A Secret To Handling Conflicts With Our Kids (From Toddlers To Teens)

It wasn’t until we’d found our place in the absurdly long line at Starbucks that I realized my daughter was mad at me for leaving the house late. I’d mistaken her sullenness for her typical morning lethargy, but when she seemed even quieter than usual I checked in. “Are you okay?”

“You had two hours to get ready!” she scolded in a stage whisper.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, a tad defensively. Her anger had caught me off-guard and seemed not entirely fair to me (as if feelings are supposed to be fair). There had been plenty of mornings she’d been the one to make us late, along with other times I’d been the culprit, but I couldn’t recall her ever having been so incensed about it. It was going to be an even longer than usual forty-minute trip to school.

And so it went. We sat in silence, but my inner dialogue was busy. The banter was indignant, sarcastic and embarrassingly juvenile. There was: “She’s lucky we’re willing to drive her to this godforsaken place every day. How many parents would put up with this?”  And: “Gee, another silent car ride with my brooding daughter. Now, there’s something new.”

We were about halfway to school when I began to tire of the one-sided griping. That’s when my higher self suddenly began arguing on my teenager’s behalf. “You know, you really do have a terrible problem with lateness. It’s inconsiderate and inexcusable.  When your girl’s struggling to get herself moving in the morning, the last thing she needs is to be waiting for you. How irritating is that?”

Okay, I can totally see that.

“This could be the perfect opportunity to model a little humility, swallow your pride, be the good guy and do the right thing,” my better angels continued.

When I decided to take the high road, I felt my mood instantly shift and then lift. Misery turned to hope, though I knew enough to bolster myself in anticipation of the rejection I might face.

We finally pulled over in front of my daughter’s school, neither of us having uttered a syllable for over forty minutes. Gently touching her chin, I turned my girl’s face toward mine and earnestly offered, “I am so sorry I was late. That was very thoughtless of me.” She listened but gave up little, though I thought I detected a softening in her eyes as she quickly left.

When I picked her up that afternoon, neither of us mentioned the issue, but it seemed all had been forgiven and forgotten. Funny, but at that point it almost didn’t matter. I’d been elated all day, celebrating a choice I’ve made many times in many ways since becoming a mom, but perhaps never so intentionally. I’d risen out of myself to become the person my daughter needed and deserved, and I was flying high.

This experience reminded me of the frame of mind I suggest to parents whenever they face difficult situations with their kids: rise above it.

Rise above your triggers, wounds and patterns from the past and be the parent, rather than getting caught up in your child’s behaviors, taking them personally and engaging in conflicts at his or her level. This is the key to breaking negative cycles, and begins with a healthy perception of our children and our role in their life.

Rise above your fear that your children will be hurt or love you less when you upset them by setting reasonable, respectful limits. (They won’t.)

Rise above and understand that children go through stages when they need to resist, defy and even reject us in order to develop in a healthy manner. Set honest personal limits (like, “I will need to move to the other room if you continue to speak to me that way”), but don’t feel threatened by this age-appropriate behavior or take it personally.

Rise above so you can set and hold limits confidently, calmly and early, without getting angry or holding a grudge. Repeat: don’t take behavior personally.

Rise above your impatience and model the manners, character traits and values you want your kids to emulate rather than demanding they share, model apologizing, expressing gratitude, treating others gently, patiently(!), generously and with respect.  

Rise above your worries and impatience (again), so that you can lead with trust rather than micromanaging your children’s physical and cognitive development, play and food choices, social issues, school work, etc.

Rise above impulses to correct or judge. Be the trusted confidant with whom your child can safely express her darkest feelings, even when they’re directed at you.


 For more, please check out my complete guide to respectful discipline:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by char!lotte on Flickr)



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Can you please email this post to me? It’s perfect for the mindful parenting communities we serve. I LOVE this!!!

    In gratitude,
    Lynda, Mark and Alana (age 3)

  2. Jessica Isles says:

    Hi Janet
    What a funny coincidence that I’m up at 4am mulling over how to be a better mum to my 13 yr old daughter and I get your wonderful post. I have all those resentful feelings about not being appreciated, nothing is ever good enough, trying to make someone happy who is clearly not going to be happy with anything I do or say. In her eyes, I fall short in every way from my abilities to my appearance. Your reminder to rise above it is so timely for me and something I do try to do but so hard when you’re in the thick of the emotions! I find rising above the emotions of my preteen children so much easier as I can accept and understand their lack of self control. I do love your suggestion of saying ‘I will need to move to the other room…’ As it will give me the space to be able to rise above. Thank you Janet! Anymore on teens would be very welcome.

    1. Hi Jessica! Thanks for bringing up self-control. I meant to include that as a reason parents should consider rising above these behaviors. (Hmmm…maybe I’ll edit that in. We get to do that on blogs, you know.) Children don’t have the impulse control that adults have! It’s a neurological fact.

      And the other important thing to understand about teens is that they NEED to reject us and all we stand for, just like the toddler who needs to say “NO” to everything, even while reaching for the ice cream cone he or she has been so kindly offered. YES, you are going to “fall short in every way from my abilities to my appearance” no matter what you do, because this is not about you at all. It’s about your daughter trying to individuate. So, don’t buy into it! Don’t take the bait. Underneath all of this she adores you and needs you desperately.

      I realize letting this roll off your back is easier said than done, because teens have very sophisticated ways of making of us feel like garbage. But as often as you can, try to remind yourself that this impossible behavior is her duty…and like “sticks and stones”, it can’t hurt unless you let it. The more you get caught up in trying to please her, change her mood or make her happy (when she needs to be contentious), the more difficulties you are likely to create and the more frustrated and miserable you will be. There is no better time to rise above, rise above, rise above!

      4AM? Such a wonderful mum you are! xx

  3. Yes, rise above. Totally agree, although it’s not easy in the moment. Looking back, do you think you might have shared your insight?

    I wonder how that car ride and the conversation might have been transformed if you’d voiced aloud what your better self said— “You know, you really do have a terrible problem with lateness. It’s inconsiderate and inexcusable. When your girl’s struggling to get herself moving in the morning, the last thing she needs is to be waiting for you. How irritating is that?”

    My daughter would have laughed, agreed with the assessment, and (hopefully) realized I saw her side of things. Simply feeling so understood is remarkably healing. I might have asked her for some ideas in helping me to resolve my issues with lateness (not that it’s her problem) and let her see me work on implementing them, even if I failed.

    Kids are great at pointing out our shortcomings. Mine do it with sharply honed wit, so at least we can chortle over it. Sure they don’t always take responsibility for their own shortcomings yet, one of my sons recently came back at his father’s “why did you do that?” with, “You tell me, nature or nurture?”

    1. Laura, I think it might have been lovely to share an insight about my lateness…if that was indeed an insight, rather than an issue my family is (sadly) well-aware of! Let’s just say we’ve all been over this before…it would not have been a ice-breaker, my daughter would not have laughed. If something silly happened while we were driving, it might have changed the mood, but nothing I could have said about the lateness would have. In fact, I think that might have caused her to explode with me, which may have been a positive thing for her, but probably not for me, since my state was fragile, too. I’m certainly not perfect (obviously), but I was very proud of the way I handled this situation.

      I’ll also add that even on a good day, this particular daughter isn’t easy to engage in conversation of any kind when she’s tired in the morning. I’ve tried (oh, I’ve tried). She is a deep-thinking-wise-old-soul and spends a lot of time in her own head (as do I, so I understand).

      Great points, Laura, about the power of feeling understood and laughing at each other’s foibles, along with our own. We do a lot of that in our house, too. Thank goodness for laughter!

      1. Ah, I see. Sorry for any presumption on my part. I feel for you. There were entire years when my daughter, a complicated girl herself, acted as if she could barely stand the idea that we existed on the same planet. Except when she was her usual delightful self. But I had very little control over which version I’d see at any given time. It sounds like the quiet ride and the tenderness shown right before she got out of the car was very healing.

        I’d like to share an insight about lateness from my own life. For me, lateness typically happens because I too often let everything become more important than me. I have to do a few more things, which rapidly becomes a dozen more things. Nearly all of those things have to do with other people counting on me. Which ends up with me putting off real essentials like taking the damn shower I have to take before I get dressed. (I often leave the house with wet hair!) I’m in the process of learning to undo the habit of seeing too many obligations as essential. For me, I’m hoping I’ll end up feeling less rushed.

        1. We really are kindred spirits, Laura. I’ve thought a lot about my lateness problem, seems like it would be so easy to fix. When I’m in my car within 100 miles of home, I can tell you exactly to the minute what time I’ll be there, and yet I seldom seem to leave the house with enough time to get places. Most commonly I end up squeaking in at the very last minute. I realize I’m right-brainish and easily caught up in whatever I’m doing, but I also wonder if the lateness isn’t one of my last few latent self-destructive impulses (used to be riddled with them). It’s as if I needlessly place myself in the position of feeling stressed and anxious…getting people annoyed with me… Hmmmm…

          1. I’m actively learning about body wisdom, the effects of trauma, and simple steps I can take to more fully listen to and inhabit my body.

            The uncomfortable part of this (I’m speaking only for myself here) is realizing how habit-forming it is to become attuned to and even expect negative body states. For example, being rushed and preoccupied has been far too common in my life but I suspect I’ve linked the accompanying body sensations with the mental state of feeling worthy. Insight isn’t always fun, that’s for sure.

            Feeling rushed tends to make me put off what I really need, which is contemplative movement like walking or gardening. But that’s exactly what I require to establish the sort of inner peace baseline that lets me communicate well, pace myself, and avoid the misery of more rushing. This is what I mean:

  4. Shannon S says:

    While I certainly appreciate the importance of the adult in the relationship being the bigger person (metaphorically), I also wonder if this wouldn’t be a good opportunity to discuss hypocrisy, justice, and the log in the daughter’s eye.

    Certainly, I think modeling how to handle valid criticism has its place, and I’m definitely not saying the mom in this story did anything less than well with the situation. In the moment, getting into a “well you do it too!” argument would be worse than useless.

    However, it does seem terribly unjust to me that the mother simply swallows her teenage daughter’s hypocrisy — that is, it’s all right if SHE runs late, but if her mother runs late, it’s cause for sulking and blame. Teenagers are plenty old enough to understand analogous cases! What would you all think of the mother having a conversation with her daughter — after emotions have settled down, of course — something like “You know how upset you were with me the other day when I made us late? Sometimes I get angry like that when you run late, too. Let’s work on it together.”

    For all I know, that’s exactly what happened. 🙂

    Best wishes –

    1. Shannon, it’s not a bad idea to discuss things later, but my daughter and I have touched on these issues before and nothing new would be learned by having a conversation like that. We both know that we both know. She knows that I’m not thrilled waiting for her, and I know she doesn’t like waiting for me.

      I’m glad you bring up “hypocrisy and justice” though, because I actually think this is the way parents get into trouble and end up perpetuating relationship dynamics that create distance with their children. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Is it better to be right or happy?”

      What I grasped at that morning was the opportunity to teach a lesson far more important than hypocrisy, justice, right and wrong. My daughter already knows plenty about all of those things. But what she might need to be reminded of is that I adore her even when she’s angry with me, and that when you adore someone you take every opportunity to let go of pettiness, take the fall, make amends and assure them you accept and understand their feelings.

      1. Beautiful truth. Thank you!

        “When you adore someone you take every opportunity to let go of pettiness, take the fall, make amends and assure them you accept and understand their feelings.”

  5. as I sit here with tears in my eyes I sit with so much gratitude for you Janet and this post today! You posted this a few days ago but have not had a chance to read until now and it was just what I needed to hear after my morning with my almost 4 year old. She started crying this morning out of, what seemed to me, nowhere and instead of just letting her I took it personally and told her that she NEEDED to use her words to let me know what was wrong. I was uncomfortable with the crying because in that moment I felt like there was nothing she should be crying about, how silly of me. In the moment I was not able to rise above and have felt awful since I dropped her off at camp. Thank you so much for reminding me how to be the parent that RIE has helped me to be!!!!! I am eternally grateful!

  6. This, to me, is one of the most helpful posts I’ve read. It’s useful having your back story to bring to life the point. Thank you!

  7. Just wanted to say thank you so much for this incredibly timely post! I was having a really rough go of it getting my little guy of just over 2 years old to bed tonight – over an hour of crying, and tears, and requests, and general distress and I was so thankful to have this mantra “rise above, rise above, rise above” in my head. Rise above his overtiredness, rise above his being overwhelmed, rise above the way a toddler is when he doesn’t get his way, so I can be the adult, the capable one, and keep holding the limits gently but firmly without losing my cool. I love your blog and find so much inspiration and guidance, and it was such a small but transformative message to have in my head tonight so I thank you so much for helping me to be the parent that I wanted to be tonight, and the parent my sweet little boy needed me to be. THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! 🙂

    1. You’re so welcome, Tara! You know, one side of me feels like suggesting “rise above it” is unfair — asking parents to be superhuman. But being the bigger person in these situations really is just a question of mind over matter. We can do this. And when we do, we teach our children wonderful lessons about love, bring peace, feel uplifted, successful and capable. It’s worth it!

  8. I agree completely! Whenever we have conflict with our teenager (or anyone, for that matter), the best places to “go” are better understanding what we’re feeling and trying to understand the other person’s perspective. Taking time (and discipline!) to do that, rather than being snarky, is invaluable in a relationship – and it teaches our children to do the same.

    Good for you, and thanks for a great post!

  9. My mother still doesn’t get this argument. I realize it’s bratty and annoying of me, at almost 30 and a mother myself, to be saying this, but it’s the mom trait I most carefully try to avoid. To this day, when we argue (no longer about my makeup or skirt length – now legitimate conversations about politics or what have you), she listens to my side, rolls her eyes, and parodies whatever my point is with unflattering mimics. She’s done it since I was a kid and it drives me nuts. If you have a valid point to make about what I said, utilize logically valid arguments and we can go from there. Repeating what I said in a high-pitched voice while making a stupid grimace doesn’t…it’s not…that’s not a thing.

    Of course, I have a hard time with my incredibly inquisitive 6-year-old from time to time, and the impulse to reply with sarcasm is so strong I occasionally have to actually close my eyes and remind myself to breathe in-through-the-nose-OUT-through-the-mouth and count to 4 before snapping something off.


  10. *Adding: and I can’t even imagine how much harder it is with a teenager, much less a female teenager being heavily influenced by her peers on a daily basis to express herself in that socially acceptable “girl” manner that even I, as a giant annoying feminist, went through long ago…

    1. KansyK, sounds like you are being diligent and I can promise you that your efforts will pay off!

      Regarding teenagers, I honestly don’t think it’s about being influenced by their peers as much as it is the need to reject parents (especially the same-sex parent) and all they stand for. That is the way many, if not most children make the transition to adulthood. If children don’t feel safe or comfortable exhibiting this behavior for whatever reason, there are often problems down the road. Feelings of shame are internalized, etc.

  11. What if you feel you DID go through this rejection phase with your own parents, but you still have not grown out of it..at least not completely. I am in my mid thirties and still feel I am struggling with my mother. This has to impact my parenting, in ways I am aware of..and not aware of. I just hope I can accept and honor my kids when they go through this phase without the fear of them winding up with similar attitudes I experience today.

  12. Hi Ms. Janet Lansbury,
    My name is Kerrie, I am a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin studying how children develop empathy and compassion. This post is wonderful. While I have worked with children, I never felt right forcing a child to apologize. In my practice, I believe in sitting down with the children and showing empathy toward both parties – “I can see it hurt you when they hit you, and I can see it made you mad when they took your toy”, and I help model how we can solve problems or help to make amends when feelings/bodies are hurt. For the younger children I show them both what gentle touches feel like and offer ways to help the situation (would you like a turn when they are done? Would you like a hug to help you feel better? Should we get a drink of water to help you calm down), and for older children I act as a mediator and advice/suggestion giver as they initiate and complete the process, helping when needed.

    This post did strike a question in me. While working with children I never really put much emphasis on saying please and thank you, and I never forced a child to greet or say good bye to anyone. I model them, and may offer them to the child (would you like peaches? Yes? Yes please), but I would never force it or withhold something until the child produced the phrase. What are your thoughts on these words and their phrases? I know that they are considered polite in many cultures, and some adults view when children don’t say it as an act of disrespect (which respect is a whole other topic in itself), but forcing a child to say something out of habit (just like forcing an apology) can make the term empty and meaningless for the child.

    1. I believe as you do! Children learn authentic social skills and manners through our modeling. When we insist that our children say phrases (that they don’t actually mean), we risk modeling a lack of empathy and trust in them. In my opinion, that isn’t a good trade-off. I’ve written a few posts on this topic and I’ll link them here if you’re interested: You’ll Be Sorry and Hi, Bye, and Thank You and also They’ll Grow Into It.

      Thanks so much for sharing with me, Kerrie

  13. I just found this post and was reading through the comments. I am almost 40 and I live 5 minutes from my parents. Every single time I see them (and we have what most would see as a GREAT relationship) I find myself replaying critical comments/questions my mom or dad made “in jest” or just “in passing” and I fume. I am so mad that I have to “be the bigger person” as their daughter, and then on top of that, try and be the bigger person to my boys. It’s exhausting BUT just reading this post made me realize how much of an impact I can have on their lives by being more mindful and rising above. I feel like I just struck gold. Thank you.

    1. I’m finding the comments from adult daughters about how their parents still – probably unwittingly – upset and annoy them with some comments. My daughters are in their forties (parents of gorgeous children themselves) and I know I unintentionally annoy them sometimes. This is not what I want to do and it’s really helpful to hear about others’ experience in this area. It’s never to late to learn.

  14. I meant to say that I’m finding the comments from adult daughters really interesting and helpful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations