WINNING A GOTCHA WAR   Excerpt  adapted from my book Parents Are People Too.

Teens blame parents, it is a shift from the thought processes of a younger child.  Younger children blame themselves; teens can think more broadly and see not only their flaws, but the flaws of their parents.

A sophisticated form of blaming occurs during what I call the Gotcha Wars.   I  talk  about Gotcha Wars in my book When Good Kids Do Bad Things.  Gotcha wars are wars fought by others who get angry at you instead of dealing with their own uncertainties.  The Gotcha Warrior is using one blaming anger to cover hurt or fear and uncertainty.  The wrong feeling is being expressed.  Often the case in anger and the best way to deal with anger is to look for the hurt or fear it hides.  Teens cannot easily do that.  Neither can adults for that matter.  If someone  draws you  into a fight, you become  the problem; when  you are the problem, the Gotcha Warrior  doesn’t have to deal with the hurt or uncertainty about himself.

What exactly is a Gotcha War?  Any situation in which the one person covers their negative feelings by  engaging in behavior designed to make another person look, act, feel bad, wrong or crazy.  If you look foolish or get more upset than the person trying to feel better, you lose and the Gotcha Warrior feels better.  Such tactics help people who are feeling powerless or incompetent feel more powerful.

Here is a quick picture of what a Gotcha War looks like:

In a well played Gotcha War,  your shortcomings are the ones in the spotlight.  You know the other person is wrong, but then again there is just enough truth in what they say to make you doubt if not the facts, at least your sanity.  A good Gotcha Warrier makes you worry about your goodness, sanity, and ability to be in control.

“My kid asked me to let him buy a keg for a party he was having.   I said no.  He’s sixteen, no way I’m going to serve beer to under age kids.   Usually, he is a reasonable kid and  I was right.  But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and by the time the dust cleared, I was ready to smack him across the face.  I was so angry, I could hardly speak.  He  stayed calm and collected and rational.  He didn’t get his way, but I felt like I had lost.  I don’t understand what happened?”

Most likely what happened is that child needed Dad to blow.  How else could he tell his friends no beer at the party.  Child probably needed to convince his friends Dad was off the wall and totally unreasonable on the subject of beer and teenagers.  Child knew Dad well enough to push the right buttons and Dad obliged the son’s need to complain honestly about his “crazy” Dad.

Not an awful problem, unless Dad ends up feeling too crazy or guilt ridden and handles those feelings by counter anger and counter attack.   Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.  Dad let his child create uncertainty in him and managed that uncertainty with anger.

A major clue in figuring out you are involved in a Gotcha War begins with feeling uncertainty about whether you are right or wrong.   You know you are right, but you feel wrong or guilty. You may still feel foolish and guilty even after the dust clears.  When you examine the issues dispassionately,  you know you were right, but that doesn’t shake the sense that somehow you are the one who is wrong.

When someone is getting angry at you and you know you are being reasonable, do two things.  First start using your self soothing skills.  Secondly, keep a check on your feeling temperature.  If everything the other person does seems to inflame you more, if despite knowing you are right, you keep feeling you are somehow in the wrong, think Gotcha War.

How do you fight a Gotcha War? The most important tactic is to minimize your response.  This is a useful technique for dealing with anyone who is blowing off steam.  So whether or not you are in a Gotcha War, minimal response skills are useful skills.


Minimal response means the first thing you do is  shut your mouth and limit your responses to the Look.  The Look comes in various sizes and shapes, but its essential message conveys bemused awareness of the other’s intent to foment a Gotcha War.  The look is a variation of Soft Face and serves as the non verbal equivalent of saying as nicely as possible:

“Come on.”

“Are you serious?”

“I don’t believe this.”

Trying to make these points verbally rarely works.  Any verbal  response on your part  fuels the Gotcha’s Warrior’s verbal flame thrower.  But when you are attacked for a look, you can always send a second look that implies the viewer’s interpretation is the problem.  A quick double take shake of the head combined with a slow quiet slightly wide eyed stare and the barest shrugging of your shoulders conveys the necessary idea.  That could be “I don’t know what you are talking about” or “You won’t win that way.”

With a particularly determined Gotcha Warrior, you might be pushed.  Some will ask direct question.

Question: “Well, are you or aren’t you going to let me serve beer at the party?”

The only reasonable answer:   “No.

Follow-up question; “Are you trying to ruin my party?”

The only reasonable answer: “No.

Of course in such situations, you can simple shake your head no.  But generally,  answering direct questions is polite and politeness is very important when it comes to winning a Gotcha War.  Be polite, use Soft Face, use  non verbal responses unless asked a direct question, then make your verbal responses  short and to the point.  When you can give a dubious or confusing reply, do so.

The Gotcha Warrior says, “What do you mean looking at me like that?”

You say:  “Huh” or “Ummh” and shrug your shoulders.

This will probably lead the Gotcha Warrior into spouting off with something like, “Do you think I don’t know what you’re doing: I know what you’re trying to do.  Admit it, you just want to get my goat.”

You can then reply with another,  short word or sentence.  “You think so?” might do the trick.

Or you can give another variation of the Look and wait for the next question.  Alternating minimal replies with the Look generally leads your opponent to pursue one of two tactics. He will escalate and end up looking like the crazy one.  Not the most desired response, but you have to settle for what you can get in some Gotcha Wars.  Generally, if you keep your responses calm, polite and minimal, the other player will most likely  walk away, muttering angrily about parents.  In either case you win.


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