4 Tips for Dealing with Family Conflict

Luke Whitmore

Families are often considered to be a safe place and quiet refuge. Although conflicts may happen from time to time, when they are a common occurrence – or there’s a particularly intense conflict – the family relationship of trust, safety, and support can break down.

What follows are 4 tips that can help you move through family conflict. For this blog, we’ll use the following case study to illustrate what can be done when conflicts occur.

Case Study:

Jane and her son Cole kept getting into yelling matches and saying hurtful words to each other. Jane explained to her son that, at 16 years old, he should be more responsible and complete his chores in full without being asked. Whenever Cole started a chore and left it half completed, Jane would start fuming and yell at him. Even before she finished, she could sense that Cole would be digging in his heels for his counterargument. Cole called her a bully recently when things were calm. This was when Jane realized she needed to look at what was happening between her and her son.

  1. Stay away from blame.

    Blame is what happens when we perceive someone else is wrong. It’s an easy trap to get stuck in because it eases upsetting emotions. The problem is, it leaves us powerless to solve our problems because it implies that the only way for the problem to be solved is for the other person to fix it.

    Although Jane’s blame was founded in the fact that Cole wasn’t finishing his chores, the way she went about placing the blame was not constructive and caused him to get defensive. Both Jane and Cole needed to make some changes in order to move forward.

  1. Identify negative patterns of behaviour.

    Be sure to note your own angry behaviours and the behaviours of the person you are in conflict with. Most families get into predictable conflicts where one person does something and the other retaliates. Identifying the pattern of conflict is a good starting point for moving ugly conflicts to a better place.

    Jane came to realize that the more she raised her voice and scowled at Cole, the more Cole defended his position and said cutting words. The more he did this, the more she blamed him, and the more she blamed him, the more he seethed angry words.

    Try finding your pattern by filling in the blanks for yourself: When I__________, then they ___________, then I _________, then they ___________.

Family patterns are like habits, and we can learn new ones over time.
  1. Take responsibility for your own behaviour.

    Taking responsibility for our actions gives us our power back, and part of this is laying out options for how to handle a conflict.

    Jane came to realize that she had many options for how to handle Cole’s incomplete chores. She could praise him when he started and calmly ask him to complete the tasks, sit down with him and ask him why he was having a hard time completing them, or she could complete the task on her own. Once she outlined some options, she no longer felt powerless.

  2. Try a new approach.

    When you throw a rock into a pond, there will be a ripple. We don’t always know how big the ripple will be or how long it will last, but something will change when we make an effort to do things differently. Once you’ve come up with some options for how to handle a conflict, decide which one you think will be the most successful and try it out.

    Jane decided to start praising Cole for starting chores. For the first few weeks, he was suspicious of her but, over time, the fights became less intense. Things even went well when she followed up by calmly asking him to complete the task rather than yelling.

It’s easy to come up with things you could do differently when in conflict with a loved one – the hard part is actually implementing the new approach. If your family is struggling to handle conflict constructively or it’s taking a toll on your relationships, it may be time to learn some skills to calm down before getting into it with a family member. Another option would be to try doing some role plays with a friend, or even looking into individual or family counselling. Don’t give up. Remember that family patterns are like habits, and we can learn new ones over time.


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Amber McKenzie, MSc., C.Psych
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute
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