Managing teen conflict

Often, the way we parented when our children were young no longer works for the teenage years. KELLY EDEN discusses the latest research-based ideas for parents of teens.

If you’ve found yourself struggling to handle conflict well with your teen, try these five steps to help your child through this new development stage. 

1. Soft start up
Because of the huge changes happening in their brains, managing emotions is difficult for teenagers and they are more vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed emotionally. So, for serious talks, use a soft start up. 

Good start ups have four things: 

  1. Taking some responsibility for the problem. Acknowledge your part. 
  2. Talking about how you feel. 
  3. The specific situation. 
  4. What you need (stated positively, not what you don’t need).

Example: “I probably wasn’t clear enough about when I wanted the chores done by. Still it wasn’t nice [how you feel] waking up to a pile of dirty dishes [the specific situation]. I’d like it if you did the dishes before 8pm next time, okay? [what you’d like].”

2. Listening
It’s very tempting to lecture or talk at our teens. But taking the time to listen, even if you don’t agree with them, is incredibly valuable. 

Count to ten in your head before you talk. Teens can take longer than adults to formulate ideas or think of the right words to describe how they feel. They might try out an idea by saying something out loud, then change it because it didn’t come out right. Give them time. Pause before you speak to give them a chance to communicate with you more clearly. 

“If parents and teenagers are to communicate well, then there has to be as much listening as talking,” states Dr John Coleman, author of Why Won’t My Teenager Talk to Me?  

3. Saying no
As the parent of a teen you will want to offer more freedom and responsibility but that doesn’t mean not setting limits. Teenagers still need a certain amount of structure, rules, limits and boundaries for healthy development. 

When saying no, be prepared for an emotional outburst or push back. Remain calm and hold your position. Listen to their concerns. Respond and negotiate if you think it’s fair, but don’t rush: if your teen complains that you’re unfair or wants a limit changed, tell them you’ll consider it and get back to them. 

4. Repair attempts
Repair attempts are little things we say or do in conflict situations to keep things calm and light. Using gentle humour (never sarcasm), softening a comment, saying sorry, telling them what you appreciate or love about them, and agreeing with your teen, are all repair attempts.

For example: “Yeah, I totally agree with you. Doing the dishes is a terrible job. Wouldn’t it be great if we just used paper plates!” A light comment will diffuse the tension and keep the relationship positive.

5. Moving on
Sometimes conflict just goes badly. This is when it’s important to take a decent break. It takes around twenty minutes for our bodies to calm down, sometimes longer. Do something soothing like taking a walk, listening to music, or focusing on your breathing. Try to avoid thinking negative or ‘victim’ thoughts, or going back over your argument.

For more on this topic, read Dr John Coleman’s Why Won’t My Teenager Talk to Me? And The Gottman Institute is a great resource for parents wanting more info, gottman.com