Kids running rings around you? Here's how to live with less family conflict

Family conflict over household tasks need not engulf your wellbeing.
Family conflict over household tasks need not engulf your wellbeing. Photo: Getty

You ask them to clean their rooms; point blank refusal.

It's time for them to unpack the dishwasher; back answering and time wasting. Takes half an hour to complete the task.

Bed time? Don't. Even. Ask.

If this sounds familiar, you're not alone, and if you have more than one child, chances are they're banding together to undo your sanity. It isn't unreasonable for children to do chores and go to bed at a decent hour, yet many families are experiencing conflict, which is disrupting positive relationships.

The majority of primary carers are women, and many mothers are finding themselves with unparalleled amounts of responsibility and stress.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics states:

'On average, men spent nearly twice as long as women on employment related activities, while women spent nearly twice as long as men on primary activities associated with unpaid work.'

Women are also much more likely be doing paid work outside the home while shouldering much of the responsibility of the day-to-day running of a family.

We spoke to Dr Karen Phillip - Counselling Psychotherapist and Parenting and Relationship Expert - about family conflict when it comes to sharing household workload, as well as the wellbeing of women in this context.

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Dr Phillip says that if partnered, 98% of the time, the primary carer is doing most of the parenting and household duties, while in general, the other partner works to bring in a full-time income. 

Single parents experience different levels of stress and responsibility depending on the involvement of an ex-partner, so while the below tips are generally within the context of a two-parent family, there's lots there for those doing it solo too.

Our job is to prepare our kids for an adult life existence; here's a guide on how to achieve this with less conflict.

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1. From about the age of six; learn independence and self-sufficiency

Six-year-olds are capable of doing their own washing, tidying their rooms, helping prepare dinner, unpacking and packing the dishwasher, cleaning the bath and vacuuming the floor.

"A lot of the time we are just so busy that it's quicker and easier to do these things ourselves," says Dr Phillip, but this means they're not learning essential life skills, and your own workload becomes untenable.

"Utilise the capability and capacity of children to take the pressure off having to everything for everyone," she says. The first few weeks will be a challenge, however it will quickly become natural to them

2. Both parents need to be on the same page

If there are two parents in the picture, then they absolutely have to be on the same page in terms of strategy. Sit down and write down what it is that you both expect and want of the children.

Having spoken to many families encountering firm resistance from their children, Dr Phillip says, "Often we find that disparity where one parent is saying 'Ease up on them; let them go.' but when both parents are insisting on the same capability of the children, then we find the children do it."

3. Have regular family meetings

Tempers can flare when we think our children are avoiding tasks. Yelling and threats aren't effective long-term in achieving the goal of getting the kids to participate in the running of the home.

Vastly preferable are calm family meetings where children identify the tasks they can do and prefer to others.

Rewards such as pocket money, computer time or experiences can be discussed and it's essential to keep interactions positive with empowering language.

Have the kids identify four tasks they are happy to do from a list of jobs. Choosing their own without being guilted or coerced will make a world of difference.

4. Be clear and concise

Often, adults speak to kids in a global way; "I want you to be on your best behaviour." is every parent's most used catchcry. We don't realise that most kids don't know what we mean when we say this.

Dr Phillip advises explaining exactly what you mean by good behaviour; "You will need to sit and read quietly while the person is giving their speech, and afterwards we can have tea and cake. We will be there about an hour."

Children up to the age of about 5 find it difficult to follow complex instructions delivered verbally by an adult. Keep it to two or three instructions and you'll have less chance of finding them staring at the ceiling rather than hanging up their clothes, tidying their desk and making their bed like you asked.

Break each task down and keep to one task with three instructions for the under 12s.

For example, "Pick up your clothes, get some hangers, and hang them up."

5. Constantly evaluate your own behaviour and interactions

Where it's possible to have a male role model for boys, try to ensure they are modelling collaborative behaviour in the home.

In a nuclear family situation, if dad comes home and does nothing and mum is doing everything, this sends a very strong message about gender roles within families.

For families with same-sex parents, a significant male or female role model might be in the extended family or friend group.

Mothers and fathers (and other significant adults) can empower their sons and daughters by being strong role models for gender equality. 

6. If you can, outsource; and feel no guilt

If the budget can manage a weekly or fortnightly cleaner, then do it. This shouldn't mean the kids are absolved of chores; they can still clean a toilet or bathtub half-way through the week.

Using services such as after school care and sporting clubs can also contribute to smoother running of the household. 

Many after school services run homework clubs and then let them run around burning off steam, which might enable you to work outside the home, pursue your passion or simply get more done at home.

You may also find them more compliant after a good afternoon of running and socialisation.

Do your grocery shopping online rather than dragging three kids around the supermarket and refuse to allow guilty feelings about any of this.

7. If you're making excuses, stop

We are often our own worst enemies when it comes to real cultural change in the home. We are too busy to teach the children how to cook, it's easier not to say anything when your partner isn't contributing, we don't want to burden the kids with housework during a busy school week.

"We get stuck in our problem but we need to look past it and say 'Okay, this is a problem for me; what can I do to fix it?"

More and more women are turning to alcohol and medication because of the sheer overwhelm of running a family. "We don't feel like we have the right to ask," says Dr Phillip.

There comes a time to say "You are going to learn how to put a load of washing on, to sort the clothes, to cook a meal. These are lessons in independence you must learn."

Making excuses for why we aren't adjusting behaviours is something we need to evaluate. Face the music, but also be kind to yourself.

8. Put social media in its place

"There are so many positives that social media brings to our lives, however it has placed enormous pressure on women especially, to be perfect at all times and do everything for everyone", says Dr Phillip.

"Everyone is now an expert and what that often translates to is 'the way I do things is best', which is hardly productive and can serve to make parents feel further isolated. 

Some adjusting of social media behaviours might be in order, if you're finding the medium upsetting.

Opt out of parenting groups that experience conflict. Seek out a smaller group of trusted people for a shoulder to lean on.

Avoid social media feeds that judge, criticise, badger, belittle and shame parents - simply refuse to engage.

9. The importance of you

It has become an absolute cliché but investing in yourself not only improves your life, it teaches the kids to do the same when they are adults.

- Prioritise alone time - book an extra after school care session, disappear into your room to read, take a bit longer on the toilet; anything that gives you extra headspace.

- Make a date night with your partner or friend - actively invest in your relationships.

- If you have a partner, reconnect - parenting can take up all our reserves so we're barely ourselves anymore. Find ways to be a couple again; from curling up in front of Game of Thrones, to having a 10pm picnic on the balcony, get creative.

- Feed your goals and aspirations - even if you can't act on them now, think about your plans for the future. Every small step will get you closer.

- Share - a burden shared is a burden halved. Lay down the veneer and get real with someone you trust.

- Tackle depression and/or substance issues.

- Eat well and exercise.

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Dr Karen Phillip, Counselling Psychotherapist & Clinical Hypnotherapist and Parenting and Relationship Expert

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