It’s summer vacation. Two brothers, Anthony, 11, and Colin, 14, are home alone. Both of their parents work. The boys do have some scheduled activities, but there are large chunks of time when they’re at the house with no adult presence. Their parents figure they’re old enough to be on their own.
The boys’ father, a manager at a paint store, is halfway through his workday when his cell phone starts vibrating.
“Dad, Colin has gone mental, and he says he’s going to kill me, and I didn’t do anything.”
“Put your brother on the phone.”
“Dad, Anthony is such a liar. I didn’t say I was going to kill him, I said I wanted to kill him. But I should kill him, because he wouldn’t let me have the remote and now he’s hidden it.”
“Put your brother back on the phone.”
“Dad, I took the remote because Colin was hogging it and now he says he’s going to kill me and he’s making a face like he means it and I’m scared.”
“Let me speak to Colin.”
They call, and they call again, and then they call again. Twice their father actually has to leave work.
Squabbling between teenage siblings is always maddening. But such arguments can be an even more difficult problem when you’re not with them. For, as many parents know, they can reach out across the intervening space, grab you and somehow pull you into their bickering and hold you – almost like a prisoner – in a way that seems even harder to escape than when you are at home with them.
How can this be? What can you do?
The problem is that if you are not home, there is always the worry: “What if their fight gets too out of control, what if somebody truly gets hurt?”
With you there, if they can’t work it out, you can always intervene if matters get out of hand. But if you’re not there, should the bickering continue unresolved, there’s always the possibility that the hostilities will escalate to a dangerous level. Or at least that’s how it seems.
You are trapped. When you’re home, if there is bickering that they cannot resolve, you don’t always have to get involved. You don’t have to resolve all arguments. You can say,
“I don’t want to hear about it.”
You can disengage, while still being present should matters deteriorate.
But when you’re absent and they bring their squabbling to you via the phone, and if, even with your interventions, the disagreement remains unresolved, you are stuck.
“But Dad, you’re not listening, he hid the remote. I’m going to break some of his stuff.”
“You better not.”
“But it’s not fair I can’t get the remote.”
You become a prisoner of the phone so long as they can keep the dispute going. You don’t feel like you can tell them that they will have to work it out on their own and then hang up. They have you captive so long as they can come back with an unresolved last word.
“But Dad you have to do something, Anthony’s being too unreasonable. You have to make him give me the remote control. Dad!”
As I said, you worry. If you hang up, there’s now an empty space. They are now far away and the conflict is out there still unresolved, and you have just removed yourself from any connection to it.
Let me make a suggestion. You can hang up. If you are not comfortable with it, then don’t do it. You have to be the judge as to whether you feel safe in disengaging with your particular kids in any particular instance. If you feel that there needs to be more of a resolution, then so be it.
But if the fear is of possible harm, you can address that without a resolution of the conflict.
“I need you to tell me that you will not injure your brother.”
“But Dad he’s not going to give me the remote.”
“I need you to tell me you will not injure your brother.”
“No. I’m not going to hurt him, but he –”
“Good. I’m going to hang up now.”
“But Dad you can’t. He –”
“Goodbye Colin.” And then the boys’ father hangs up.
Only you can be the one who decides whether it is okay to hang up. But all I can say is that sometimes it is the best option.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.