Q: Our family is having a tough time with conflict. We all seem to want to have the control, maybe because it feels like there’s so little in life right now. We’re having too many disagreements, actually loud fighting sometimes, and that bothers me. I worry that we will come out of this pandemic in bad shape. If you can offer any suggestions on conflict, that would help.

A: Conflict carries considerable weight, triggering fight or flight reactions. “Conflict” escalates because we’re determined to win, rendering the other person(s) powerless. If we reframe our win-lose posturing, as polarizing perspectives, we increase the chance of a more positive outcome. It’s important to remember everyone doesn’t have to agree, however listening well and being respectful are key.

Start by establishing a way to process conflicts affecting all of you. Family meetings are helpful for discussing problems and brainstorming solutions. Make mutual respect a family value. Good manners, such as listening well, sharing honestly without judging, criticizing, or blaming each other, not interrupting the speaker, will help ease tensions. Teach your children your family’s values around conflict. An example: “In our family, we won’t hit or fight when we’re angry. We will always talk things through, respecting each other’s differences.” The goal is for win-win solutions in which everyone has input: “Here’s how I see the problem. I’d like to hear how you see it. Let’s figure out what we’re going to do about it.” The outcome should be that each of you gets closer to what you really wanted.

Decide your family will now build a collaborative approach, empowering each of you to commit to a more effective mediation process. Here are the steps:

Create a calm atmosphere/environment (free of distractions, noise, interference)

Ensure everyone’s perceptions are clearly understood

Identify individual and shared needs

Balance positive power

Learn from the past (the mistakes, the successes)

Brainstorm options

Develop realistic goals

Agree on mutual benefits

This process shapes a different outcome, by thinking “we” collaboratively, rather than “I opposed to you.” Stay focused on sustaining your long-term relationships. Effectively reaching solutions will strengthen and improve family dynamics.

Approaching differences honestly and directly certainly doesn’t mean things will necessarily be easy, or comfortable. You can agree to disagree, because we don’t always get a positive response. However, it does mean communicating with integrity, something we owe ourselves as well as our family. There will always be difficult situations to navigate, within and outside the family. The bottom line is modeling to your children that it is possible to be strong and assertive without being aggressive and hurtful.

Q: Anxiety is bigger than ever. With nothing certain right now, we have the added stress of being a new stepfamily. My new “stepkids” are my husband’s and they are really acting out, being rude and not listening to me, which is too stressful. Just no control, too much change. Any advice?

A: Some people do much better in the face of stress than others. Like all children, stepchildren need to feel loved, accepted, and secure. During COVID, children’s anxiety has significantly increased. The confluence of many changes, as well as the current surreal circumstances, is very unsettling for them. They need a sense of belonging and some sense of control over their own lives, at a time none of us are experiencing much of that. Given the emotional and physical upheavals of remarriage, their needs can be undermined. Of course, the adjustment to a parent’s new marriage depends on the child’s age, whether the remarriage follows the death of a parent or divorce, coupled with the health of the relationship between the adults.

It’s important to help stepchildren manage the changes by understanding their perspective. Easing their transition during this challenging time requires considerable patience, while encouraging them to share their feelings — and honestly sharing yours. Let them know it’s normal to feel anxious, to have questions, to need more attention, etc. Be sure to attend to your own self-care during this adjustment period. I suspect some of the behavior you’re seeing is COVID-related, driven by their anxiety. Practice speaking to the emotional root, saying something like: “I get that it’s hard to listen when you’re feeling so unsettled and scared (or bored, distracted, etc.). Let’s think of ways we can make things work better.” OR: “Let me know when you’re ready to talk to me in a way I can listen to you. I’ll be here, ready to give you my full attention.”

“Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children.” — Fred Rogers