When you stop participating in an argument, you send your adolescent the message that you’re in control. Though she isn’t consciously aware of this, she feels the power shift from her to you. So if she can pull you back into the argument, she can regain that control she lost. When you walk away, you “win”—but your teenager doesn’t want that to happen, so she will try almost anything to keep it going (e.g., call you names, throw things, punch a hole in the wall, slam a door, etc.). If your teen can do something that gets you to react, she feels much better, and in many cases, she knows that if she pushes all the right buttons, you just might “give in” to get relief from the torture.
How can parents break this cycle?
Tips to channel conflict in a positive direction:
1. If the argument is over the phone or via text message, tell your adolescent that you’re done with the discussion and you will not reply anymore. Then, follow through. Turn the phone off, or unplug it if it’s a landline and get involved with something else. You can finish talking later when she returns home and things are calm again.
2. Don’t allow the crisis at hand to spill over and contaminate the rest of the relationship. It’s easy for the conflict to take over every conversation. Be willing to press the pause button—not to overlook or ignore the problem, but to have time to take a break and re-establish connections over a meal or shared moments that have nothing to do with the conflict at hand.
3. Don’t let conflicts build up—deal with them when they happen. A problem that you overlook doesn’t just go away; it becomes a building block in a wall that can grow and prevent both you and your adolescent from properly responding to future conflicts. Each one that you address and resolve provides training for future conflicts.
4. Don’t lose the “concept of we” in middle of the conflict. The relationship that you have been building with your adolescent will bear fruit over time as long as you protect it. The conflict can challenge us as moms and dads, but we need to approach it as an opportunity rather than as a sign of failure on our part. Don’t allow it to create a permanent breach in your relationship.
5. Don’t reward negative behavior. It has been shown that over time, when a behavior is no longer reinforced or rewarded, it will eventually fade away—also referred to as “extinction.” In other words, if the behavior doesn’t get what it needs to survive (your attention), it will eventually cease to exist. If you continue to feed the behavior – even just once in a while – the behavior will continue to rear its ugly head. Over time your adolescents will see that you mean it when you walk away—and they will learn they can’t pull you back in. This change in your response will lead your adolescent to find new way of coping.
6. Moms and dads often make the “avoidance mistake” when conflict shows itself. In other words, they break away. They stop spending time with their adolescent and avoid the conflict at all costs. That may be a reasonable tactic for a short time, until everyone has a chance to cool off and respect is restored. However, ongoing avoidance will only serve to build walls between you and your adolescent. Instead, by engaging in discussion you will let your adolescent know you’ll continue to love them and spend time together even though you are at odds.
7. When conflict emerges, it’s time to make sure that everyone knows the rules for the “fight” by setting up some basic boundaries. For example, “We’re not going to be disrespectful or dishonest with each other.” Put it into words, and back it up with consequences. Words without backbone mean very little. Let the consequences for crossing boundaries of respect speak louder than your words. And for consistency, make sure those on both sides of the conflict embrace the idea of respect, 100% of the time.
8. The teenage years are a time of experimentation, and sometimes that experimentation includes risky behaviors. Don't avoid the subjects of sex, or drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. Discussing these things openly with adolescents before they're exposed to them increases the chance that they'll act responsibly when the time comes. Share your family values with your adolescent and talk about what you believe is right and wrong. Know your adolescent's friends — and know their friends' moms and dads. Regular communication between parents can go a long way toward creating a safe environment for all adolescents in a peer group. Moms and dads can help each other keep track of the adolescents' activities without making the adolescents feel that they're being watched.
9. Pick your battles carefully. If adolescents want to dye their hair, paint their fingernails black, or wear funky clothes, think twice before you object. Adolescents want to shock their moms and dads, and it's a lot better to let them do something temporary and harmless. Leave the objections to things that really matter, like tobacco, drugs and alcohol, or permanent changes to their appearance. Ask why your adolescent wants to dress or look a certain way and try to understand how your adolescent is feeling. You might also want to discuss how others might perceive them if they look different — help your adolescent understand how he or she might be viewed.
10. Put yourself in your adolescent's place. Practice empathy by helping your adolescent understand that it's normal to be a bit concerned or self-conscious, and that it's OK to feel grown-up one minute and like a child the next.
11. Respect your adolescent’s privacy. Some moms and dads, understandably, have a very hard time with this one. They may feel that anything their adolescents do is their business. But to help your adolescent become a young adult, you'll need to grant some privacy. If you notice warning signs of trouble, then you can invade your adolescent's privacy until you get to the heart of the problem. But otherwise, it's a good idea to back off. In other words, your adolescent's room, texts, e-mails, and phone calls should be private. You also shouldn't expect your adolescent to share all thoughts or activities with you at all times. Of course, for safety reasons, you should always know where adolescents are going, when they'll be returning, what they're doing, and with whom, but you don't need to know every detail. And you definitely shouldn't expect to be invited along! Start with trust. Let your adolescent know that you trust her. But, if the trust gets broken she may enjoy fewer freedoms until the trust is rebuilt.
12. Adolescents will likely act unhappy with expectations their moms and dads place on them. However, they usually understand and need to know that their parents care enough about them to expect certain things such as good grades, acceptable behavior, and adherence to the rules of the house. If moms and dads have appropriate expectations, adolescents will likely try to meet them. Without reasonable expectations, your adolescent may feel you don't care about him.
13. Before you walk away, it’s always helpful to set a limit with your adolescent and attempt to redirect them. For example, “I’m going to go take a break. You should go listen to some music or do something to calm down.” Another example is, “Yelling at me isn’t going to get you what you want. When you calm down, we can talk more. I’ll check on you in 15 minutes and see if you’re ready.” Also, if your adolescent has younger siblings in the home, take them with you when you walk away so they don’t become a target or a pawn that your adolescent can use to pull you back into the argument. If your adolescent has older siblings, you might tell them to go to their rooms until your adolescent calms down. The smaller the audience is – the better.
14. Taking care to not heat up the fire. As you discuss your problems or conflicts, choose your words wisely. Stop saying things like, “No, I will never support that.” You’re setting yourself up for failure, and you may have to eat your words when you say that. Avoid words like “you” or “always” and speak in broader, less offensive terms. Be more open to what you will or won’t support, and pick your battles carefully. A wise parent will use the eternal perspective as a barometer for choosing which stances are worthy to fight for, and which ones may not be as important or are just a personal preference on your part. Be clear on your limits. Don’t say, “It’s your choice,” or “What do you think?” It is better to say, “Here are my limits…what I will and won’t allow in this situation.” Then, explore their needs and ideas and try to find a way to meet each other halfway, listening more and talking less.
15. The car is one of the most difficult places to get into an argument with your adolescent. The first rule is, pull over. You may not be able to walk away, but you might be able to step outside the car to get some fresh air if it’s safe to do so. Or, you can tell your adolescent you’re not going to continue on until they calm down, because it’s not safe for you to drive while they’re verbally abusing you or acting disruptive. Then, find something to do that will help you cope. This might take some planning ahead (e.g., packing a book or magazine) that you can pull out and use in these cases.
16. If you feel threatened by your adolescent and have access to a phone, you might decide to call the police. A word of caution: do not get into a physical power struggle to escape from your adolescent. Pushing against them or trying to get free may cause some adolescents to escalate. Do not call the police simply because your adolescent is being defiant. There is a difference between frustrating, blocking behavior – and threatening, unsafe behavior.
17. Sometimes you can’t walk away in the heat of an escalating argument because you’re busy (e.g., you‘re cooking dinner). Set one limit with your adolescent and then do what you can to focus your attention on the task at hand, not your adolescent. Avoid eye contact and ignore comments he makes under his breath. Find some sort of mental task to occupy your mind, such as counting or singing a song to yourself in your head. If you have a relatively compliant adolescent who will go to his room when asked, you can tell him to do so, but if your adolescent is like most, he will refuse. Since you can’t make him go, the best thing to do is not pay attention to him. The key is to avoid giving his behavior any power. Control what you can—yourself.
18. Sometimes you go to your room and your adolescent follows you. Here’s a trick: Once you walk away, say no more. Lock the door and ride out the storm. If your adolescent is screaming outside your door or pounding on it with all their might, ignore them. Do whatever you can to cope until they’ve calmed down. The second you turn that door knob to tell them to stop, you’ve given them what they wanted. Put on some headphones, turn up the TV, read a book, knit. Do whatever you have to do to focus your attention away from your adolescent’s behavior. If they damage something or call you foul names while they’re pounding on your door, give them consequences afterward, when they’ve calmed down—and stick to them. In other words, ignore their attempts to pull you in when you’re disengaging from them, but hold them accountable for anything they damage – or rules they break – later.
19. Sometimes your adolescent blocks you or clings to you. This is perhaps the most difficult situation to find yourself in when you try to walk away. It’s very important that you stay calm, use a normal tone of voice, and tell your adolescent this behavior is not okay, while redirecting them to go do something to calm down. They’re probably going to stick around, though—at least at first. Continue to remain calm and wait it out. This might mean that you literally stand there and wait. You could also let your adolescent know that they need to stop or there will be a consequence later. If your adolescent is not blocking your path, try your best to go about your business (e.g., do the dishes, read a book, surf the internet, etc.). The goal is to find some sort of task to focus on so your attention is not on your adolescent’s behavior.
20. Sometimes your adolescent trashes her own room. If your adolescent goes to her own room and starts to throw things around or screams at the top of her lungs about what a jerk you are or how much she hates you, let her. If she breaks something of her own, that’s a natural consequence. She will have to buy her own replacement or do some chores to earn the money to buy a new one. If she makes a mess of the room, she will have to clean it up later when things calm down. It’s more effective to focus on controlling yourself and your emotions rather than your adolescent’s behavior.
21. If it sounds like your adolescent is being incredibly destructive to other areas of your home, it might be a good idea to call the police instead of trying to stop him yourself. Call the non-emergency number for your local police department ahead of time to discuss how they would handle these kinds of situations if you should call them for assistance. This way, you have an idea of what you’d be getting into and you can make an informed decision.
22. If your adolescent threatens to hurt themselves or someone else, that’s another situation in which you will need to utilize some local supports (e.g., the police, a local crisis helpline). When the safety of your adolescent, or another family member, is at risk, you absolutely want to step back in there in some way and make sure everyone is safe.
23. The stance that you take in the heat of the battle is a reflection of who you are in real life. How you communicate during conflict teaches something very important to your adolescent. The messages that you will want to convey include:
- I’ve heard your side of the argument, but for your own good, you simply need to follow the rules.
- It’s okay to not agree with everyone.
- It’s okay to not follow what everyone else is thinking.
- There are times that we have to stand up and fight.
- We can have conflict, and still remain friends.
24. Know the warning signs. A certain amount of change may be normal during the adolescent years, but too drastic or long-lasting a switch in personality or behavior may signal real trouble — the kind that needs professional help. Watch for one or more of these warning signs:
- extreme weight gain or loss
- falling grades
- rapid, drastic changes in personality
- run-ins with the law
- signs of tobacco, alcohol, or drug use
- skipping school continually
- sleep problems
- sudden change in friends
- talk or even jokes about suicide
25. Any other inappropriate behavior that lasts for more than 6 weeks can be a sign of underlying trouble, too. You may expect a glitch or two in your adolescent's behavior or grades during this time, but your A/B student shouldn't suddenly be failing, and your normally outgoing teenager shouldn't suddenly become constantly withdrawn. Your doctor or a local counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist can help you find proper counseling.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Defiant Teens