Occasional fights and disagreements with your teen are pretty much the norm for most families. While such conflicts can be annoying and emotionally draining they can also be beneficial, especially if you understand the reasons underlying parent-teen conflicts and learn how to fight constructively.
During the teen years, children seek out and need more independence. Parents who are accustomed to having a child who complies with most things are suddenly facing a teen with newfound assertiveness and opinions. Teens need opportunities to try out ideas, practice their growing thinking abilities and generally push the boundaries within the safety of their family. Otherwise, they will never develop the ability to make wise, independent decisions nor will they learn how to independently handle the challenges and responsibilities that come with being an adult. On the other hand, despite a teen’s need for independence, parents still have a responsibility to make sure that their child acts in a safe and appropriate way. This can lead to a push and pull between teens and parents that sometimes results in disagreements and arguments.
So, what is the best way for parents to approach conflicts with their teens without letting them develop into a full scale power struggle or all out war? Below are some suggestions that can help make dealing with conflict less stressful while increasing the chances that the outcome will be in everyone’s best interests.
- Realize that your teen’s desire for freedom and control is just a natural part of growing up. That means that you sometimes need to give in and allow your teen more control and freedom. If we don’t gradually provide teens with more autonomy, they’ll never learn how to make their own decisions or how to take responsibility for their behavior. Even worse, we may discover that they’ve never left home because they haven’t developed the independence needed to succeed at life.
Try this: If your teen feels that a rule or boundary is no longer needed or unfair, give them an opportunity to make their case. Try to listen objectively and with an open-mind and encourage them to construct a logical argument for their position. Once they present their case, share your concerns and counter arguments if you have them. Whether or not you make any changes, such a process helps teens learn to advocate for themselves, a responsibility that is important for success as an adulthood. It also encourages parents to listen to their child and better understand their perspective.
- Choose your battles carefully. The battles that are most worth fighting are those that concern your child’s safety and well-being. Being selective about which battles to fight can reduce your frustration—and helps you be more effective on those issues on which you do choose to take a stand.
Try this: It can be valuable for parents and teens to periodically get together to discuss family rules and how they might be renegotiated based on your teen’s growing maturity and ability to handle new responsibilities. Talk about which rules you consider non-negotiable and why (e.g. drinking, going to unchaperoned parties) and which ones are negotiable (e.g., bedtime, when to do homework). As your child matures, many issues that you once considered non-negotiable (like driving the car and curfew) should become negotiable.
- Be willing to allow your child more autonomy and responsibility when they demonstrate maturity and responsibility. Determining how much freedom to give your teen depends on how much maturity and responsibility they demonstrate. However, be prepared for your teen to make mistakes—that’s a normal part of growing up. And when they do, give them opportunities to reestablish trust and privileges.
Try this: If your teen wants to do something you’re not entirely comfortable with, have them think about how they can demonstrate their readiness — like in a job interview. For example, if they want a dog, they might be able to point to a job or babysitting gig they’ve done successfully that demonstrates the skills they would need to take care of a dog. And if they’re not yet ready, perhaps there are some ways they can build and practice the necessary skill set. For instance, they might care for a neighbor’s pet when they’re on vacation or help prove their reliability by regularly performing a household chore.
- Model and encourage “constructive fighting.” Constructive conflict occurs when both you and your teen consider the perspectives and arguments from all sides. This involves modeling such behavior for your teen by trying to put yourself in their shoes and understanding why they see and feel the way they do. Adults who do this are more likely to have teens who respond in kind and make an effort to understand your position.
Try this: Make an effort to understand your teen’s perspective. Try to be respectful and open-minded, even if you don’t agree with it. When you share your own point of view, avoid being accusatory, negative or self-righteous. The use of “I” statements can really help (see below). To encourage your teen to take the perspective of others, ask them to imagine how they might feel if they were in your shoes.
- Keep a cool head and encourage the same in your teen. When we respond with anger or strong emotions, open and respectful discussions can get shut down. It also makes it more likely that the disagreement will escalate into an all-out fight where neither side will be able to listen objectively, gain an accurate understanding of the other’s points of view, or be able to develop a thoughtful and mutually agreeable solution.
Try this: Avoid accusatory “you” statements that put your teen on the defensive (“You are so inconsiderate when you don’t answer your phone when I call”). Instead, try to use “I” statements. Start with how you feel and why (“I get worried when I call you on the phone and you don’t answer”). In addition, if you are feeling angry or upset, postpone the discussion with your teen until you can approach it calmly and objectively.
- Try to mine the diamonds rather than the dirt. Finally, it’s too easy to get caught up in only initiating conversations with your teen when you are concerned or upset. Be sure to point out the positives in your teen’s behavior in your daily conversations. If the only time we have a serious discussion with our teen is when there is a problem, they will put up their guard when it’s time to talk, making open discussions about important issues difficult and tense.
Try this: Consider creating a “compliment” jar or notebook where you stockpile notes about your teen’s positive qualities, strengths and good deeds. In times of frustration or anger, draw from it to remind yourself that it’s not all about this one particular negative event and that your teen really does have many other positive qualities. Creating such a list of “compliments” can also be a fun family activity.
Remember, disagreements between parents and teens are a normal part of the adolescent years. They are necessary if teens are going to develop their own opinions and become independent and responsible adults. Learning to “fight” constructively can help reduce tensions and reach mutually agreeable solutions. It can also teach teens how to disagree respectfully and problem solve with those with whom they may disagree. These are important skills for young people to learn if they are to succeed in today’s increasingly diverse, polarized and changing world.
Author: Steve Small
Steve Small has been a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension for 30 years. He and his wife have 3 adult children, two son-in-laws, and a 1 year-old granddaughter. Steve had a somewhat turbulent adolescence and his parents couldn’t wait until he grew out of it and left home. In his spare time he likes to bike, hike, build stuff, travel and play softball.