How to keep daily family friction from escalating into end of the world drama daily?
December 31, 2011 12:48 PM   Subscribe

How to keep daily family friction from escalating into end of the world drama daily?

I live in a house with a lot of people (all one immediate family) most notably for this issue case of friction, 3 older teens/young adults. I moved back home for my final year of college and neither of the others are off at college yet. There plenty of attitude flying around, people trying to decide what to do with their lives, parents trying to give sound advice, etc. Normal life with a family with young adults.

We get along pretty well most of the time, and honestly are all friends. My parents are cool and do lots of stuff to make our lives fun and stuff like that. But as I learned living with some awesome roomates in college, who were my best friends. No matter how much you like or love someone, they're going to get on your nerves sometimes when you are together day in and day out. And that's what I want to learn how to deal with better. Specifically in the dynamics of my family.

I'd love a better way for dealing with how friction, tension, fighting and arguing escalate. Especially when one of us is fighting with my mom, things get really emotional, and kind of a big deal. I understand things are a big deal to people's feelings. But sometimes it's stuff that isn't full of a lot of meaning.

For example, sometimes I'm just in a bad mood that day and am acting bitchy, I know I'm being a jerk, and my mom should be upset. But it gets turned into such a big picture thing. Like if I'm crabby about what she wants me to do, her response will be something like: I'm so sorry I'm a terrible mother and force you to do things you hate and never give you any freedom. I'm sorry you weren't born to a nicer mother. You know, stuff like that. Then me or one of my siblings, whoever is fighting will escalate it in much the same why. Why do you always fill in the blank. I never said that. All about the extremes, and long term language.

I'd love to know if there's a way to tone stuff down, so that when she's mad about how I'm acting today, or I'm mad at her about how she's acting today - it can stay in today. And not turn into some hurt feelings acting like the issue is spanning our past and future. What can I do in the way I deal with these conflicts to tone things down and keep it in perspective? I'd also love to know if there's anything I can do to influence the way my siblings and parents argue with each other too. I know that's probably going out of my range of influence. But hey maybe if I put some calming incense scents around the house...IDK, I'm open to your ideas.

Hopefully you get the gist of the issue I'm having from that explanation. When I was more naive, when I'd be frustrated with this kind of thing I'd think, I just need to stop doing the things that upset people that I didn't want to have fights with. Now I've grown up a little. That's a joke. I am a human being, I can be a jerk sometimes, as can everyone else. Not intentionally, but it's just a fact. I'm not so naive to think I'm going to perfect myself and make everyone happy by being nice all the time. Now I know that, as I said before, living with anyone is going to mean having some tension and disagreements with them, I just want to keep small disagreements small.

So I'd love ideas or tips, great if they are from experience, on how to keep issues small that are small.

A few extra details that might help:

I've come to realize, that instead of giving a punishment - whether grounding, losing privileges, etc. that rarely happens - things are all emotional with my mom. As far as, what I call "being in trouble" means she is crying or her feelings are hurt or shouting back and forth about something I've done. And usually the same issues keep coming up in a certain season, like back when I was learning to drive it would often be stuff about that- for example.

Like I mentioned there are three of us who are the most in an argument or whatever with the parents. Between the three of us, frequency of someone being in a fight goes up to, maybe every two days or every other day.

A lot of times at least two of us get tangled into being in trouble together. Sometimes someone will set things off but the other person ends up lumped in. Like if my parents had asked my sister to get his room cleaned for the last 3 months and he hasn't, and my mom gets mad at him, she may also be mad at the other two for not taking care of our stuff either.

Last extra detail is I feel like me and my siblings act like control freaks most of the time, it;s like we have to be sure things are completely smoothed out before we're satisfied so we drag arguments out instead of just letting someone be mad at us and moving on.
I guess that is about it. Lately I have just been caring a lot less, realizing things will blow over soon. I try not to escalate things from my side as much. Say I'm sorry, explain sometimes then go off and be alone and watch a movie or something, instead of feeling real mad or guilty or anything. But sometimes I'm swept up with wanting to be right, or explain how I'm misunderstood, etc.

That works pretty good for me when I can let things drop, but I feel real bad when things hurt my moms feelings so much. I think maybe sometimes she's not as upset as I think, that I take it to heart that she's real mad or hurt, but maybe it passes soon for her too.... But I feel bad to totally ignore her feelings etc. and go on my merry way. She's my friend, and I'd love to make things better for her in our relationship and in our home in general. Anyone who watches Gilmore Girls, I feel like our disagreements are a lot like blow ups that Lorelei and Rory have.
posted by chocolatemilkshakes to Human Relations (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You really can't change them, but you can change the way you react (or don't react) to them.When you're an adult living at home with your mom and siblings, it's a good idea not to create the conflict. Being in a bad mood is not an excuse to make everyone else miserable. You need to acknowledge how you contribute to the turmoil and then STOP it.
posted by Linnee at 1:07 PM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Okay, this isn't "fair" or "just" or anything and it's also not a real fix (my approach is symptomatic since you're likely on your way out soon). Still I bet this stuff works like a charm.

Your mom has an internal monologue about being overcommitted and underappreciated/not seen for all she does. So you've got to show her she is. When things are peaceful, think of her while you're out. See a candy or treat she likes? Bring it home for her. Give her a card or email just to say hi and thanks for all she does. How about a plant? Or surprising her by taking over some of the jobs she does once in a while. Make a habit of these things and you're home free. You can't just do it once. You have to commit to this once or twice a week for the whole time you're home. Give her hugs when you come home. Even if you don't feel like it.

She might still blow up at you. When she cries, practice the following: Oh gosh mom, I'm really sorry it just slipped my mind/sorry I'm just feeling grumpy and shouldn't have used that tone! What can I do to fix it". If she continues to vent, just let her. At intervals, say "I'm so sorry, what can I do to make it right." Then do it. Pay no attention to the melodrama. She'll tone that down when she sees her feelings are respected. Besides, defensiveness won't help here. You just want to go for maximum peace, and focus on the prize of getting out of the house. Lots of stuff will be easier at that point between you all.

Also, even though it's your mom not your boyfriend, I'd really recommend "the high conflict couple" in regards to learning more about how conflict "works."
posted by powerbumpkin at 1:18 PM on December 31, 2011 [9 favorites]

This strikes me as a pretty wide open question about how to live well among others and help them at the same time.

A little bit of Stoicism and/or Zen might be helpful for yourself:
The Enchiridion by Epictetus
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh (dubious copy)

And these might be useful sources on understanding and handling other people:
How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie (not nearly as selfish a book as it sounds--it's basic wisdom about what others want to hear from you)
Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor (use your reactions to teach implicit lessons consistently, not just at times of conflict)
Family Therapy Techniques by Salvador Minuchin (don't imagine you can solve others' problems, but do learn to see the family more neutrally without leaping to assumptions about who's doing what)
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:33 PM on December 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-defence by Suzette Haden Elgin might be handy.
posted by XMLicious at 1:57 PM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you are in a bad mood, you go be alone. Go outside, take a hot shower, go into your room, whatever, but if you are in a bad mood you don't get to take it out on other people, you get to say to them "Look, I'm in a bad mood right now and need an hour on my own."

You also want to stay away when your parents are fighting with your siblings.

If the same issues keep coming up, what are they? Maybe some of them are amenable to being discussed when people are calm,
posted by jeather at 2:07 PM on December 31, 2011 [4 favorites]

I guess your Mom still sees you as kids, and when she treats you like kids, it's easy to automatically respond like a little kid instead of like an adult.

The way to get round that is to take the initiative in interacting in an adult fashion. If all you ever do is respond to her requests, it's going to be next to impossible to stop escalating this kind of whiny parent-child "WHY DO I HAVE TO CLEAN MY ROOM!?" thing.

If you behave like an adult you are likely to find yourself treated like an adult sooner rather than later. For example,

- voluntarily doing your share of the housework and cooking
- asking your Mom every now and then how her day went, listening to her response and being empathetic
- voluntarily doing nice things for the other folks in the household
- contributing financially to the household if you are working
- admitting when you're crabby and apologising - sincerely
- trying to resolve disagreements by addressing the other person's issues rather than by trying to win the argument.
posted by emilyw at 2:17 PM on December 31, 2011 [7 favorites]

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defence addresses just this kind of thing and how to respond.

Haden Elgin has stopped posting to her livejournal due to Alzheimer's, but there is an index of her posts on verbal self-defense.
posted by Jeanne at 2:17 PM on December 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a mom of two teenagers, living in a house with extended family - I can tell you that what your mom really wants is to be acknowledged for all she does for your family. She wants help, she tired of asking for help. Just help her without the attitude, it'll make all the difference in the world.

Presents are nice, but not necessary. Just help her, say thank you, tell her when you're feeling grumpy and apt to not be in a good mood.

All that will go a very long way to keeping peace.
posted by saffronwoman at 2:28 PM on December 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

This sounds like "snowball" reacting. (I am this way as well.)

"Snowballing" is my husband's term for when you start with one thing that's wrong and add to it - like those cartoons of a little snowball rolling down a mountain, getting bigger and bigger, until it's almost an avalanche preparing to crush anything that gets in its path. You take one thing that's wrong and channel all your pent-up frustration at other things that are wrong through that one thing - someone didn't clean up, which is just like the other times other people didn't clean up, which is a symbol of how you always have to clean up after everyone, and why can't anyone respect your time and clean up after themselves, which is symbolic of how you feels disrespected in general, and it's just that last straw on a bad day of bad things happening, etc., so on, so forth.

Often at the root of all this is some insecurity and a worry over loss of control. The tactics that work most often on snowballing are listening, empathy, and validation - the earlier, the better - as soon as the steam starts to rise, focus on turning off the burner. When someone starts snowballing it defuses them to hear variations on "you're right", "I'm sorry", "I bet it sucks to feel that way", "what can I do to help you feel better?", "what can we do to stop this from happening again?" It helps to get past the current emotion to a more dispassionate view of what happened/how to make it better or to just let them feel "oh that sucks, no wonder you feel bad" without feeling challenged that they should just "get over it". Follow their cues as to whether it's a vent or there's something to fix.

The thing to hold in your head is: "Is it more important to be right, or to be happy?" What's your goal? You're saying here your goal is less fighting and more harmony. So if your goal is harmony, then all you can control is your own part in a fight. It doesn't mean repressing how you feel, or never getting to have a bad day - that's not fair and that's not realistic. But you can express yourself in a defusing way instead of an inflammatory sort of way. Keep it cool, don't shout or get your back up.

Be straightforward and simple, to the point: If you're having a bad day, say "I'm having a bad day". If you didn't mean it like that, say "I didn't mean it like that". If you think what they said is unfair to you, say "I feel what you said is unfair to me". Once you say it, let it go. You don't have to be right, you don't have to get the last word, it's okay not to pick apart the details further.

Try to understand - reflect back what they are saying - but also point out the extreme words. "It isn't true that I *never* clean my room - but I hear you're upset that I didn't clean my room this time. I understand that you think it's too messy and I know it bothers you."

Acknowledge: If someone is mad at you and some part (even if it's small) is actually your fault, acknowledge your fault instead of being defensive about it, even though you will feel defensive about it. Allow yourself to feel defensive about it - even express that, if you like - but still, acknowledge your fault.

Apologize: if you were at fault, genuinely apologize for your fault. Don't view it as admitting weakness. It often acts as a prompt to the other person (giving them room and safety) to apologize for their fault. If you weren't at fault, point that out, but you can still say you feel sorry that they're feeling bad, and tell them you don't want them to feel bad or be upset with you.

Validate: If someone feels bad, let them feel bad - something made them feel bad, and gee, that's bad! Let them tell you about how they feel bad, and make empathetic noises to them about it.

Snowballing is a way of venting pent-up tension, but it's not the most productive way, and it often results in a lot of collateral damage. Defuse it - let them feel that way, but don't let them take it out on you, or take it out in fighting. It takes at least two to fight - your mother or your siblings can't fight with you if you've genuinely open to listening to them, and you don't fight back with them. After a few times where you defuse instead of flare up, you may well find they are flaring up less to begin with, because they are learning it's safe to feel bad without having to vent it into a pattern of fighting and loud, snowballing tension.
posted by flex at 2:29 PM on December 31, 2011 [7 favorites]

Kudos to you for getting to the point in life where you are realizing that you are an adult and your parents are adults and you might be able to change your interactions with them. This can be tricky, though--I know you feel differently now, but your mom has been an adult throughout your relationship, so she might be less likely to change her patterns. But it's definitely worth taking a step back and trying to make this better.

Your mom sounds like she's got a lot of her own drama, if every pushback she gets garners a response like you mentioned above. I see that as the kind of thing said by somehow who feels powerless and who is attempting to manipulate you into doing what she wants not by being reasonable, but by making you feel like shit. This might be the only way she knows to get you guys to do things or to pay attention to her, or it might be some pattern she learned from her parents. That would get old, for sure.

I'm not sure if this would work with your mom or not, but you might try talking to her when things aren't tense and full of drama. Maybe ask her to go for a walk and tell her that you love her and that you're growing up and hoping you can change the way you guys talk about things when things are tense. If she's always got her guard up with you, this might not work. Maybe she'd appreciate the opportunity to talk about some of her frustrations in a moment of calm.

Another way of dealing with this kind of manipulative commentary is to just own whatever she says, and I don't mean in a hostile, sarcastic way. Just own it. "Yeah, my room is a big mess, and I've been pretty rotten about keeping it tidy." If someone is hurtling stuff at you, and you don't push back, it disarms them. It can also keep the anger from building in you.

Good luck. This is a tough one.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:33 PM on December 31, 2011

Mod note: helpful answers folks. If your answer includes the word "trolling" it is pretty much by definition not helpful. Thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:37 PM on December 31, 2011

I don't know if this will help you, but I think I can address this from your mom's perspective (to some extent):

I raised three kids, one went off to college, another is 18 and moving out soon, the youngest is 14. For a while it was me and the two teenagers and we all got along pretty well.

Then the eldest kid moved back in. She's about your age.

And the whole family dynamic went completely bonkers and here's why: although she's an adult, she became a child again as soon as she moved back in. She had bitchy days where we all had to avoid her, she left her dirty shit everywhere, if her siblings were fighting over control of the tv she'd butt in and call them both idiots.

In other words, we had another child in the house. A really annoying, adult child. She never offered to do anything nice for any of us; she never volunteered to grocery shop; she never sat with us at dinner and asked us how our days went.

I'm not saying that this is what you're doing but a fair amount of what you wrote ("if I'm crabby about what she wants me to do...") indicates that you may be acting like an adult/child, and I'll bet anything it really pisses your mom off. Of course she loves you, but she wants you to cut it out already and act like an adult.

I'm going to side with your mom here. Try thinking of her as someone you want to impress, and act accordingly. Seems like you're taking her for granted.
posted by kinetic at 3:10 PM on December 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

Don't act bitchy because you're in a bad mood. Don't be a jerk.

That's how you described your own behavior. Cut it out. If you do do that, apologize. Don't argue in the moment. Say you're in a bad mood and you're sorry and can you talk about it later.

It seems like you're asking how to stop being a brat (or having fights about and because of and escalated by the same) without stopping being a brat. There's a problem there.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:56 PM on December 31, 2011

Taking a minute from my standing ovation for flex's answer, and nodding in agreement with the other answers above, your mention of "control" issues and description of behaviours and the tense environment reminded me that the pattern interrupts that I suggested in a recent Ask would probably also work very well for you too. In short, there are proven skills you can study, master and apply that will help to ease the friction, diffuse tension, interrupt fighting and de-escalate arguing.
posted by peagood at 4:04 PM on December 31, 2011

A friend's family keeps a Bop-It on had for just these times. When tempers rise and conflict escalates, they call the relevant parties together and they play with the Bop-It for a while. It somehow brings everyone down to a level where they can communicate rationally. you might use some other method, but a similar activty to defuse the situation and allow "normal" interaction may be a good idea to consider.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:04 PM on December 31, 2011

Nobody's perfect, true, but we're all capable of not acting bitchy/crabby/jerky most of the time even if we're feeling bitchy/crabby/jerky. Of course people get on your nerves. But there needs to be a filter between how you feel and how you react. And when you do catch yourself reacting without properly filtering your emotions, you need to stop yourself and apologize. I think you're making too many excuses for your behavior. The "I'm only human" slip-ups where you wind up acting like a jerk to someone you love should be on the order of a few times a year, not a few times a month or a few times a week.

The bonus part of focusing on your role in all this is that if you can train yourself to reduce your bitchy/crabby/jerky behavior, you will be a better partner in any of your future relationships.
posted by drlith at 7:05 PM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

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