When the best response to a family argument is to let it go

Last week, my son had an epic meltdown at 7:45 am. Grievances included, but were not limited to: the regrettable lack of Kashi in the pantry, the “loud chewing sounds” his brother was making, and the sudden disappearance of a Patrick Mahomes Teeny Mate. I was barely awake, yet found myself thrust into Defcon 5-level kid-consoling. But my son wasn’t listening to me, and as a result, I lost patience with him. I eventually said “I can’t do this right now,” and left the room. My son proceeded to engage in a (loud) football game with his Teenymates. A few minutes later I heard him on a Google meet with his classmates.

By the time my son was done with his Google meet and the rest of his schoolwork, he was in a perfectly fine mood and ran outside to play with his brother. Once I saw he’d finished his work I started to head outside to talk with him about our argument that morning. But seeing him out there, giggling as he tackled his brother, I hesitated. He was clearly having a great time—did I really need to interrupt him? I ultimately decided to leave him to his game and to forego the post-fight wrap-up entirely.

Pre-COVID, if I had stormed out of my son’s room in anger, I would have approached him later on to discuss what happened. As a clinical psychologist, I’m generally a fan of processing disagreements, and not usually a proponent of letting things go. (Patients of mine will tell you that I detest grudge-holding and am constantly challenging them to approach family members and friends with whom they’re having difficulties).

But post-COVID, there are a lot more grievances aired and a lot more disagreements taking place, in my house and in everyone else’s. It seems that one (or more) of the four of us is always frustrated/upset/tired/angry at the world at any given time, which makes petty arguments far more likely. Were we to try and process the majority of the aggravations and arguments we’ve been having during this time, we’d be processing constantly, which would leave us with less time to savor the moments of relative peace and happiness.

As a result of my experiences with my own family (and to the amazement of my patients), I’ve changed my tune on processing, at least temporarily. My new recommendation? Let it go.

I should clarify here: I absolutely don’t mean you should let everything go. Instead, I’m suggesting you employ more of a “pick your battles”-type strategy. You need to consider which disagreements and grievances need to be discussed to ensure the emotional well-being of your family members, and which disagreements and grievances can be easily dropped with no emotional fallout. If everyone has moved on, you should move on too, rather than prolong an already difficult moment with further discussion. Heaven knows we are all having enough difficult moments as is.

It’s also important to note that overt discussion of conflict and feelings is not the only way to effectively move on from disagreements, especially those you have with your kids. Sharing a smile or a joke with the family member in question or joining an activity they’re involved in is another way to make a repair. Rather than discuss my argument with my son, I decided to sit on the deck and “referee” (those quotes are very necessary) his football game. It demonstrated to him that I was no longer angry and was there to support him, as always.

It is of course critical to talk with our children about their feelings. However, we don’t want to be talking to them about feelings all day, every day. It’s important that they get to talk about their friends and video games and TikTok. I want my son to be able to give me a play-by-play of TeenyMate Mahomes’ amazing catch without feeling compelled to discuss the psychological motivation behind it. Our kids (like the rest of us) need some levity and distraction during this dark time.

I can’t recall any other time in my career when I regularly recommended that patients let things go. But then, this is unlike any other time. I’m sure I’ll change my tune post-COVID, when there will be exponentially fewer family arguments to diffuse. In the meantime, I’ll try to be choosy about how and when I decide to process, and encourage my patients to do the same. We all need to savor the moments of joy and calm, however rare they might be.

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