Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship and growing your teen’s skills to communicate respectfully provides a perfect opportunity.
Conflict happens in families – between spouses, among siblings, and between parents and teens. Fighting in family life is normal and expected. “Back talk” can be defined as “argumentative replies.”1 Teens can respond in anger, hurt, or frustration using hurtful tones or with hurtful words. But, “back talk” also represents a power imbalance teens are trying to rectify. Power, after all, is a basic human need. Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 are building their skills in listening, empathy, assertive communication, and problem solving. Building your teen’s skills to respond in assertive but non-aggressive ways is essential to their success.
Yet, we all face challenges with back talk. “You can’t tell me what to do!” your teen may exclaim in anger and frustration when you say “no” to an unsupervised party where peers may be drinking. Your teen’s responses can press on your rawest nerves angering and upsetting you. As your teen develops, they will need to test their limits and the rules in order to internalize them. This can lead to power struggles between parents and teens. They will also have evolving emotional needs and may lack the communication skills necessary to ask for what they need. Using the steps below can help navigate this struggle with skill. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Why Back Talk?
When Montana parents were surveyed, “back talk” rose to the top of the parenting challenges list. Whether it’s your fifteen-year-old screaming “I hate you!” in a fight, your junior in high school shouting “No, I won’t stop” when screen time is over, or your nineteen-year-old crying “It’s all your fault” when they get rejected by their college of choice, establishing healthy ways of responding to life’s most challenging moments in ways that do not harm themselves or others is a vital skill your teen needs to thrive.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to respond to upset or disagreements in healthy ways can create:
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our relationships and responsibilities; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, managing conflict in your teen:
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your teen communicate during your toughest, most emotional moments in ways that do not harm. It also builds important critical life skills. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about healthy ways to communicate by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to how they feel when confronting challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your teen:
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life; and
- will grow self-control, empathy, assertive communication, and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your teen in their ability to communicate in healthy ways. For example, if your teen is hurt or feeling rejected, it’s a normal reflex for them to lash out in self-protection. Begin by considering the following:
- Ask about how your teen feels when arguing with a family member or friend.
- “What gets you really upset or mad at a friend, a relative, Mom and Dad?”
- “What feelings do you experience?” (Name the multiple feelings that occur.)
- “How does your body feel when you’re upset?” (Name the ways that your teen physically experiences being upset whether it’s a red hot face or a racing heartbeat.)
- “Have you hurt another person’s feelings when you’ve argued? How did that feel?”
- “How might you have argued differently to express your needs but not harm the other person?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, it’s easy to forget that teens are learning how to be in healthy relationships and that includes learning how to fight fairly. Because of your teen’s learning and development, they will make mistakes and poor choices. How you, as a parent, handle those moments can determine how you help build their conflict management skills. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their teen is going through. Here are some examples:
- Fifteen-year-olds may feel sensitive to criticism and preoccupied with peer impressions. Conflict may arise if teens fear failure in front of you, their teacher, or their peers.
- Sixteen-year-olds may feel more confident. They may have new goals outside of school, and along with them, stress and worries. They might be tempted to stay up late studying or socializing, but that lack of sleep challenges their self-control and ability to manage anger and anxiety in healthy ways.
- Seventeen-year-olds may become highly focused on their academic and life goals and the stress of adult choices ahead. Conflicts may arise with you as they assert independence but also feel fragile, vulnerable, and scared of their future adult lives.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are considered emerging adults. At times, they may exude confidence, while other times they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. Conflict may arise as you renegotiate your relationship.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive words and tone of voice you want them to use, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Reflect on how you currently model communication when you’re upset.
- Any action, words, or tones of voice you use with your teen will be repeated and mimicked back to you by them. If you yell, your teen will yell. If you criticize, your teen will criticize. So, consider how you react to your teen when you are upset. Ask yourself, “If my teen repeats back to me what I say and in my tone of voice, will it be acceptable at home? In public?” Consider which words, actions and tones you want to see in your teen and which you do not. Next, decide what words, actions, and tones you do not want to use so you are only modeling what you want to see and hear.
- From research, the following fighting habits can slip in and hurt others and destroy trust.2 In fact, these will encourage more “back talk” from your teen. In forging healthy communications with your family members including with your teens, these should not be used.
- Do not use physical force. Using physical force in a conflict signals that the individual has lost control and only believes they can regain it with physical dominance. This is harmful and breaks trust.
- Do not talk about family members negatively when they are not present. Going directly to the person with whom we have the problem is the healthiest way to address a problem. When you go to one family member to complain about another, you are harming both family relationships.
- Do not criticize. Judging or commenting on the character of a person in the struggle hurts the other. Instead focus energies and words on solving the problem at hand.
- Do not show contempt. Using hostile humor, sarcasm, name calling, mockery, or baiting body language harms the other person. These all involve some kind of aggression or character attack.
- Do not become defensive or blaming. Pointing fingers and using “You…” language is blaming. Words like “always,” “never,” and “forever” cannot represent the truth and break down trust. Own your feelings and role in the situation, and the argument will remain constructive.
- Do not stonewall. Actively refusing to listen, shutting down the argument, or giving the silent treatment harms the other person and breaks down trust.
- Learn to use “I-messages.” At a family dinner, talk about how it challenges adults and teens alike when arguments occur. You want to communicate in ways that do not harm one another. Share an example of an argument you’ve had and how each person reacted without judging what they did. Focus on the problem only. Try using an I-message using that same issue. Here’s the structure: “I feel __________________ (insert feeling word) when you ________(name the words/actions that upset you) because __________________________.” This structure helps the individual take responsibility for their own feelings and role in the problem while avoiding “you” blaming language. Try it out on a parent-teen argument. “I feel frustrated when you keep playing video games, and I’ve told you it’s homework time because I feel disrespected.” This is a tool that can feel empowering to a teen so that they regain their personal power without harming you or another.
If your teen struggles to give you a feeling word, then offer them options and ask which ones fit their true emotions. This helps expand their emotional vocabulary.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Assert Needs, and Argue in Healthy Ways
Your daily disagreements can be opportunities for your teen to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen works hard to manage feelings, words, and choices constructively.
Practice also provides important opportunities to develop consequential thinking or the ability to think ahead to the impact of a particular choice and evaluate whether it’s a positive choice based on those reflections.
- Allow your teen the chance to assert their needs in small and bigger ways like speaking up at the store when there’s a problem or encouraging them to discuss a grade or problem with their teacher.
- Be sure and consider how you can create the conditions to support their success (like offering coaching or guided open-ended questions to prompt thinking) so that your teen learns to become their own best problem solver.
- Share a range of feeling words regularly to become more comfortable with expressing feelings.
- Practice “I-messages” on more challenging problems and with a range of issues including friendship conflicts. Then, when in a heated moment, gently remind: “Remember, it could help to use an I-message.”
- Practice deep breathing to help calm down when you have spare moments together – waiting in line, driving in the car, and at bedtime.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your teen how to meet their challenges with skill and persistence, and you are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to do those new tasks well and independently. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, following through on logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful, teaching cause and effect thinking (as they address problems and conflicts), and helping them grow skills in taking responsibility.
- Initially, your teen may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work to resolve a problem. You could say, “Show me we can disagree without any hurtful statements toward one another.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you approached me when you were upset with your feelings and needs. It worked, didn’t it? That’s excellent!”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your teen is frustrated or feeling incapable, proactively remind your teen of their strength. In a gentle, non-public way you can whisper in their ear, “Remember how you talked to me yesterday? You can use that same strategy with your friend today.”
- Actively reflect on how your teen is feeling when approaching challenges. You can ask questions like, “Seems like you are holding onto angry feelings toward your friend; have you talked to him yet? What options do you think you have?” Be sure to reflect on outcomes of possible choices.
- Apply logical consequences when a poor choice is made that has caused harm. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Don’t move on or nag. Teens often need more time to deal with their feelings and approach someone with whom they are upset. Be sure to wait long enough for them to show you they can address their problems on their own with your support. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to work through their problems.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though it is easy to forget, your attention is still your teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished in family life. But if your teen is working hard to work through arguments constructively, it will be worth your while to recognize it. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to their motivation to work hard by the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your teen is bravely facing their sister who hurt them, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I noticed you told me your feelings when you were upset. That’s exactly how we can work together.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like no arguing – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your teen makes up for a poor choice by apologizing sincerely to a sibling, recognize that effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards or performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on teens. When you remove the money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing it? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. Your attention and recognition add to their feelings of competence. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Be specific. “Good job” seems not to carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You talked with your brother until you both could agree; love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
If you focus only on outcomes – “You didn’t argue at all” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say, “You were arguing in the car, you both calmed down, and then, you talked it through.”
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.