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How To Walk Away From A Fight With Your Child: Why It's Harder Than You Think
You've probably heard these words of advice before: "Just walk away when your
child is trying to pull you into a fight." And in fact, turning around and
walking away is one of the most important things you can do as a parent to end
power struggles with your kids. But what should you do when your child won't let
you walk away?
Consider these two scenarios:
You tell your 10-year-old daughter that she can't have her friend over this
Saturday and she is not happy. She begs and pleads, but you stand your ground.
When she starts to escalate, you tell her you aren't going to argue about it and
you attempt to walk away. But then she comes unglued and starts crying
hysterically. She tells you she hates you, then she grabs onto your arm, still
pleading with you to change your mind. You know you need to get away, and you
manage to make it to your bedroom and lock yourself inside. That's when the
screaming and banging on the door begin. You try to ignore it but eventually
can't take it anymore. You break down, open the door, completely lose your cool
and scream at her.
When you walk away you "win" and your child doesn't want that to happen, so he
will try almost anything to keep it going, whether it's calling you names,
throwing things, punching a hole in the wall, or slamming a door.
You pick your teen son up from school and inform him that his cell phone has
been shut off for 24 hours because he was on the phone past his bedtime the
night before. He unleashes a verbal assault on you and you tell him to stop. He
demands that you turn his phone back on immediately, and when you stay silent,
he blows up. He leans over and yells in your face while you're holding onto the
steering wheel of the car with white knuckles, trying to focus on getting home
safely. When you continue to ignore him, he takes his cell phone and throws it
as hard as he can into the back seat of the car. You can't control yourself any
longer so you yell at him and tell him he's lost the phone for a month now. You
pull into the driveway feeling horrible.
Why Your Child Wants to Pull You Back In:
Disengaging is one of the best ways to stop power struggles from happening or
arguments from continuing. But many kids-particularly defiant, oppositional
ones-will follow their parents around, prolonging the argument. Why do they do
this? When you walk away or stop participating in an argument, you send your
child the message that you're in control. Though they aren't consciously aware
of all of this, they feel the power shift from them to you, so if they can pull
you back into the argument they can regain that control they lost. When you walk
away you "win" and they don't want that to happen, so they will try almost
anything to keep it going, whether it's calling you names, throwing things,
punching a hole in the wall, or slamming a door. If they can do something that
gets you to react, they feel a whole lot better. And in many cases, they know
that if they push all the right buttons, you just might give in to get relief
from the torment.
There are several common scenarios we hear about on the Parental Support
Line. Let's take a look at each and talk about what to do.
1. You go to your room and your child follows you: Here's the trick: Once you
walk away, say no more. Lock the door and ride out the storm. If your child is
screaming outside your door or pounding on it with all their might, ignore them.
Do whatever you can to cope until they've calmed down. The second you turn that
door knob to tell them to stop, you've given them what they wanted. Put on some
headphones, turn up the TV, read a book, knit. Do whatever you have to do to
focus your attention away from your child's behavior. If they damage something
or call you foul names while they're pounding on your door, give them
consequences afterward, when they've calmed down and stick to them. In other
words, ignore their attempts to pull you in when you're disengaging from them,
but hold them accountable for anything they damage (or rules they break) later.
2. Your child trashes her own room: If your child goes to her own room and
starts to throw things around or screams at the top of her lungs about what a
jerk you are or how much she hates you, let her. If she breaks something of her
own, that's a natural consequence. She will have to buy her own replacement or
do some chores to earn the money to buy a new one. If she makes a mess of the
room, she will have to clean it up later when things calm down. It's more
effective to focus on controlling yourself and your emotions rather than your
3. An over-the-phone argument: If the argument is over the phone or via text
message, tell your child that you're done with the discussion and you will not
reply anymore. Then, follow through. Turn the phone off, or unplug it if it's a
landline and get involved with something else. You can finish talking later when
things are calm again.
4. When you're in the car: This is one of the most difficult places to get into
an argument with your child. The first rule is, pull over. You may not be able
to walk away, but you might be able to step outside the car to get some fresh
air if it's safe to do so. Or, you can tell your child you're not going to
continue on until they calm down, because it's not safe for you to drive while
they're verbally abusing you or acting disruptive. Then, find something to do
that will help you cope. This might take some planning ahead, such as packing a
book or magazine (or keeping something like that in your glove compartment) that
you can pull out and use in these cases.
5. You can't walk away because you're busy: Let's say, for example, that you're
cooking dinner. Set one limit with your child and then do what you can to focus
your attention on the task at hand, not your child. Avoid eye contact and ignore
comments he makes under his breath. Find some sort of mental task to occupy your
mind, such as counting or singing a song to yourself in your head. If you have a
relatively compliant child who will go to his room when asked, you can tell him
to do so, but if your child is like most, he will refuse. Since you can't make
him go, the best thing to do is not pay attention to him. The key is to avoid
giving his behavior any power. Control what you can-yourself.
6. Your child blocks you or clings to you: This is perhaps the most difficult
situation to find yourself in when you try to walk away. It's very important
that you stay calm, use a normal tone of voice, and tell your child this
behavior is not okay, while redirecting them to go do something to calm down.
They're probably going to stick around, though-at least at first. Continue to
remain calm and wait it out. Yes, this might mean that you literally stand there
and wait. You could also let your child know that they need to stop or there
will be a consequence later. If your child is not blocking your path, try your
best to go about your business-do the dishes, read a book, or surf the internet.
The goal is to find some sort of task to focus on so your attention is not on
your child's behavior.
When Your Child Threatens You or Becomes Abusive
If you feel threatened by your child and have access to a phone, you might
decide to call the police. A word of caution: do not get into a physical power
struggle to escape from your child. Pushing against them or trying to get free
may cause some kids to escalate. Also, to be clear, we do not recommend calling
the police simply because your child is being defiant. There is a difference
between frustrating, blocking behavior and threatening, unsafe behavior.
A Special Note about Children Age 4 and Younger:
For children who are pre-school age or younger, or who have developmental delays
or disabilities that cause them to function at 4 years of age or younger,
walking away as described in this article may not be effective. Disengaging and
moving too far away from a child at this developmental level may cause anxiety.
If this is the case with your child, it might be better to try to stay close by
within your child's sight. It can be really helpful to say something like this:
"You're so upset. I wish I could help you calm down. Why don't you?" and then
suggest a calming activity for them to do. This might be looking at a book,
playing some music they like, or playing with a favorite toy. You can model how
to stay calm and you can disengage without leaving the room altogether.
Other Techniques to Help You Walk Away
Before you walk away, it's always helpful to set a limit with your child and
attempt to redirect them. For example, "I'm going to go take a break. You should
go listen to some music or do something to calm down.? Another example is,
"Yelling at me isn't going to get you what you want. When you calm down, we can
talk more. I'll check on you in 15 minutes and see if you're ready.? Also, if
your child has younger siblings in the home, take them with you when you walk
away so they don't become a target or a pawn that your child can use to pull you
back into the argument. If your child has older siblings, you might tell them to
go to their rooms until your child calms down. The smaller the audience is, (or
the number of potential targets) the better.
Once you've walked away, be aware of any potential safety issues or needs for
local supports. If it sounds like your child is being incredibly destructive to
your home, it might be a good idea to call the police instead of trying to stop
him yourself. Oftentimes, we suggest that parents call the non-emergency number
for their local police department ahead of time to discuss how they would handle
these kinds of situations if you should call them for assistance. This way, you
have an idea of what you'd be getting into and you can make an informed
If your child threatens to hurt themselves or someone else, that's another
situation in which you will need to utilize some local supports, such as the
police or a local crisis helpline. When the safety of your child, or another
family member, is at risk, you absolutely want to step back in there in some way
and make sure everyone is safe.
Will My Child Ever Stop Banging on My Door?
It has been shown that over time, when a behavior is no longer reinforced or
rewarded, it will eventually fade away-also referred to as "extinction." To put
it another way, if the behavior doesn't get what it needs to survive-your
attention-it will eventually cease to exist. The key is to be consistent. If you
continue to feed the behavior, even just once in a while, the behavior will
continue to rear its ugly head. It takes a lot of time, energy, and practice and
it will be very exhausting, but do your best to consistently ignore your child's
attempts to pull you back into the argument after you've disengaged. Over time
your kids will see that you mean it when you walk away-and they will learn they
can't pull you back in. This change in your response will lead your child to
adapt or to find new (and hopefully more appropriate) ways of coping.
("How To Walk Away From A Fight With Your
Child: Why It's Harder Than You Think" reprinted with permission from Empowering
by Sara Bean
Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School
Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor
and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing,
creators of the
The Total Transformation, since 2009 working on
the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with
youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.