions – looking for ways to take the initiative in both childcare and housework, letting go over some control of how these tasks are done – are all ways couples forge a healthy working relationship. Setting aside time each day, even if just for a few minutes, to talk and really listen about a partner's concerns, can strengthen your relationship and help you work through disagreements.

Remember to express gratitude

When a person first validates a partner's needs and frustrations, the path to mutually supporting each other becomes clearer. Acknowledging each other's contributions, even while advocating for one's own needs, is particularly important. A 2015 University of Georgia study found that spousal expression of gratitude was the most consistent, significant predictor of martial quality.

Handling conflict when co-parenting

For co-parents who do not live together but share custody, the relationship may be more businesslike; privacy and boundaries between parents are important keep exchanges civil and children out of the conflict. Here, appreciation or gratitude may not be forthcoming. When communication is necessary, being polite and remaining focused on the issue at hand is key, rather than delving into multiple or old grievances. Keeping conversations brief and stepping back from an exchange may be necessary to keep dialogs from becoming heated. This is particularly important if a child is within earshot.

Effective communication strategies for all parents

For both kids of families, using "I" messages is an effective form of communication that helps foster a respectful dialogue. A person on the receiving end of a "you" message, such as "You are always late!" – an accusation of unhelpful behavior – will likely respond very defensively and derail the discussion. Instead, "I" messages often work because they allow a parent to talk clearly about what he or she needs without assigning blame.

For instance, "When the children got home late last night, they had trouble getting up in time for their school Zoom meeting this morning. I'm worried about the impact on their grades, so I'd really like them home by 7 pm."

While there is nothing in this statement to compel a parent to comply with the speaker's wishes, the conversation is likely to go more smoothly than if it started with "You never get home by bedtime! I'm sick of dealing with cranky kids in the morning."

Parents will disagree, and all of us probably had some moments in the past few months we aren't proud of. But if we want to protect our child's sense of safety and security in the world, thinking about how we effectively communicate with and treat their other parent is a good place to start.

Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW, has been a parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children's Hospital since 2001, and is a contributor to the award-winning "Parenting Corner" column. She can be reached at 504.896.9591; chnola.org/parentingcenter.

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