Every since I can remember my family’s approach to arguments was to ignore it until it went away. I remember noticing it as a kid but it also worked just fine for me as a teenager and young adult.
Now, as a parent, I see the pattern repeating itself with my own kids and I am not sure I like it. It has been a regular source of frustration for me in my dealings with my family and has led to times where some of my siblings and parents have not spoken for very long times.
I do not want this for my kids. What is this and what can I do?
The situation you describe is one that many people share. This is a common coping strategy that individuals and families use to manage stress.
We often see it in response to conflict, arguments and disagreements but it also appears as avoidance, distraction and ignoring in response to other stresses.
We all have a variety of coping strategies that we use in different contexts and different situations. These strategies develop in response to challenges that we face throughout our lives.
We learn different strategies in response to different people and different situations at various times of our lives. Many of our coping strategies are learned in our interactions with our families as we grow up.
Often we develop preferences for certain coping strategies that stay with us for many years. These preferences develop because the strategies are encouraged, supported and reinforced in different ways as we grow up.
The difficulty is that not all the strategies that we develop are as effective in some situations as they are in others. And, not all strategies remain effective over time yet we continue to use them because they have become our reflexive response to situations as they emerge.
As you are discovering, strategies that may have been effective at one time in our lives are not as effective at other times and some strategies that may seem effective in the moment may not be particularly effective in the longer term.
While there are many ways that coping strategies can be categorized, one way is seeing two broad groups of coping strategies.
The first are disengaging or avoidant strategies. Some examples of disengaging strategies are reframing, seeing the positives, avoiding, distracting, or ignoring.
These strategies can be effective in dealing with over stimulating environments, excessive negative thoughts and worries that keep repeating themselves in our heads and over situations in which we have little or no effective control.
They are not so effective in dealing with situations or stresses that require some sort of action to resolve them.
The second group are considered engaging or proactive coping strategies and include things like talking with others, reaching out to family and friends, problem-solving, establishing a routine, exercising, creating a plan, and getting help to resolve the stress.
These are all strategies that require a person to take some steps to resolve a situation and are most effective for situations that we have some direct influence and control over and for situations that require that we take action to effectively resolve them.
Disengaging coping strategies are often used when confronted with conflict or an argument because they seek to end the stress of the conflict as soon as possible.
This can be effective particularly when the conflict or argument is not very big or important in the greater scheme of things and it is forgotten about after some time passes. In this way ignoring an issue is a useful strategy when the problem is more a reaction to a moment than a different problem that needs action to resolve it.
The difficulty, as you are recognizing, occurs when avoidant strategies are used instead of taking action on a problem that needs to be addressed to be resolved.
The good news is that you and your children have a choice about how you decide to address conflicts in your home and which coping strategies to use at which times.
Your job as a parent is to help your children recognize what strategies they need to be using in different situations. This can be hard when we have not had that modelled to us in our own homes but with some conscious effort and practice it is something that we can model differently for our own children.
In many ways you have already begun by recognizing the difficulties that are created by using coping strategies that are ill-matched to the situation they are being used in. Once you become aware of the problem you can take a different tack in trying to solve it.
It may be difficult at first because it feels odd or foreign to you, but I promise you that with persistence and practice the hard work will pay off.
If you would like to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult a Counsellor is provided by the registered clinical counsellors at Pacific Therapy & Consulting: Nancy Bock, Diane Davies, Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Karen Turner. It appears every second Friday.