Wherever there is a winner, there is at least one loser, and kids do not like to lose. Unfortunately for family dynamics, parents don’t really enjoy losing either. Because of this, parent-child disagreements sometimes get out of hand. What starts out as a relatively minor issue such as missing curfew by 10 minutes or leaving dirty dishes in the family room escalates into harsh words and raised voices. Then, the argument is no longer about curfew or dishes. All of a sudden, it’s a full-on fight and the goal is to win.
A few weeks ago, I saw a family that I know very well for the first time in several months. It is a small family, just a 15-year-old boy and his dad. I met them when Tucker was 12 years old and struggling to cope with the recent sudden death of his mother. Tucker and Dad were in a great deal of pain and were having a hard time figuring out how to support one another in their grief. Because Tucker and his father were both psychologically healthy individuals before the accident that killed Tucker’s mom, they just needed a little help figuring out how to cope with their loss and how to maintain their already-strong relationship. Our regular sessions ended after a few months, but Tucker and his Dad come in occasionally to address problems that come up.
When I saw Tucker and his dad recently, I asked what brought them back to see me. Tucker immediately said that Dad had made the appointment after a huge fight. He described yelling, fists pounding on the counter, a door slamming, and some name-calling. Both looked a bit sheepish as Tucker described their behavior during the fight. When I commented, “Wow, sounds like quite a scene. I’m curious what you were fighting about,” Tucker looked at Dad and Dad looked at Tucker and then Dad said,
Seems kind of ridiculous now, but I really cannot remember. Tucker, can you? – Dad
To which, Tucker replied,
I know it was something stupid, but I can’t remember what. – Tucker, age 15
I spent a few minutes finding out from the two of them how the past several months have been going. I continue to see two psychologically well-adjusted individuals. Now, Dad and Tucker are simply having trouble navigating the challenges inherent in any parent-teen relationship. Dad is finding this stage of parenting especially difficult without a partner. Tucker is doing a lot of normal pushing back and testing limits. In response, Dad is trying hard to maintain the right balance between being firm and being understanding.
I strayed from my usual practice with this family. I asked Tucker and Dad if they would be comfortable each having a session with me alone. I did this because I suspected that it would be difficult for either of them to speak openly about their relationship in a session together. In the past, both have been reluctant to talk about the loss of Tucker’s mom in front of the other.
A lot of important information came out in those two sessions. I learned that Tucker never talks to his father about Mom because he doesn’t like to make Dad feel sad. I learned that before she died, Mom was the more effective disciplinarian, using both empathy and firm limits to discourage Tucker’s negative behavior. I learned that Tucker was more responsive to Mom’s discipline than Dad’s. And, I learned that Dad and Tucker both like to win. A lot. This was always true, according to Dad and Tucker. The problem is that now Mom isn’t around to mediate their conflicts.
After a very careful assessment, I am convinced that Tucker is doing what 15 year olds do. He is pushing back, he is challenging Dad’s authority, he is questioning everything adults do and say. These developmentally normative behaviors are overlaid upon a father-son relationship that is colored by grief and loss. They stretch Dad’s already-shaky confidence in his disciplinary skills, but they don’t cross the developmental line.
After an individual session with Dad and one with Tucker, I brought the family back together. In that session, I asked Dad to define what it means to “win” as a parent. He used phrases such as “gain the upper hand,” “make him listen,” and “make things go my way.” But, I also heard Dad say “keep him safe,” “make sure he does what’s right,” “raise a good man.” I challenged the idea that “gaining the upper hand” is an effective way to “raise a good man.”
I then asked Tucker to define what it means to him to win. He thought about this for less than a nanosecond and stated, “getting what I want, no matter what.”
Because Dad, Tucker, and I have a shared interest in sports (Tucker plays basketball, together Dad and Tucker coach younger players, and Tucker is one of a dwindling pool of clients who are impressed that I attended college and lived in the dorm with Michael Jordan), I used a basketball analogy. The three of us agreed that on the court, winning is a lot more fun than losing. We also agreed that the numbers on the final scoreboard are not the only measure of success. Dad shared what he says to his players after a tough loss. It went something like this:
It’s tough to lose, but here’s what I want you to think about. Did you give 100%? Did you handle the ball well? Were your shots good takes, even the ones that didn’t fall? Did you communicate with your teammates? Did you listen to me? Did you play hard, even when winning seemed impossible? If you did all those things, then I consider this game a win. And you should hold your head high.
Tucker and Dad figured out quickly where I was going with this analogy. I asked them each to think about how to redefine winning in a father-son argument. After a lengthy discussion, we came up with the following criteria for winning:
- Staying focused on the problem at hand
- Avoiding threats, personal attacks, and other aggressive behaviors
- Listening, even if you don’t like what he’s saying
- Meeting in the middle, if at all possible
- Ending the argument with self-respect intact
- Ending the argument with a hug or a handshake
And because he is a super competitive individual, Dad commented on the way out of my office after the session,
Whoever acts the least like a raging lunatic wins, right? – Dad
And just to make me super proud of him, Tucker responded with
Nope. If we do it right, there is no winner or loser. – Tucker
[Names and potentially identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]