I’ve written earlier about how challenging it can be to step into a child’s already-existing story, which is what we stepparents and foster parents do. One of the best principles I’ve found for making that transition work to any degree is to learn how to pick your battles. We don’t need to correct every mistake that our children make (assuming that the actions really are mistakes) or join every argument. Most times, it’s best just to move past conflict and concentrate on the bigger issues facing our families.
Why We Should Pick Our Battles
The first step toward picking our battles is knowing why it’s an important and helpful principle. Understanding why we need to let some things go will help us figure out which of those things don’t need our emotional energy.
1. Maintain Family Harmony: The first reason to not fight every battle in our family is to avoid family conflict. Of course, we don’t want to avoid conflict at the expense of creating unhealthy relationships. But engaging in every conflict that comes also will undermine relationships. Constant confrontation inevitably will disrupt our family's peace and happiness. Picking your battles allows you to prioritize and focus on issues that genuinely matter.
2. Build Stronger Relationships: Focusing on important matters helps us build stronger relationships with family members. Arguments stress those bonds, and arguments over small issues build resentment. We need to be sure that the arguments we pick are worth those risks.
3. Reduce Stress: The most important reason to pick your battles is to reduce your stress. Parenting children who have suffered trauma is challenging and comes with enough built-in stress for anyone. Disagreements and conflict are inevitable. Letting go of issues where you can will help you reduce that conflict and the stress levels within your family.
How We Can Pick Our Battles:
It’s not enough to just understand the principle of picking our battles. We have to actually put the principles into action. So how do we decide which issues are worth fighting over and which we need to let slide?
1. Collaborate With Your Spouse: Any decision that you make has to be a joint decision. If the adults don’t have a united front, then none of these principles will work. Moreover, you will simply add to the number of arguments that you have within the family. Discuss all of these principles with your spouse, reach a joint decision, and then (here’s the hard part) stick to it.
2. Identify Your Core Issues: You have to decide which issues are critical to your family’s well-being. Matters like respect and honesty should not be negotiable. Other issues, such as school homework, may be important but not worth the energy to argue about. Still, other issues, such as curfew, may be a decision for a biological rather than a stepparent. And finally, there are decisions that we should let children make for themselves, such as clothing and hobbies. Decide with your spouse which are the core issues that are central to your family’s healthy relationships.
3. Set Clear Boundaries: Establish clear rules and boundaries within the family. Of course, your kids probably will test those boundaries at first. Testing boundaries is what kids do. But if you address the boundaries calmly and (more importantly) consistently, your kids eventually will adjust to the structure. In the long run, clear and consistent boundaries help reduce the number of conflicts and battles that you have to address.
4. Respect Individual Differences: Each of your kids has his or her own approach to life. Be flexible about those differences. As long as your kids aren’t trespassing on core values or doing unsafe things, let them march to the beat of their own drummers.
5. Give it Time: Parenting children with trauma does not follow a linear path, and you don’t need to address every issue immediately. Sometimes, simply allowing time to pass can lead to natural resolutions as family members mature. Other times, you need to delay less important issues while you help your kids deal with more foundational problems. Take your time figuring out what battle to fight when.
6. Seek Professional Help: Finally, this is no time to go it alone. If your family struggles with recurring conflicts, consider whether a good family therapist can help. Experienced counselors can help you learn skills and tools for navigating these conflicts and help your family find more peaceful ways of expressing themselves.
When parenting children who have suffered trauma, you will have to find the right balance between addressing important matters and letting go of less significant issues. Work with your partner to implement these principles, and you’ll have a better chance of building good relationships within your family.