"Fighting is our natural reaction when we're angry, hurt, frustrated, trapped or confused," says family therapist Luree Nicholson.
But styles and tactics, she stresses, differ. "A child may have a fist fight with her brother, argue and yell with her mother and go to her room refusing to speak to her father. In a family where yelling or arguing aren't tolerated, fighting manifests itself in stony silence, crying, alienation and manipulative games.
"Another family's life may be filled with the sounds of incessant screaming and yelling, slammed doors and squabbling."
Sound familiar? Judging from the action at a recent "Family Powwow" (one-day learning/therapy sessions Nicholson offers to groups of families) nothing unites grown-ups or children more quickly than comparing notes on the war between--and the fighting styles of--the generations.
A former "doormat," Nicholson was introduced to the concept of "fair fighting" when she signed up for marriage counseling with California therapist George Bach, author of Creative Aggression and other books on fight training.
Her marriage ended, but Nicholson, 41, who lives in Reston, stayed on to train with Bach. The anger she had been taught to suppress, she realized, simply came out indirectly, as did that of her "nice" kids.
Faced with the prospect of raising six kids (ranging from 6 months to 12 years old) as a single parent, she devised a fair-fight system for families and has been teaching and writing about it ever since. Nicholson's Family Powwows are designed to help make family members aware of their different fighting styles and teach them games, rituals and agreements to make their fighting more productive.
Those who approached the Family Powwow with skepticism were surprised to observe that the children and young adults (aged 5 to 20)--including kids who had been slow to master multiplication tables and dishwashing--were quicker to learn the rules of the fair-fight system than their parents. The "games" or "rituals" vary, but the basic principles remain the same.
Among Nicholson's rules for "fair fighting":
Set a time limit. Allow one or two minutes for expressing anger, rather than engage in endless nagging, rages or pouting.
Allow time out. This helps if the fight goes on for a long time or if it's about a difficult issue. It also helps if one partner is angry, exhausted or frustrated at listening to a stream of criticism or is having difficulty coming up with a solution under pressure.
Don't reward anger. The need for rage release is legitimate, but is distinct from negotiating for a change in behavior, which is best done when the anger is out of the way.
Be specific. "You left your clothes on the bathroom floor" rather than "You are so lazy."
Show respect and avoid intentional hurt. Each person is responsible for letting the family know his or her "beltlines," those subjective tender spots that trigger anger or hurt feelings. Parents' little jokes often hurt their children's feelings.
Express anger, sadness, frustration, affection or confusion at the time you feel them. Don't "gunnysack" your emotions (allow them to build up because you don't think they're worth mentioning).
Relieve fights with humor. But avoid sarcasm or teasing.
Give immediate feedback. To nip misunderstanding in the bud, repeat what a person has said, exactly, to show that you understood them.
Who among us--adult or child--hasn't yearned for permission to throw a full-blown temper tantrum? What keeps the following fair-fight rituals from becoming uncomfortably confrontational is Nicholson's injunction to maintain a good sense of humor and exchange frequent hugs while airing grievances.
"We've taken all of the basic ways of expressing anger as you're growing up," says Nicholson, "and put a ritual to them."
Among those rituals detailed in her practical book, How to Fight Fair With Your Kids--and Win! (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95 paper, $12.95 hard cover), and enacted at her Family Powwows:
Rage Release--Babies scream and cry and kick and pound their feet. You, too, can have a tantrum on your bed, but you may prefer such other forms of rage release as pounding the bed with an EncounterBat or Bataca (see below), a tennis racket or a pillow; pounding clay; kneading bread dough; scrubbing the floors; walking fast or running (and stomping as you go); playing a musical instrument vigorously; ripping up old telephone books; slamming doors; or smashing ice cubes onto cement (very satisfying--it sounds like breaking glass).
Bataca Fights--If your children (or you) are at the next developmental stage--hitting, biting and kicking--buy a pair of soft bats (originally called Batacas and now available as EncounterBats). The foam rubber "bats" serve the same purpose as pillows in a pillow fight but are easier to use. Kids and parents (and some married couples) who have trouble verbalizing their anger love Bataca fights. The weaker player handicaps the stronger one (e.g., by making him play on his knees, or with one hand behind his back, or with feet planted in one spot). Heads, breasts and genitals are off limits, and players can call time out.
Vesuvius--This blowing-up ritual, designed for the yelling, screaming and name-calling stage of anger, is designed for letting off steam verbally when we are tired or frustrated, or have been gunnysacking our emotions. It carries no expectation of change.
Haircut (gripe, bone to pick)--For the nagging and complaining stage, this ritual teaches you to focus on what really bugs you. You don't ask for a change in behavior; you just state a specific beef and declare how the other person's action made you feel.
Doghouse Release--An apology to get the offender "out of the doghouse" after he has been given a Haircut. Designed to replace punishment with a pleasuring activity, the Doghouse Release can range from a simple "I'm sorry" to a favor or task, such as giving the Haircutter a back rub or taking her to a movie.
Fair Fight for Change--Designed to replace pleading and threatening, the fair fight for change is a ritual for dealing with chronic problems, a negotiation process with feedback. (See box.)
Parents and children who like problem-solving but not anger-release rituals may have to work to overcome fight phobia, acknowledges Nicholson, but she says it's worth it. People who are forced to hold in their anger often withhold their love as well.
Luree Nicholson's next Family Powwow is 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. June 18 in Reston. Adults $20, children $10. For further information: (703) 471-7621.
Her book can be ordered for $7.95 plus $1.25 postage and handling from Teen Village, 2026 Swan Neck Way, Reston, Va., 22091.
EncounterBats are available from Uniquity, P.O. Box 6, Galt, Calif. 95632. Phone (209) 745-2111. $41.50 a pair, plus $4 postage and handling.