Code words and other strategies for defusing family conflict

07/14/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

For psychologist Constance Fischer, “tomato” can be a magic word.

Fischer advises the couples in conflict who visit her Pittsburgh practice that they use this word as a code. Whenever they feel an argument building up, one of them can say “tomato.” “And you are not allowed to fling the word at the other,” Fischer says.

The word allows both people to identify what’s going on and to prevent the fight from gaining momentum. “They both just stop,” she says, “because they recognize that neither of them wants to go there.”

New evidence from psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University shows that negative interactions – such as fighting between spouses, family members and friends – can increase the risk of hypertension. The news isn’t that surprising for clinical psychologists and therapists. They all agree that the best way to avoid being affected by these conflicts is to step out of the situation and get some perspective.

Sean DeYoung, director of quality improvement at Familylinks in Pittsburgh, emphasized the importance of learning to communicate. He is a licensed social worker, and he worked as a therapist for 15 years. “We need to first get you in the room together, to talk without cussing at each other,” he says of his clients.

DeYoung recommended being deliberate about the way you bring up conflict. Stay focused on the subject at hand and don’t dig up old skeletons, he says. Maintain eye contact and listen. Apologize for your mistakes.

If you want to steer clear of Tennessee Williams-style drama, you need to pick out the right time and place for a discussion. “The time to try to resolve a conflict is not at a family gathering,” he says.

Yet for families that have a long history of dysfunction, that kind of conversation can be hard to start without professional help.

For a 40-year-old mother who did not wish to be named, Familylinks therapists helped her re-establish a relationship with her 7-year-old daughter. The girl had witnessed domestic violence between her parents and had gone out of control when her dad returned after a three-year absence.

“In the conflict I had with my daughter, she was screaming, breaking things, tearing things up, throwing things at me,” the mother says. On top of her aggression, the child was depressive and suicidal.

“It was evident that after an episode with her my blood pressure would raise,” she says. She said she felt “overwhelmed.”

After being referred to Familylinks, the woman began to meet with therapists in her house once a week. They would play games with her daughter, discussing how to recognize emotions. Once, they even did an experiment at the kitchen sink. For each negative emotion that the girl felt, they put a spoonful of baking soda into a container of vinegar – one scoop for an argument, another scoop for a low grade – and another and another until the container overflowed. That metaphor for the buildup of anger was very helpful, says the mother.

Since then, the mother-daughter conflicts have begun to dwindle.

“It’s not a fix-all,” she says. “We have to work on it every day.” But her migraines are gone, and she is off her hypertension pills. And she can now have a conversation with her daughter.

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