When Families Aren’t Working Together
Raising a family takes a lot of work. Children need love, care, help to get things done, and often a lot of encouragement to follow rules and routines. Two people working together to care for their children sometimes feel worn out, frustrated, resentful, anxious, or, even overwhelmed. When a family is functioning, these feelings are temporary and the conflicts over who will complete which task, in what manner get worked out.
How these conflicts get worked out to satisfaction is different across cultures. Many of us will bargain and negotiate our way to a solution. Others will rely on rules and hierarchies that keep things in balance. When a family has a set of shared expectations and commitments to the process and everyone applies these often unwritten rules well enough the family gets the work done and maintains peace and harmony. They even experience a lot of joy. The adults do not fight and the children learn how problems get resolved in a respectful, effective, and loving manner that is culturally consistent.
When a family is not functioning, it looks astonishingly similar across cultures. Fighting is fighting. You don’t need to understand the language to recognize verbal disagreements and fights. When people display resentment, hostility, fear, threat, or terror, behavior is ruled by emotions. The fight-or-flight survival reaction rules the interaction. The tasks of raising a family are secondary to the proving grounds for displays of dominance through aggression or manipulation. When couples are trapped in this merry-go-round of emotion driven behavior, children learn that conflict is an opportunity to display power or submission. They learn that might makes right. They learn that raising a family is not an act of love and caring but something else.
Ideally, parents each agree to manage their emotions and practice skillful resolutions of conflict because they are committed to and capable of caring for their families. No one, however, can compel someone else to shoulder responsibility for caring for his or her own family, for managing strong emotions, or being effective. No one can remove someone else’s barriers to functioning in a family. Fighting with someone will never reduce anger or fear – not for you and not for your children.
If a caregiver is not willing or not able to manage their emotions, care for their family, or stay effective, it is not true that it always takes two to tango. One person can push another around. One person can abuse, abandon, or coerce another person. Fighting back is not going to help. The priority is to seek safety from violence. The priority is to care for your children and be emotionally available to them. The priority is to cope with your own distress and make effective decisions for yourself and your family. People often need professional help to do that when they are living with violence or coercion.
Dr. Kelly M. Champion is the owner operator of Cadeus Behavioral Health – a small clinical and forensic psychology practice. She has worked as a professor, researcher, clinical supervisor, presenter, clinician, and now a business owner and expert court-witness. She specializes in children, adolescents, families and adults coping with problems in living and exposure to violence. She is an advocate for violence prevention, strengthening families, and professional psychology. She has been involved in different roles with the American Psychological Association, ACT Raising Safe Kids parenting program since 2010. She currently serves as a co-chair to the Research Action Team of the National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence and is active with Iowa Psychological Association. She is the step parent of two adults and the parent of two teenagers.