Paul’s dad is pushing him to go to medical school. But Paul doesn’t want to become a doctor. He is interested in mechanical engineering and has been taking classes toward that degree. Despite Paul’s lack of interest in medicine, his dad isn’t letting up. Tension is growing. Paul and his dad are having a major conflict.
Beginning in our teen years, family conflict actually strengthens our sense of self. It helps us figure out who we are and what we believe and need. But during that process (and even long after), we may have differences with our parents.
As we work though our differences, we learn how to navigate conflict, hold our opinions and positions. When we try to work it out with our parents, we bring healthy conflict resolution skills to our adult relationships. Families, in fact, teach us how to handle conflict, or in many cases, how to avoid it. If we avoid, this pattern also follows us into our other adult relationships and creates problems.
Like Paul, you may not always see eye-to-eye with your parents. Yet, Scripture tells us to honor our mothers and fathers (Exodus 20:12) even when we don’t agree with them. So how do we honor parents and remain true to ourselves when conflict presents?
Here are five suggestions:
Often, we dance around areas of family conflict instead of having a sit down conversation. It seems easier to avoid, but the pressure eventually builds up to the exploding point.
Avoidance does reduces stress for the moment, but the stress returns with a vengeance because the issue isn’t resolved. Better to address the issue when it occurs, then let it simmer for days or months.
Matthew 18:15 tells us to go to a person if we have a problem. Don’t avoid, minimize the issue, or hope it will go away. Healthy people address problems.
Speak the Truth in Love
The way you deal with conflict is more important than the fact that you have conflict. Parent-child conflict is normal, but if we come at our parents with a harsh start up, they simply get defensive. Then no one is listening.
Proverbs 15: 1 reminds us that a gentle word turns away wrath and a harsh word stirs up anger. So begin gently: Stick to the issue at hand and say how the problem impacts you. “Dad, I’m starting to feel resentful toward you because you are pushing your agenda. I don’t want to feel resentful, so we need to talk.”
When your expectations differ from your parents, you need to establish boundaries. Obviously, this looks different depending on the situation, but establishing healthy boundaries is essential for any relationship.
In Paul’s case, he needs to tell his dad that his career decision needs to be his. While he appreciates his dad’s input, he would like his dad to respect his decision and not continue to badger him about a direction he does not want to pursue.
Often, when family conflict erupts, it’s easy to harbor unforgiveness toward the parent we think is responsible. But it’s essential to learn to forgive. Forgiveness means we give up our right to be resentful.
Our parents can let us down, treat us poorly or do things that are not always in our best interests. They aren’t perfect. Forgiveness is a choice and an individual act that frees us from carrying around bitterness and resentment. Christ forgave us when we didn’t deserve it. He asks us to do the same for others. Forgiveness jump-starts the process of reconciliation.
Accept That Not All Things Will Get Resolved
Reconciliation takes two, and if one isn’t willing, you may have to accept that the difference will not get resolved. Not all conflict gets resolved, and yet people co-exist. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree without being disagreeable.
Focus on the positives of your relationships and extend grace. You can only control your part of a conflict and that is what God will hold you responsible for one day. So respond in love—be patient, kind, gentle and use self-control—all fruit of the spirit. Then agree to disagree so you can live in peace.
Bottom line: Conflict is woven into our daily lives. To deal with it, we need to talk. But the way we respond to any conflict matters. When we honor our parents by using these five tips, we can grow our relationships despite our differences.
Dr. Linda Mintle is a national speaker and best-selling author of over 15 books on relationships and mental health, including her latest, We Need to Talk: How to Successfully Navigate Conflict. She is the chair of the Division of Behavioral Health in the Department of Primary Care, at the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Liberty University. She is the host of The Dr. Linda Mintle Show and writes the BeliefNet blog Doing Life Together. She lives in Virginia.