CHILDREN / War and peace in the home: Family battles inflict injuries but also release tensions. Angela Neustatter on why rows can be good for you

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The Independent Culture
HERE is a story achingly familiar to anyone with a family or who has ever been part of one. The scene: a Sunday lunch which has been planned to bring the family together. Just as everyone is about to start eating, Marianne, 42, says she wants George, 14, and Luisa, 11, to clear the table and wash up at the end of the meal. Both children begin to groan and protest. Marianne explodes: 'I prepare the food, I serve it and I don't see why I should clear up after you as well. You kids get away with being complete slobs.'

And so it starts. George and Luisa are stung into listing the chores they have done during the week; Marianne points out it was a small contribution to a lifestyle which involves a good deal of 'servicing'. George says she never notices what he does, only what he doesn't do, then announces he doesn't want to eat and leaves the room.

The row escalates. The father, Paul, 45, joins in, criticising Marianne for having a go at the children during the meal. She retaliates, calling him a lousy role model. Luisa says he is a wonderful father and that he has looked after them well while Marianne was away. Marianne screams at Luisa that if they got on so much better without her perhaps she should leave. Luisa bursts into tears and Paul tells Marianne that she is a bitch. The meal - and the shouting match - is over.

Several hours later, Paul apologises frostily for what he said and Marianne, equally frostily, accepts his apology. Something apparently small and quite insignificant had turned into a war of attrition. A row like this, argues Lynne Taylor-Binns, consultant psychologist to Exploring Parenthood, a parental guidance organisation, is often about something other than the issue that triggers it.

In this case, Marianne had returned the day before from a residential training course and felt out of sync and tired. Paul, having looked after the family for the week, was expecting appreciation and Brownie points. The children had coped fine, but had missed Marianne and expected her to return loving and indulgent. Mixed together with long-running resentments about being under-appreciated or constantly nagged, these are the ingredients of a real humdinger.

In cases where family rows flare up frequently, family therapists recommend they should be worked on, not ignored. Hugh Jenkins, director of the Institute of Family Therapy, suggests that time is set aside each week to discuss the issues behind rows. He says the sessions need to be structured to prevent them disintegrating into rows, and suggests the family gets together two or three times a week for about 15 minutes, during which each member can have their 'say'. They must be listened to without interruption. Discussion of the issues can be kept until next time, but each person should end by saying something positive about the others. The fact that people know there is a time for calm discussion and that they will be heard often makes it much easier to avoid wildcat rows, says Hugh Jenkins.

Assessing the classic family row described above, Lynne Taylor-Binns says the parents could at least have recognised that they needed to talk about why they were at loggerheads. Parents of teenagers may feel no amount of reasoning or discussion could resolve their conflicts. But Lynne Taylor-Binns believes parents, perhaps anxious about letting their child go and wanting to keep control over the family, often get involved in rows which could be avoided. 'If your teenager leaves clothes all over his bedroom floor, instead of having a non-stop battle over this, just shut the door and ignore it,' she advises - after all, some things are more important than tidiness or punctuality. Educational psychologist Margaret McAllister agrees: this is an age when children are learning how to assert themselves and how far they can go.

Carol and Gordon Thompson attempt to provide firm guidelines for their teenage son. 'We try to give our 17-year-old a lot of freedom, but when we say he cannot go to a club until three in the morning or borrow large sums of money to buy some new fad, he more often than not throws a tantrum and sulks for hours,' says Carol. 'It takes a lot of conviction to stick it out, but luckily we've decided the things we feel strongly about and are absolutely firm.' In her book Teenagers - A Family Survival Guide (Chatto and Windus pounds 6.99), Laurie Graham, a mother of four, writes: 'The main point of adolescence is to differ, and mainly differ from parents. A vital part of deciding who you are is deciding who you're not - and mum and dad have to be top of the list.'

But the point widely agreed upon by psychologists and parents is that teenagers need boundaries as well as freedom, that they are not as confident inside as they often make out and they rely on parents to give vital guidelines. Or, as Laurie Graham puts it: 'Teenagers need you to be silent and invisible, but very palpably there. You, with your spreading waistline and your Fairport Convention albums, are a marker on their path of self-invention.'

This point came home forcibly to a father who forbade his daughter to go out one evening and, when she disobeyed him, grounded her for three nights. This caused a furious eruption of abuse and cries of how she hated him. He wondered if he had gone too far until he overheard her on the phone, telling a friend, with some pride, that she had been grounded.

Rows are rarely pleasant but, says Dr Kevin Browne of Birmingham University's psychology department, they can be constructive, even cathartic, for families. 'It is obviously important to be able to stress a viewpoint and disagree, though once rage comes in, it takes a different course,' he says. 'But it is valuable for children to witness assertive behaviour and learn that people can have different ways of seeing things and doing things, but that they can still fundamentally get along.'

Hugh Jenkins also makes the point that it can be unhealthy for a family to fear conflict so much that it becomes taboo. Furies that are never expressed can create tensions and an atmosphere of hostility. He points to a family where the husband had learnt as a child to control his emotions, particularly anger. He would go to great lengths to avoid conflict, while his wife was emotionally eruptive; she was used to getting things out, dealing with them and leaving them behind. She became convinced he didn't care about her because he didn't respond to her. Tensions mounted until one day she hit him with a saucepan. He responded by grabbing her by the throat. At this point, they realised they had a crisis and went for help.

The other benefit of a row is that it allows issues to be aired and possibly resolved, says Lynne Taylor-Binns. Through this process children learn that people can disagree and negotiate, there does not have to be a winner and a loser, and that people can be angry but still love each other. She suggests, however, that a good many rows might never happen if people paused to wonder whether it was really worth it. Couldn't they find a better way of resolving the problem if they stepped back and gave the matter a bit of quiet thought, before embarking on a slanging match?-