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Regulating Your Emotions in Family Conflicts

Nobody makes you fly off the handle or shutdown when you feel rising anger.  You have an urge, you make a choice and you act on it.  All of this can happen in a split second. The question is when do you notice and what you do after you notice.

If it all happens below the surface of consciousness, you don’t have the awareness to think when your adrenaline starts pumping and your instinct is to fight, flee or freeze.  It feels like the triggering event made you do it and you start blaming, accusing or defending, which only fuels your emotions and escalates the argument.

Ironically, arguments with those closest to us – spouses, parents and children – often are the most heated. We expect more and the stakes are higher.  What if they don’t love us?  What if they abandon us emotionally?

This blog lists 15 rules for productive conflict.  But if you are human (like most of us), some (or most) of the rules fly out the window in the heat of the moment. For these situations, I describe five (just five) skills for regulating your emotions when you have the urge to let loose on a loved one.

Fifteen Rules for Productive Conflict

Conflict in families is neither good nor bad.  It happens.  Family members are going to disagree at times.  They have competing needs and desires.  What matters is not that there is conflict; rather, it is how the inevitable conflicts are addressed.  How you work out your differences can strengthen or erode your relationships.

Here are 15 rules that provide the foundation for healthy resolution of family conflicts.  Despite the best intentions, however, none of us will follow all these rules all the time.   We’re human and that’s okay.

  1. Keep your long-term goals in mind (e.g., importance of the relationship)
  2. Stick to one issue at a time
  3. Avoid bringing up the past
  4. Use “I” statements, not “you” statements
  5. Keep your voice calm, your body language open & your facial expressions relaxed. Do not yell, curse, throw, stomp, etc.
  6. Describe your needs, wants or concerns factually from your perspective. It’s not about being right.
  7. Agree to disagree on the details – it doesn’t matter how the situation came about – and neither of you will remember it accurately. Resolving conflict is not about assigning or admitting blame.
  8. Do not judge, blame, explain too much, justify, defend or repeat yourself in an attempt “to be heard or undestood”
  9. Listen mindfully and validate (you don’t have to agree). See Validating and Invalidating
  10. Give the benefit of the doubt or be willing to suspend disbelief
  11. Be mindful of your responses – if it’s not kind or relevant don’t say it
  12. Use humor judiciously — no cutting sarcasm, laugh with not at
  13. Monitor your physiological responses. If you are clenching your jaw, breathing fast or shallow, your heart is pounding or racing, you’re sweating or some other physical symptom – relax and take slow, deep breaths
  14. If you get off track, bring yourself back to the issue at hand
  15. When emotions start to escalate or you feel yourself shutting down – use emotional self-regulation skills below.

Understanding the Downward Spiral

Couples and families develop self-perpetuating patterns of emotional dysregulation.  One fight lays the seeds for the next and the next and the next.  Breaking the cycle hinges on each individual taking responsibility for themselves – accepting that no one makes me lash out in anger except me.

Here’s how the cycle works.  Something happens.  Your teenager doesn’t come home when he’s expected.  Your initial emotion is fear.  What if something happened?  As the clock ticks, you start thinking about it and the judgments start.  He doesn’t respect my parental authority.  He “never” comes home on time.  He’s probably drinking and thinks I’m stupid enough not to realize what’s going on.  He’s just a bad kid.  The more you think, the more upset you get.

When he walks in the door, you lay into him.  You both say ugly things you don’t mean. You both want to be right in the moment and forget what matters most in the long run (e.g., he’s safe & you love each other).  You invalidate each other at so many levels – not listening to each other, aggressive body language, angry facial expressions and yelling, name calling, labeling, etc.

Each time you fight the invalidation is internalized more, which increases the underlying vulnerability.  You start anticipating each other’s reactions and emotional dysregulation rather than giving the benefit of the doubt.  And the cycle spirals downward over time.

Alan Fruzzetti, PhD., a student of Marsha Linehan’s, illustrates the self-perpetuating cycle like this.


Five Emotion Self-Regulation Skills

Despite your best efforts to employ the 15 rules, there will be times your emotions will escalate and you will have the urge to lash out or shutdown.  Five skills will help you regulate your own emotions when an argument is imminent or in progress.

  1. Knowing how to handle what emotions – Engage with primary emotions and detach from secondary emotions
  2. Re-orient – Focus on long run goals and avoid need to be right, dictate or have last word
  3. Radically accept “what is” – Some things you can’t change and sometimes it’s not worth trying to change them.
  4. Change body chemistry – Temperature, paced breathing, intense exercise, progressive relaxation
  5. De-escalate – Delay, distract, detach, depersonalize

Knowing How To Handle What Emotions

Imagine you’ve made a special dinner hoping for a romantic evening.  Your partner comes home late and the dinner is ruined.  Your primary emotion is disappointment and annoyance.  As time passes, you start telling yourself stories about why he is late. He doesn’t care. He’s “always” late. He must be out drinking with co-workers or he’d call.  You work yourself into a rage, which is your secondary emotion.  If you give yourself permission to engage with the disappointment and annoyance, allowing yourself to feel the hurt, it’s easier to resist the urge to tell yourself stories that lead to the rage that often results in heated arguments,

A primary emotion is the Initial emotion you feel when something happens.  It is automatic and arises without thought.  It is often transient.  Examples of primary emotions include being happy, sad, afraid, annoyed or irritated and disappointed.

When a primary emotion arises, describe and engage with it.  Allow yourself to feel the emotion rather than avoiding it.  Then, let it go. If comfortable, you might share what you are feeling.  Sharing primary emotions can increase feelings of connectedness.

A secondary emotion is what you feel after thinking about your primary emotion.  It’s what you feel about your feelings.  If you think too much about your emotions, you may ruminate on negative thoughts or blow your feelings out of proportion, creating secondary emotions, such as, shame, guilt, anger, rage, contempt or excessive fear.  Over-thinking can escalate your emotions, resulting in panic attacks, yelling, sobbing uncontrollably or other symptoms of hyper-arousal.  Alternatively, over-thinking can result in shutting down, numbness, withdrawal or other symptoms of hypo-arousal.  When you notice secondary emotions, describe and detach from them.  Engaging them will escalate your emotions.


It’s not about being right.  Sometimes, the other person is not in a place where they can hear or understand what you are saying, much less agree.  No amount of restating, reframing or raising your voice can make them.  It is at those times, the urge arises to be nasty, invalidating or say things you don’t mean.  Even when you know acting on these destructive urges always makes things worse, the urge can be hard to resist.

Remembering your long-term goals can help reorient you to what’s most important.  While it may seem important that your spouse take out the trash right now, your over-riding long term goals are to be close, love each other and maintain a peaceful household.

When you bring your long-term goals to mind, it’s easier to see alternative solutions.  Does the trash really have to be taken out “right now” or can it wait until my spouse finishes what s/he is doing?   Is there really a right or wrong answer or is it my preference that s/he take out the trash “right now?”

Whether or not s/he takes out the trash “right now,” it’s my choice how to respond.  Do I want the situation to be in control of my emotions or do I want to be in control of my emotions?

The reality is there are always options.  If it’s important to me that the trash go out right now, I can do it.   If it can wait, why is it worth arguing over?  Whatever my partner says or does, I choose how I respond and whether I take into account my long term goals. I have five options.

  • I can do it myself now or wait until s/he has time to do it later
  • I can change the way I think and feel about the situation (e.g., I can give him/her the benefit of the doubt).
  • I can radically accept that s/he’s not going to take out the trash anytime soon and let it go
  • I can make myself miserable fretting about the situation or telling myself stories about what’s wrong with my spouse or our relationship
  • I can make things worse by nagging, demanding, yelling, crying, accusing, blaming, threatening, defending, justifying or a host of other pesky …ing words.

Radically Accepting What Is

Radical acceptance is an option when we cannot change the person or situation or when we decide it’s not worth it to try.

Our partners and our children all have quirky, annoying behaviors they aren’t going to change.  Since we generally can’t eliminate the behavior, we have four remaining options.

  • We can laugh about it (change the way we think/feel)
  • We can radically accept the behavior without resignation, resentment or ill-will
  • We can fret about it (make ourselves miserable)
  • We can nag or argue about it (make things worse)

Other times, it’s not worth the effort or energy to try to change things.  While easy to know and hard to accept, it is a fact that I cannot change anyone other than myself.  I can state my needs, wants and preferences explicitly and clearly but I can’t make my spouse or child take out the trash right now (or anytime for that matter).  This is when radical acceptance is a good option.

Radical acceptance involves more than not nagging or arguing.  Radical acceptance invites us to let go of all resentment, ill-will and resignation and just accept without conditions or expectations.  To really grasp the depth of radical acceptance, I encourage you to listen to the first 4 minutes of this guided meditation by Shawna Thibodeau.

Change Your Body Chemistry

Changing your body chemistry is a crisis management skill.  Use it as the intensity of your emotions is increasing, before you have gone over the top or bottomed out and can’t think clearly.  The effects are short-lived but give you a moment to think so you can effectively problem solve and avoid escalating the argument further.

To use these skills, you have to be mindful of when your emotions are beginning to escalate and you are moving into fight, flight or freeze mode.  This means you have to be in touch with your body. You might  notice when your heart rate increases, your jaws clinch, your muscles tense, your breath shortens or you get butterflies in your stomach.  Others will start feeling numb, tingly, things seeming unreal, wanting to run or shutting down.

The signs of escalating emotions are different for each person.  You will need to experiment with these options to see which one (or combination) works best for you.

  • Bend at the waist and immerse your face in 50-70 degree cold water for up to 30 seconds, preferably ice water.  Or you might bend at the waist and put a bag of frozen vegetables on your face. The point is to trigger the dive reflex, which quickly slows your heart rate.
  • Do intense exercise for 10 minutes. Depending on where you are, you might run up and down the office steps. At home, you might do jumping jacks. The trick is to count the steps or the jumping jacks, preferably out loud.
  • Pace your breathing. Count to four on the inbreath and six on the outbreath. Relax your shoulders.  Sit up as straight as comfortably possible with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Breathe deeply so you feel your abdomen rise and fall.
  • Progressive relaxation. Alternately contract and relax each muscle group starting with your head and moving down your body

De-Escalation Skills

When emotions are escalating and dialogue turns into a heated argument, de-escalation skills will help.  These skills buy you time to think, which is required for effective problem-solving. There are four de-escalation skills:  delay, distract, depersonalize and detach.

Delay.   Slow down – get a glass of water or go to the bathroom and splash water on your face.  Say, “I need a moment to think before I respond.” Then take a few deep breaths before you speak.  Use this time to re-orient and/or radically accept.

Distract.  Demonstrate you respect the person with whom you are in conflict.  You do not have to agree to validate their emotions and efforts.  Another way to distract is to summarize the points on which you agree.  Either (or both) of these can take the energy out of an argument.

Depersonalize.  Focus on the issue, not the person.  Use “I” statements.  “I think …” or “I feel ….”  Avoid interpreting the other’s motivations, accusing, blaming, labeling or name-calling.  You will know when you are doing these when you hear yourself saying the word “you,” such as “You meant to hurt me.”  “You liar.”  “It’s all your fault.”

Detach.  There will be times when you need to take a break to calm yourself before dealing with the conflict. In this case, you can make a “graceful exit.”  This is where you say to the other “I know this is an important issue but I need to calm myself before I can continue.  I’m going to rest for two hours and then we can come back to the discussion.”

A graceful ending differs from walking off or threatening to leave and has four parts:  (1) It validates the other; (2) states your needs; (3) tells the person with whom you are in conflict what you are going to do; and (4) indicates when you will be ready to re-visit the issue (or at least your commitment to come back to the discussion).  Ideally, you will have rehearsed graceful endings before arguments come up.

In The End

Stuff happens. Emotions rise.  Situations escalate.

In the end, we choose how we will respond at each and every step along the way.  We can respond on autopilot or we can proceed mindfully, noticing and separating what is from the stories we tell ourselves and making the best choices we know how given the circumstances. While neither approach guarantees we will avoid heated arguments, noticing what is and making intentional choices is always the best bet.


Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, sees clients at St. Louis DBT on Tuesday through Friday.  She is currently taking new individuals and couples as clients.

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