Why is it that so many emerging teens seem to be driven to provoke and sustain conflict with their parents?

The good news is that there are some very logical and important reasons for this apparent increase in strife. (Yes, it is really happening.) The bad news is that these very reasons make increased conflict in adolescence pretty much unavoidable.

The physical and emotional changes that occur during adolescence can have an influence on the likelihood of conflict.

  • Young teens’ rapidly growing brains are developing new reasoning abilities. Arguments serve as an important way to strengthen reasoning skills and sharpen thought processes in preparation for adulthood. Unfortunately, parents often serve as practice dummies.
  • The drive for independence and the need to prove that parents are not all powerful (as kids believed they were in childhood) can also provoke conflict.
  • Teens are also learning to regulate their emotions, which due to hormonal factors, are particularly intense in adolescence. This can prompt loss of control, disrespectful behavior or inappropriate language.
  • Researchers have discovered that young teens often make mistakes when trying to interpret the expressions of others. As a result, they may respond as if you are upset or angry, when you don’t really feel that way.
  • Many teens are idealists and they may take it personally if you do not share in their lofty ideas. Not surprisingly, teens also take great pleasure in pointing out the error of your ways.

Adolescence is a time when young people begin to examine and question which issues they feel they have a legitimate right to make decisions about as opposed to those arenas where they still concede authority to their parents.

  • As we touched on in our Middle School Wisdom post, researchers (and our own survey results) find that teens believe there are a number of issues that they should have decision-making authority over: clothing choices, hair styles, bedtime, friends and music.
  • Adolescents say parents have the right to provide guidance on choices that are related to values, safety and those issues that have a long term impact such as decisions about what is right or wrong, choices regarding their future, regulating schoolwork, alcohol use and tattooing. But as they grow older, teens believe that they should have increasingly more say over decisions on these issues.

It is worth pointing out that research has found that conflict during the adolescent years is usually more stressful for parents than for teens. Teens recover very quickly and move on. It’s parents who are more likely to become bogged down in the conflict and what that might mean for the future of their child. The good news is that conflict tends to peak around middle adolescence (approximately age 15) and along with it, parental stress. (Pages 147-152 of The Science of Teen Rebellion in Nurtureshock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merriman have more great information on this topic.)

So conflict is developmentally normal for teens, but what can you do in this never ending cycle of debates and what ifs and whys?

Keep your cool
Because conflicts between parents and teens are a common occurrence during the adolescent years, it can be challenging for parents to maintain their cool. Teens are really good at pushing our buttons and there are times when you may want to scream. But it’s important to take the high road and not stoop to your child’s level. As parents we need to model how to maturely deal with disagreements. Such an approach can also bolster our position, especially if your child begins to act disrespectfully or becomes angry. It’s reasonable to say, “I don’t yell at you or treat you disrespectfully and I expect the same from you.” If they want to be treated more like an adult, they need to act like one. Modeling and having expectations for such behavior are some of the ways we can guide our teens to more mature ways of behaving.

Try to identify the real issue
Sometimes it can be difficult to zero in on what you and your child are truly arguing about. When your son comes downstairs ready to head out in a pair of jeans with huge holes ripped in them, are you objecting because his manner of dress reflects badly on you, because he is clearly attempting to show off his new boxers through the enormous gap in the seat, or because he is not dressed appropriately for the school event that he is attending? If you are concerned about his attire reflecting poorly upon your parenting, consider strongly whether this issue is worth the battle. (Notice how Cliff Huxtable (mostly) ignores the messy room in The Cosby Show clip below.) Remember, you don’t want to be choosing his clothes for him when he is 25. If the issue is that he is inappropriately dressed for a school event, he may be disrespecting social norms and/or portraying himself in a negative manner – both of which may have their own natural consequences. If he has a huge gap in the rear of his jeans, then perhaps his clothing choice violates your family’s values in terms of the propriety of what body parts and undergarments should be showing. Such values can be non-negotiable issues. The trick is to get to the root of a conflict, identify whether it is a non-negotiable issue or not, and respond accordingly. A key to getting to the heart of an issue is really listening to and hearing what your child has to say. Take time to understand his or her perspective and reasons, weigh the arguments fairly, and be willing to modify your position or admit you are wrong when appropriate.

Present a United Front
If you parent with a partner, the two of you must, for the most part, provide a united front when dealing with conflict with your child. Divide and conquer is a tried and true technique employed by children everywhere. By the time your child reaches adolescence, she or he has probably become an expert at detecting cracks in your solidarity. While there is likely no way that you and your partner will agree on every aspect of child rearing (that is actually the beauty of multiple parents), you will need to agree on the non-negotiable issues as well as the process you will use to determine the negotiable issues before you approach your child.

Allow yourself to disengage
There are times in the life of a parent when you will have listened to the arguments, weighed the issue as fairly as you could and clearly communicated your response but, still, your child will not give it up. Becky recalls one time her sister refused to allow her 12 year old daughter to attend a sleepover party on the night before an important soccer game. Becky’s niece left a note on her mother’s pillow that read, “I hate you.” She wrote, “I hate you,” in soap on her bathroom mirror so that her mother would see it when she woke up in the morning. She even set her mother’s phone to text her, “I hate you,” every two hours throughout the day. When Becky’s sister called her for support and advice, Becky recommended that she turn off her phone and gently ignore her daughter. Twenty-four hours later the teen was over it and her sister was back in her daughter’s good graces. At some point it is ok to gently walk away, indicate that you have listened enough and, even lock yourself in the bathroom with a good book for a little dose of peace.

Keep in mind that arguments and independence serve an important purpose & benefit both you and your child
Prior to the twenty first century scientists believed that the bulk of brain development occurred in infancy and early childhood. After that they thought the brain was simply refining its processes. Recent scientific advances have demonstrated that the adolescent brain is undergoing as much development and change as it did during the first five years of life. One of the brain processes undergoing a burst of change during adolescence is that of logic and reasoning. As these abilities are maturing, your child strengthens, sharpens and tests them out on you. They argue, they disagree and they try out different perspectives. Sometimes they do this poorly because they are learning and practicing. As a toddler, your child learned to walk by taking unsteady steps and even falling. As an adolescent, they learn to reason and think logically by testing out their abilities to argue and reason. With experience, feedback and the patience of parents, this can lead to a young adult who not only thinks clearly, but can think for him or herself.

When it comes to independence, whether you want your child to strike off into the wild world or test the waters closer to home, all parents want their children to achieve the milestones of adulthood. This is a risky, scary and difficult process. Your child needs to practice this too. So, like they did when they were toddlers, they need to be able to test out pushing away from you while you are still there to catch them if they fall. And you need to let them. Your child’s push to let him or her go is nature’s way of facilitating what is best for both of you.