Conflict between you and your adolescent shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is the age where she will begin embracing independent thinking. Parent-child conflict isn’t necessarily symptomatic of an unhealthy or unhappy household (unless arguing becomes the standard mode of communication).
Family members need to feel free to express their feelings honestly, including airing grievances rather than to repress them. That’s how issues get resolved before small disagreements snowball into more serious problems. However, in order for confrontations to ultimately be productive, everyone needs to observe certain ground rules. As moms and dads, it falls to us to model the behaviors and attitudes conducive to healthy conflict-resolution.
Below are 12 tips for talking your way through parent-child conflict:
1. Don't step on your teen’s tongue. It's tempting to dive-in and over-react to something your adolescent just said. Let your teen have the first word! Listen without interrupting. When she has expressed her viewpoint, then - and only then - should you respond. Take the high road here. Always let your adolescent speak first. Teenagers we surveyed said that if they have a chance to talk first, they're more receptive to what their mom or dad says. Once adolescents get to speak their minds, they're usu¬ally willing to listen to “reason.”
2. Control the things you can, and don’t try to control the things you can’t. For example, let's say your adolescent is “back-talking” you. You might be tempted to say, "You will NOT speak to me like that!" Unfortunately, this come-back throws gas on the fire, because a state¬ment like this challenges your teen to prove she – not you – controls her tongue. A better option would be to say something like, "I'll be glad to listen to you when you speak to me more politely." Now you're saying what you will do, which is something you can control.
3. If you do issue a complaint, be very specific (e.g., “Michael, you forgot to give me 3 phone messages last week – one from my boss, one from your father, and one from grandma” …rather than, “You always forget to take messages”).
4. Briefly explain your reasoning. Some adolescents say they simply don't understand what their moms and dads are asking them to do. Explain the reasons for your request or rule, and then have your adolescent restate what you've told her (e.g., "I know you want to go with your friends to the movies tonight. But you were out late last night and could hardly get up in time to catch the school bus. I don’t have time to play taxicab driver when you miss the bus. You’re free to be with your friends over the weekend, but not tonight").
5. Only deal with the current issue. Don't dredge up past failures or mistakes. Also, don't compare your adolescent with anyone — living or dead, related or unrelated.
6. Avoid the words "always" and "never" (e.g., “You always get angry whenever you have to hear the word ‘no’ ” …or “You never follow through with what I ask you to do”).
7. Ask your teenager to offer his solution to the problem. Your ultimate goal should be to resolve the conflict – not win the argument. If your teen’s solution sounds workable, then give it a shot. If his solution sounds ridiculous, then fine tune his idea a bit so that it can be more workable.
8. Ask yourself, “Is this issue really worth arguing about? How important is this situation, anyway?” Maybe it’s possible to work toward a win-win solution, or at least one that everyone can live with. Choose your battles carefully. Stand up for the values that are most important to you and to your adolescent's safety, but consider flexibility on the smaller issues.
9. Get off to a good start. The first 3 minutes of a confrontation usually dictate how the rest of it will go. Begin the conversation with a soft voice, and you’ll increase the odds that the discussion will be productive. As one adolescent stated, “My dad and I could talk about our problems because he treated as an equal instead of talking down to me.”
10. Take a time-out when needed. If you or your adolescent are getting too pumped-up, take a break. It doesn't hurt to put a confrontation on hold until everyone has calmed down.
11. Model what you want your adolescent to do. When moms and dads scream or point fingers, teenagers figure that it's okay for them to do the same. They also put up a stone wall and get into "fight" mode.
12. Consider sending an email or a text message rather than face-to-face confrontation. Emailing or texting gives you time to sort through your thoughts and express yourself wisely. Also, it gives your adolescent time to respond instead of reacting defensively. That's what a father discovered when his 16-year-old daughter wanted to see an R-rated movie. He kept telling her ‘no’ – and the two of them kept arguing. Finally, the father sent his daughter an email explaining his reason for saying ‘no’. The daughter never asked about it again, and even seemed warmer toward him than she had been for a long time.
There are many important misunderstandings that occur both with the parent and with the teenager that, if recognized, would not only reduce conflict, but strengthen the relationship. While conflict between parents and their teenagers is not of itself a bad thing, the manner in which we choose to resolve these conflicts is what ultimately determines the outcome – and stress – each encounters.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents