Handling Conflict With Teens

Conflict with teens is a natural, but inevitably uncomfortable part of their developmental stage.  The main developmental task is individuating, becoming their own person with their own ideas, tastes, dreams, moral codes and life skills.  This includes developing relationship skills like communication and managing conflict!  This can be hugely challenging for us as parents as it requires a different style of parenting from when they were younger.  Hopefully we’ve been aiming to hand over responsibility and freedom to our kids gradually as they become more capable and mature and this process must continue during adolescence.  Where conflict gets difficult in this phase is when we have very volatile personalities, either teens or parents, or significant stressors on the family or teen.  Here are some ideas that will help.

Mistakes:  We must accept that our teens will make some mistakes and that as long as we can stay alongside in as positive a relationship as possible we have opportunity to support them to learn and develop without too much pain, for us or them.  The balancing act of how much support is too much or too little is often the tricky part.  It is our duty as parents to keep our kids safe and it is their need to work out who they are becoming.  It’s really helpful if our teens see us fixing our mistakes and demonstrating respectful self-talk.  This is particularly true if we have perfectionist teens.

Connection/belonging:  It’s essential that we take the lead in maintaining as positive a relationship as possible.  Keep up with family fun and spending time 1:1 doing things you both enjoy.  Don’t let go even when your teens get grumpy because you’re asking them to keep doing family things.  Keep modelling respect, a willingness to communicate openly and the ability to take time to think about things that are raised rather than being reactive.  Keep in the front of your mind what you like about your teen even if things get difficult between you.  It’s important that they get the sense that we like them no matter what.  They sometimes lose sight of what is likeable or honourable about themselves.

Communication:  Families are where our kids learn life skills like how to raise issues, how to disagree, to negotiate, to stand their ground, how to complement and thank others, how to be angry without losing control of themselves, how to forgive.  You’ll know what your teen finds easy and difficult so kindly coach them to practise the skills they need.  Acknowledge their attempts and improvements.

Anger:  As much as some of us would love to ignore this area it is an important life skill.  Parents, it is our job to teach our kids how to be angry ‘well’.  The first step is to model it ourselves!  It might be necessary to have a really honest look at ourselves to see how we’re doing here and make whatever changes are necessary.  It’s not fair to expect our kids to behave better than we do.  Teens in particular are finely tuned to see hypocrisy and challenge it.  There will inevitably be some kids we find easier to parent than others so we have a responsibility to be very aware of our own behaviour, particularly with the ones with whom we struggle.

A useful idea is to inject a pause into our communicating when things become heated or we’re stuck for workable ideas.  It gives us time as parents to think and strategize, seek advice from other parents or professionals.  It gives our teens time to cool down and do some thinking too.   You might want to say something like, “let’s sleep on this and see what other ideas we can come up with.  Let’s talk more after dinner tomorrow, ok?”  It might be wise to say “I’m getting wound up.  Let’s pause this and come back to it after dinner.”  Teens respect adults who will own up and act respectfully.

Adolescence is the phase of parenting where we are most likely to be triggered by our own issues from the past.  If we had a difficult adolescence or a difficult relationship with our parents this can get in the way of being the parent we want to be for our kids.  If this is happening then it is helpful to seek some professional support.

(see others ideas in my articles Helping Children and Teens Manage Emotions and The Teenage Brain)