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 manage conflict 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. How you argue and how you work through problems together can build a teen’s life skills so that they are ready to grow and sustain healthy relationships beyond your family life. Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 will need to exercise and build their skills in listening, empathy, communication, and problem solving in order to thrive. They will need to learn to stop and cool down before saying or acting in harmful ways. And, they’ll have to learn to reflect on poor choices and take responsibility for their actions. If they cause harm, parents need to guide them to a next better decision so that they learn how to mend physical or emotional damage done.
Yet, we all face challenges in managing conflict. “You can’t tell me what to do!” your teen may exclaim in embarrassment and frustration after lying about attending an unsupervised party. As your teens develop, they will need to test their limits and the rules in order to internalize them. This can lead to power struggles between parents and their teens. 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.
Whether it’s your fifteen-year-old yelling at a younger brother in frustration, your junior in high school refusing to get ready for a family event, or your nineteen-year-old arguing over hangout plans with a lifelong friend, establishing regular ways of working through conflict in healthy ways that are not harmful includes teaching your teen vital skills that will build confidence.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to manage conflict 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 for a parent and teen with the motivation to engage and work hard to go along with it.
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 manage conflict. It also builds important critical life skills in your teen. 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 managing conflict by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their 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 their self-control, empathy, and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your teen in their ability to manage conflict in healthy ways. For example, if your teen is hurt or feeling rejected, it’s a normal reflex for them to lash out with hurtful words in self-protection. Begin by considering the following.
- Ask how your teen feels when arguing with a family member or friend:
- “What are some words that come up when you think of conflict?”
- “What gets you really upset or mad at a friend, a relative?”
- “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 experiences being upset physically whether it’s a red, hot face, or a racing heart beat.)
- “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 our 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 we handle those moments can determine how we help build their conflict management skills. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what your 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 with them.
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 behaviors you want to see promoting skills and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
Use the following model to help teach constructive conflict management to your teen:
- Step 1 – Stop. This is the most important step and requires us to pause. Explain to your teen that when we are in a conflict, it is easy for our reactive/emotional brain to take over. Unfortunately, we say unkind things and do things we regret when functioning like this. In order to get our thinking brain connected, we need to pause. There are many ways to help taking a pause, for example, taking a breath, visualizing a stop sign, or simply imagining hitting a pause button.
- Step 2 – Check in. The second step has three parts to it and requires us to check in with our body, our feelings, and our needs. The following questions will help:
- “What sensations do I feel in my body?” (heart racing, palms sweaty)
- “What am I feeling?” (angry, hurt)
- “What do I need?” (to be heard, to feel like my opinion matters)
- Step 3 – Communicate. Encourage your teen to then communicate the feeling, need, and request which might sound like: “I feel upset, and I need my opinion to matter. Could you listen to me first without interrupting?”
If your teen struggles with giving you a feeling word, then offer them options and ask which one or couple of them fit their true emotions. This helps expand their emotional vocabulary.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Manage Conflict In Healthy Ways
Your daily disagreements can be opportunities for your teen to practice new vital skills if we seize those chances. With practice, your teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen works hard to manage their 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 take steps to meet their big challenges, taking responsibility for their own relationships – even when you know you could do it faster and better.
- 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.
- Initially, practice may require more teaching, but avoid offering direct solutions, going directly to the other in the conflict, or solving a problem for your teen.
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, applying 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, helping them grow cause and effect thinking (as they address problems and conflicts), and helping them grow in taking responsibility.
- Initially, your teen may need active support. Use “I’d love to see…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work to resolve a problem. When a teen learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! “I’d love to see how you work out this conflict with your sister.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like “I notice how you talked to your sister about how you were feeling and then, worked with her on a way to come to an agreement. 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 your sister 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:
- “How are you feeling about hanging out with your friends?” This may give you insight into your teen’s social challenges.
- “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 needed. 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 for managing conflict. 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 your teen 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 adults tend to forget, your attention is 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 your teen’s motivation to work hard with 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 teens are bravely facing their sister who hurt them, for example, a short, specific call-out is all that’s needed: “I notice you talked to your sister after she hurt you and tried to work it out. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like no sibling fighting – 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 friend, 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 for 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 them? 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 to not 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 fives 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 young adult. 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.