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Anger Management and Kids: The Psychology of Normal Family Fights

Boundaries are important for kids, but parents don't have to pick every battle.

Parents fight with their children approximately 2,184 times a year, which translates to over 180 arguments a month, 42 a week, or six a day depending on how you do the division. The numbers, derived from a survey of 2,000 parents with kids ages 2 to 12, indicate that the average intergenerational family fight lasts about eight minutes, adding up to almost an hour of conflict a day. It might be tempting to assume that this information suggests that conflict is normal and common. But that is not the case. Dr. Christopher Bogart, a psychologist and the executive director of the Southfield Center for Development, warns that the average argument frequency seems to be unhealthily high.

“If we are counting the number of times that a parent must correct a child or must set a limit, then this probably does happen at a rate similar to what is reported in the study,” says Bogart. “But in a family that is operating with a typical parent-child hierarchy, a true fight should certainly not be occurring at the rate suggested in this article.”

Discipline is not a bad thing for children, but the delivery and context are important. There’s ample evidence that parents and caretakers setting firm limits is a crucial part of childhood development. Consistent boundaries help children feel safe and develop social skills, emotional control, and general executive functioning capabilities. Often this can result in tantrums from children, but it’s not technically a full-blown fight unless the adults lose control of their emotions as well. The fact that adults aren’t necessarily aware of how a fight is defined may explain the worrisome numbers to some degree. 

Bogart estimates that highly stressed families he’s worked probably have six legitimate fights with their children a day. But those families should be the exception, not the rule.

“If there are that frequent of a number of fights, then I would suggest that the parent is struggling in knowing how to set appropriate expectations and manage the response of the child,” he says.

It’s fairly clear that this is the case. The number one argument parents reported having with kids was about eating. Parents want kids to eat what it is on their plates. Here’s the catch: Developmental psychologists, including Bogart, overwhelmingly recommend that parents not making eating into a bone of contention. Kids, after all, aren’t going to starve themselves to death. Thanks to biology, the problem tends to resolve itself. Better to have a nice time together at the family than to ensure that the kid eats a few more carrots.

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“Most kids will learn to adapt and eat when their body is hungry, and will rarely get into a situation where their body is truly malnourished if good food is available,” Bogart notes, adding that when kids refuse to eat healthy food provided for them, parents can inform kids when the next meal will be provided for them.

Interestingly, the survey in question, which does appear to be valid, was commissioned by Capri-Sun. The suggestion seems to be that sugar-rich juices might represent a way to avoid conflict. But these sorts of concessions tend to lead to more conflict long term because they teach kids that protesting works. Fights are avoided when parents don’t get drawn in.

Bogart recommends parents prioritize “connection over correction,” a concept he attributes to fellow clinician Jane Nelsen’s work on positive discipline. When they know they’re loved, kids will feel that their needs are met and likely follow the rules. Negative reinforcement — spanking or yelling mostly — simply don’t work. Those conflict styles only breed more conflict. Parents have 2,000 opportunities a year to model self-control and reactivity. If they do so successfully, arguments and emotional dysregulation can be avoided. 

“Jumping immediately into punishment or harsh words is biologically wired in the human brain to lead to fight or flight reactions,” Bogart says. “Launching into tug-of-wars tends to promote more fights and rarely results in compliance.”