In my previous post I shared two examples of how a conflict can be transformed by being held together with another as a shared dilemma: what can we do here to respond to both of our needs? Today I want to illustrate with a third example between father and teenage daughter.
Sharing Responsibility with a Teenager
Bob, the divorced father of a 15 year old, was struggling with a challenge that involved both his daughter and his ex. When his daughter was with him, she went to sleep late, woke up late, and was often late for school. This threatened her mother's continued willingness to have her stay with Bob. He brought up this issue during a telecourse with me, and was beside himself about how to proceed. The night before, for example, he asked his daughter to stop playing games on her iphone and go to bed, to which she said "get out of my face" and to which he said "this is not OK." Tension arose as he proceeded to take away her iphone and insist she go to bed. This was not the relationship he wanted to have with his daughter. What could he do instead? What is the dilemma he could invite his daughter to hold together with him?
As things stood, Bob was in full blown mini-war with her. He tries to force her, which at the age of 15 is extremely difficult to do, and she resists and fights back. This is a losing strategy. The more he threatens, the more he attempts to enforce rules, the less connection and trust they have. His daughter, like every teenager, and like every human being, wants to have autonomy, to make her own choices about her life, to move about in ways that are meaningful to her and flow from within her, not based on someone else's rules.
What would happen if, instead of the usual fight, which in any event fails, he invited his daughter to participate in creating the solution? Both of them want this to work, want her to be able to stay in his house more often. He could be more fully transparent with her by telling her how much he wants that, and how much he struggles to find ways to make it possible. He could tell her that the issue, as she well knows, is that when she so often arrives late to school when she stays with him, her mother understandably is not supportive of this option. Then he could ask her, in the most humble and literal way, what she thought they could do to make it work. Or he could ask her what was going on for her that made it harder for her to go to sleep in time for school to happen with ease when she was at his place. Or he could ask her what is something he could do to help shift the difficult dynamic between them in a way that supported their shared desire. The options are many. The key is to invite her in. By being asked for her input, she would then receive a hugely important message: that she, her needs, her opinions, and her well-being matter. That's a key building block for a solid relationship with a kid. Inviting her like this dramatically reduces the chances of persistent conflict.
Although Bob liked my suggestions, he was still concerned about what he could do with his anger in those moments when she used words such as "get out of my face." Clearly, the daughter would only use these words when she is in extreme distress with regards to her need for autonomy. One way that Bob could respond would be to open his heart to her experience, see life from within her. Time and again when I ask parents how they would feel if someone treated them like they sometimes treat their children they suddenly remember that their children are fully human like them, and open up to dramatically different possibilities for how to be with their children.
Bob is also human, and sometimes he just won't be able to find empathy in the moment for his daughter's reaction. After millennia of the training most of us received, he is more likely to hear his daughter's words as an affront to his authority as father than as an expression of her suffering. Once he hears her words in that way, anger is entirely predictable. Bob would still want to know how to communicate his experience effectively, because what he currently does escalates the situation without addressing the underlying issue. Instead, I suggested to Bob that he could take full ownership of his anger. Instead of saying "that's not OK" he could say what is more honest and connected. He could tell his daughter that he is deeply concerned about her way of speaking to him, that he wants very much for her to treat him with respect even when she is unhappy with him, and that he loses his ability to hear her and stay open to her needs when she speaks like this. In so doing, if he can, he stops the escalating spiral and he models the quality of respect he wants from her. Where else would our children learn empathy and respect if not from how we treat them?