–Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP
Does your child attempt to instigate conflict? Do you feel like he has a need to argue or aggravate you? Do you find yourself losing your cool over and over and then feeling terrible about it afterwards? Your child may be “hooked” on intensity. Intense arguments and conflict may be the only way your child knows how to feel connected with you.
Every child is born with an innate recognition that he needs his parent to bond with him if he is to survive life on this planet. Yet many parents are unable to tolerate the vulnerability required to form a close bond with their children due to their own mental health issues, addictions, or difficult past. If you had difficulty bonding with your child as an infant, or you are a foster or adoptive parent to a child who experienced loss or mistreatment in his first family, your child may have developed adaptive strategies to help him feel connected. He has no insight into his patterns and no ability to extricate himself from these behaviors.
The healthiest approach for any of us seeking connection with our significant others is through emotional openness and sharing, accepting or giving affection, or sharing of pleasurable moments together. If your child did not learn to connect in healthy ways, he will naturally look for other ways to feel connected to you. Intensity of emotions of any sort between two individuals in a relationship can create a feeling of connection between them, even if the emotions are negative and painful. Intense conflict, then, becomes one way of achieving a feeling of connection. If your child does not know other ways of seeking closeness, or if emotional vulnerability feels unsafe, connecting through conflict makes sense. Conflict may be his primary “attachment language.”
Even if you are quite capable of secure, close connection and your child is operating out of adaptive behaviors he learned in the distant past, he may be stuck there. Letting go the old, reliable methods and opening up to new methods involving emotional openness feels way too risky.
So how can I help my child learn more positive ways to feel connected?
#1. Remember that the change will have to be implemented by you. Your child has no insight into his hidden drive for connection or how to change it.
#2. Try to remove as much intensity as you can from the negative interactions with your child. Take deep breaths, keep your voice and face calm. Don’t get drawn into a useless argument. By removing your own intense responses as much as possible, you will reduce the positive reinforcement your child receives from conflict.
#3. Remember that your relationship with your child is more important than your child’s grades. If a large portion of your arguments are related to homework and grades, let the subject go. Let your child’s teacher handle schoolwork issues. If your child gets a failing grade, refrain from even one comment that would be perceived as criticism. Instead, respond with, “I know you must feel badly, but you’re a smart kid. I am sure you will be able to do better next time.”
#4. Entice your child into playful and affectionate interactions. Invite your child to play cards, board games, and even electronic games that involve interaction. Invite your child to join you in baking, crafts, gardening, or other hobbies. Read a book together in the evening. Share milk and cookies, start a family movie night or a family slumber party night on the living room floor. Engage your child in conversations about his friends, teachers, and school, and avoid any comments that could be perceived as judging or critical. Over time, your child will learn to enjoy feelings of connection from positive, healthy interactions, and his drive for conflict will naturally subside.