Car Conflict

Car Conflict

It's no fun driving in Hong Kong. It's even less so with children fighting behind you. 

In my very first post, I describe how I once randomly pulled off the highway just to make it stop!!! In retrospect, you could say my desperate act in Whereever-the-Heck, Hong Kong was actually a safe move. Children are, after all, recognized to be a major distraction to drivers

I don't resort to such dramatic lengths anymore. 

More peace also means more zzzzzzzzzs 

More peace also means more zzzzzzzzzs 

Now, more often than not, my car is a moving No Problem bubble. A few weeks ago, I overheard Jake (14) ask Claudia (11), "Hey, how are you doing, Claudia? How's school?" Another day, he checked in with her, "How was your humanities quiz? Oh, were you upset?"

Claudia, one morning, calmly said, "Jake, I'm so squished back here." "Oh, sorry!" came the response as he raised his seat.

Each time, I notice and my heart swells with gratitude as I calmly change lanes or adjust my wipers.

Exchanges like that are all fruits of P.E.T. labor:

  • Active Listening each of them in their own right -- they feel closer to me and have less built-up frustration in their lives
  • Modeling & Consulting on effective confrontation -- they appreciate the unspoken assumption behind Confrontive I-Messages that they will want to help me if I honestly share my feelings and the effects their behavior has on me
  • Modeling & Consulting on self-calming strategies -- children see that I am in control of my Line of Acceptance and they can lower theirs too

Let's be real for a second -- there are still arguments between these two kids. That fact remains the same. Me changing my approach is what's made all the difference. 

I used to get upset and act as though I owned the problem. The recriminations and orders would fly:

"Jake, c'mon! That's unacceptable!"

"Claudia, that's not a very mature thing to say, he's never going to want to help you if you can't control yourself."

"Enough! I'm driving! STOP IT!!!!!!!!!"

Now, I have shifted to understanding that, when they go at it in the car (or anywhere), they own the problem. Through P.E.T., I came to understand that that meant they were just trying to meet some valid need and were frustrated in doing so. In the early days, I'd be darned if I knew what need that was, but -- deep breath -- I went on blind faith wanting to believe the best of my children for a change. Up to that point, my stance had always been some version of They're doing this to me on purpose (read: victim) rather than They're doing something for themselves.


I've gotten so much better at guessing what those needs might be -- often they include love, connection, mattering, acknowledgment, fairness, choice, respect and control.

I've gotten so much better at guessing what those needs might be -- often they include love, connection, mattering, acknowledgment, fairness, choice, respect and control.

Knowing they own the problem, I follow the advice of Dr. Thomas Gordon, the founder of P.E.T. and three time Nobel Peace Prize nominee:

  1. Stay out of it completely and let them resolve it. I tend to hang back more and keep my eyes on the road. To be honest, since you're in an enclosed space, this is really hard to do.
  2. Invite them to talk about their issue. "Hey guys, there seems to be a lot of pushing and jockeying back there. Would you like to talk about what's going on?"
  3. Take a more active role when it's called for. Facilitating sibling conflict (we have even done full-blown Method III Problem-Solves, like this past summer) requires a morphing act to help each of them hear beyond the angry words and tone of the other:
[T]he parent can encourage problem-solving by using Active Listening and turning into a transmission belt, not a referee.
— Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 283

I had a chance recently to execute this type of facilitation when I picked them up after school. Jake, riding shotgun with Claudia behind him, mentioned he was hungry. Luckily, I had come prepared with snacks -- woohoo!

I asked Claudia to retrieve the goodies from behind my seat but she was already belted in and tried unsuccessfully. Then she muttered that she didn't want to get them from off of the floor.

Jake got angry, "Just get the bag!"

"You're so annoying," his sister retorted.

"Nah, nah, nah!" he mocked her. She repeated that right back at him.

"You're such a baby!" Jake accused.

"What? You started it!" Claudia was indignant and Jake was fuming, "Just get it!"

I decided to Active Listen. "It sounds like Jake is really hungry and wants your help. And it sounds like Claudia doesn't like the tone and feels that she is being ordered around. You both seem not to like being called 'annoying' or other names."

Claudia must have felt a little calmer because she reached over and handed the snacks to her brother. 

A few moments later, I snuck in a little Consulting, "Claudia, you were really frustrated. It might be more effective to give an I-Message. Next time you could say, 'It's a bummer to have to reach over.'"

"He's just going to order me around," Claudia said dismissively.

I reflected this back, "Oh, so you feel it's hopeless no matter what you say."

"Yeah," came the reply, almost as though she were daring him to contradict her.

But he didn't and there was peace, but only for about twelve seconds until the tension flared up with a new topic. 

"I have a Chinese test Monday," Claudia told me.

Jake interjected, "So do I."

Claudia was surprised. "Wait, do you know what the essay question is already?"

"What are you talking about?" Jake asked curtly.

Claudia explained, "I heard someone say Band 3 kids know."

"That's Year 7!!!!!" Jake pointed out vehemently. (He is in Band 3 Mandarin but in Year 9; Claudia is two grades below.)

"Ok! You don't have to be so fierce! You're always like that!" Claudia yelled.

I waited to see if the conversation was going to shift toward resolution but there was only silent seething, eye rolling and head shaking. I thought Jake needed some help hearing his little sister: "Sounds like Claudia feels sad with that tone of voice and she deals with it a lot. It's hard when she's expected to know something but she doesn't. The harsh words affect her mood and her heart."

"Sorry." Jake was quiet and sincere. He has come a long way.

"It's ok, I'm sorry too. I said something silly." Claudia responded graciously. We went back to listening to music and the rest of the evening was uneventful.

My kids are still learning and so am I. We may get tripped up and send blameful You-Messages instead of assertively sharing what we are feeling and needing. If we don't examine what's going on inside of us, we can let a very high Line of Acceptance create a combative, unfriendly atmosphere. We still need practice Active Listening each other. 

The upward trend in our family is only going to continue though. I'm sure of it. That's the great thing about P.E.T. It gives us a framework and a language for understanding these off-track moments and for drawing us back to what matters: connection.   

I hope to help Claudia and Jake become as close as they once were

I hope to help Claudia and Jake become as close as they once were

 Credits: Car scene (; Valid needs (