We Are Family


Little Conflicts Everywhere

Little Conflicts Everywhere - Mehul Dave 621877 Unsplash

“You need this conflict with me now. You need it.”

Invite the behaviour in, they said on the Great Behaviour Breakdown. So here I am, beckoning it, showing I am ready to receive. 

He splashes me from the bath, not playful but violent, his stocky little legs powering through the water. He is not built like me. Not my DNA. “A bruiser,” someone once called him. A little voice within me says that my “own” child would not be able to overpower me. They would be overly-compliant with weak shoulders like me. Here instead is a four year old that can scare me with fires of rage. Here is the latest one, a flame that burns in spite of the water. 

Today was perfect. Everyone was dressed and ready calmly. A ride on a train, Kensington Gardens in full bloom, a picnic. We played hide and seek and made a huge den under a tree whose branches touched the grass. We held hands and had cuddles. A stranger said my son was adorable. Oxytocin levels were high. But he needs the conflict now. He needs to stop feeling good. He hits and splashes. I try not to look directly into his eyes because this is supposed to be a threatening thing to do, so I concentrate on his left ear.

I quieten my voice. “I am so sad to see you are feeling like this. Because it must mean you still don’t trust us.”

He flails in the water, splashing. His body is like a fish on the shoreline, flapping, unsure what to do with itself. Inside, I suspect he is working out what he can grasp at to keep the conflict alive.

He pauses and then the violent splashes start again. Water flies across the bathroom. I keep my voice soft. I don’t react. He needs a reaction. Maybe, this time, if I sit tight then the feelings will have nowhere to go. I imagine them burning out and floating away, like smoke.

He stops. “You are full of sadness right now,” I say.

  He pauses and then continues splashing. There is always a point, always a point, when I will crack. The floor is under water. Soon the water will drip through the ceiling, on to the head of my husband frying sausages below. A flood would do it, bring me to shouting point. I have a choice now, lose my temper or let him keep going, waters rising, me sitting soaked while below us the ceiling comes down.

I have an idea this time.

“Let me get you out of the bath. Then we can really do this. You will be really angry and then we can have what you need.”

He flails in the water and then stops. He sucks his thumb. 

He scowls, the champion of expression. It is a scowl that could bring down Rome. 

He puts out his pink tongue. I tweak it and call it “jambon” and then I do beep-beep on his nose and he laughs.

The feelings have gone, for now. He gets out of the bath and I dry his slippery body. 

Then the feelings reappear again, throughout the evening: an ever-diminishing series of little fires. A need to excessive control over how many carrot slices he eats, an insistence on shorts instead of pyjamas, an eternity to brush his teeth. And so, the conflict continues to play out, in its milder version. Sometimes we are fed up as parents and we shout, but tonight we are both calm. We have the energy today to contain, to reflect, to try and shine a light on what it all means. That dark spot inside. And so the flames burn and burn and diminish until they finally extinguish. He falls asleep and does not wake until morning.


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  • Chris Brierley

    Thank you very much for that moving account of a very familiar scenario. My son is 8 years old and my efforts to understand and accept his behaviour as he presents it without getting 'involved' with my own stuff can veer wildly from success to abject failure. Reading your story helps clarify the big picture as well as reminding me that my family is not the only one going through this. Thanks again

  • Jane

    Brilliantly poignant and extremely well written!

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