Tips for parents on managing conflict

Any parent knows conflict with your child is part of the territory. Certain ages and stages are known for higher parent-child conflict; however, they aren't the only time tensions can arise. Conflict is a natural part of life. It's not whether we have it, but how we deal with it that matters.

Identifying the root of conflict with your child helps with understanding how to manage it. Is it related to something situational, such as a loss in the family or other trauma? Transitions such as the birth of a new baby or divorce or difficulties with school and friends can also increase conflict.

If so, listen and provide support. When conflict isn't situational, but rather a repeated pattern, there's often more to the picture than appears. Consider these factors which may play a part.

• Expectations. It's easy to expect children are capable of things they may not be developmentally ready for yet or, likewise, not shifting parenting to match the next stage your child has moved to. Every child is unique and may achieve developmental milestones at a different rate than peers.

• Role confusion. Consider yourself a teacher for toddler and elementary age children, shifting to coach around tween years through adolescence, then serving as consultant to young adults. Remember, we can become our child's friend later in life, but for now we're parents.

• Parenting style. I believe parents do the best they can or know how to. Kids don't come with instructions. Children benefit from a loving, flexible, but consistent parenting style and tend to struggle with inflexible/micromanaging or conflict avoidant/disconnected parenting styles.

• Childhood leftovers. Consciously or unconsciously, we may find ourselves repeating or avoiding patterns of our parents. What feels familiar and comfortable isn't always healthy. Know if you have a trauma history that certain aspects of parenting can be triggering.

• Disposition. Might you be working against the core of who your children are? If conflict occurs because of who you wish them to be rather than who they are. Especially with older teens, check that your goals are their goals.

It's easy to fall into the same reactive patterns. When conflict occurs, the following tips can lend to a more productive outcome.

1. Calm yourself. Be aware of where anger starts in your body (i.e. heart begins racing). That's your key to press pause until later or to take deep breaths if you must proceed. Avoid conflict if possible when either of you are hungry or tired.

2. Listen and learn. We're often the container of strong feelings our child experiences, whether those feelings are about us or not. As the adult, it's important to manage how the conflict goes. If we listen vs. react, we can learn a lot, which helps us be our child's supporter.

3. Pick your battles. Understand why it's important to you. It's OK to disagree or have different opinions and sometimes developmentally appropriate for your child to do so. There are very few things that need to be resolved immediately.

4. Proceed compassionately. Ask your upset child of any age if a hug or some space would help and return to things later.

When you do, balance the focus on behavior vs. character since kids are still evolving. If your child has repeatedly been disrespectful to you, calmly address it.

Parenting definitely isn't easy and neither is growing up. We're raising future parents, and teaching kids how to manage conflict through modeling and conversations is an invaluable life skill.

- Alisa Messana of Hinsdale is a licensed clinical social worker and a mental health consultant.