This past weekend while helping a close friend deal with a family conflict, I became acutely aware of the differences between families when it comes to expressing feelings and resolving conflicts. My friend’s family, for example, avoids any direct conflict. They tend to keep feelings and attitudes hidden from each other. Their responses are so much different than the way my family has always done things, and made me realize how grateful I am for the openness in my own family.
When I was a child, we were encouraged to express our feelings, share our thoughts and explore different ways of resolving conflicts. Most feelings, like happiness, love and sadness, could be expressed through words and actions. We were permitted to cry, expected to give hugs and free to “jump” for joy. Feelings of anger were different. When angry we could use words to express our feelings but actions out of anger were not accepted. We were allowed to share our opinions, even if the source of the anger was our parents. But slamming doors, stomping our feet or rolling our eyes was not okay. We were taught to share our feelings of anger and work towards a solution. A solution entailed the intention to “work through it” to resolve the conflict.
The opportunities I had to lean into conflict and openly share my feelings with those I trusted had a tremendous impact. And perhaps that is the most significant part. By being able to practice these skills with people I trusted, I was able to develop my own conflict resolution style and feel confident in my abilities to do so. I realize that how I was taught to resolve conflicts may not be what others are comfortable doing. However, I am convinced that developing these skills is critical and that families play a large role in this process.
As parents, we often parent our children the way we were parented, and I believe in the philosophy that there is no one right way to parent. However, I also believe that sometimes parents automatically parent without stopping to be intentional. I think my family norms developed as a part of a process. As we grew as a family and had new experiences, my parents were intentional about their expectations, aligning them with their values and what worked for us as a family. When making decisions about how to do things like resolve conflicts or deal with storms of angry tears, as parents we need to be clear on the capabilities we want to give to our kids. We need to intentionally determine and consistently follow expectations for addressing feelings and conflicts. Children who learn to express their feelings and “work through it” retain these skills as adults! And isn’t that ultimately what we want?