How to stop adding fuel to the fire? Three NVR steps – Part One

Three NVR steps to bringing harmony into your home – how to stop adding fuel to the fire? Part One

I am both excited and terrified when I start work with a new family. On one hand I know how empowered parents will soon feel but I am also dreading those initial discussions: “why should I do something AGAIN. Why can’t you work with her/him. Can’t you just talk to him so s/he: understands, behaves, changes his habits, matures?”

I do fully appreciate the sentiment. I truly do. I am a human being.

Each family is unique however we all share similarities. One of the main is this – no matter what is the nature of the problem, all people involved in it cannot fathom that they could respond differently to the situation.

“How many times I told him to take his staff from the hallway and put it into his wardrobe. There will be no pocket money unless he respects my rules. I pay bills here so I state the rules!”

“What happens after you have said all of this” – I may ask.

“Well, then he tells me that I am nagging because …and then … so I then say…and I start shouting that if he doesn’t do what he is told I will cut off the power so he cannot use the b….y computer.  Eventually I put his staff away feeling completely humiliated, hurt, angry and hopeless. I don’t want to talk to my son much, really. Why can’t he just put those things away…?”.

This is just one of the vignettes. It illustrates a quite typical combination of two escalations. First I simply call a “hit back” when the parent gets worked up by the child. At this point the parent starts raising her voice. Tension intensifies. When a child responds, it rarely is an amicable reaction. Usually the child shows defiance – why now, why me, you do it, why my sister can leave her staff around but I have to put it away immediately etc. and so on. The parent feels left with no choice but to respond harsher. The emotions get more heated, the voices go up, soon both sides are shouting and screaming. No-one is listening to any single word any more. There is no a chance for that because each of one is trying to come up with a better riposte. You want to be a boss. The child wants to be a boss…And soon you have reached an impasse.

At one point an adult realises the deadlock – if I continue I end up saying or doing something really hurtful…The child is not fully capable of weighing the cost of escalation to the relationship, so children rarely stop themselves. Unwillingly the parent knows that s/he is the one who has to take a step back. This is how a giving in escalation starts. From a place of fear, resentment and defeat often experienced by the parent who feels forced to step away, and away and away feeling worse and worse with every step back. There might be a hope that “if only I give in a little” the child will reciprocate and the argument ends with the child’s sincere apology. Then the parent would be able to say “there, there now take your things and put them nicely away”. The end of an unpleasant scene. However, often there is no such a resolution.

Often there is no closure. The problem at hand is not dealt with. The parent starts walking on egg shells. It continues until the parent’s patience is again tried to the limit and the “hit back” escalation ensues. Then another  impasse is reached. The parent starts backing away wondering why “this child would not just put the freaking stuff away, once?!”  The bizarre power straggle, like a perpetum mobile, carries on.

How to break this painful pattern of interactions?

Let me reinforce a message – escalations are not only about heated arguments or volatile exchanges. The escalation could unravel quietly or could be done in a very calm way. Often escalations are about the child’s eating, obsessive – compulsive behaviours, low moods and refusal to join in activities so there are no confrontations per sei, but still escalations ensue.

What characterises an escalation is the presence of undesirable exchanges between participants who follow a pattern leading to no resolution of the initial problem and causing a rapture to the relationship. The escalation seems to be a familiar and unstoppable dance where dancing parties feel compelled to follow the routine knowing very well that it will get them to the same unresolved position which they reached before.

Yet, at this point they feel unable to neither stop themselves from making their moves, discontinue or changing them. It seems a force of nature – “if he says this I have to say that and then he has no choice but do this so then I only can do that”. At the same time both sides seem to think “why can’t she stop nagging – why can’t he finally put those  things away – why does she always have to use this whining and critical voice – why his face is so twisted and unpleasant when he is told off as if it was my fault he did not do what he was supposed to” etc. There seems to be a kind of conflict between feeling compelled to follow the pattern of the escalation AND expecting that the other side should break the pattern and do something sensible.

In that situation the first thing to do is to do nothing new… for now.

First only observe YOURSELF so you can assess what is your escalation style? What is your most natural way – hitting back or giving in? If both, which one comes first?

  • What tone of voice you use when you escalate? Sarcastic? Critical? Cold? Hysterical? Scared? Uncertain? Emotional? Notice and note it.
  • What words you use when you escalate?
  • What do you do with your hands? How do you stand? How do you move?
  • Where are you when you have most of your escalations? What is the most notorious place for you escalations? What is the least probably place in your home/shop/park for you to have escalations?

Why is it so important, you may ask.

Knowing what you think, say, do when you are escalating is the first step to be in control.

TBC

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