How to Use Conflict With Teens For Good
Let’s face it. Conflict with young people is painful. It creates tension and puts parents in tough places. We often feel anger, disappointment, and confusion. We then spend time pondering consequences, evaluating what we could have done better, and trying to figure out how to get things moving in the right direction.
Nevertheless conflict with young people can provide opportunities for growth if we have a good plan. Adolescence is a God-given period of time when young people develop their own convictions, values, and opinions about life. But during this time many of their ideas are imbalanced, self-focused, or even erroneous. That’s one of the reasons God placed young people in families, so that they can gain more wisdom about life and work off some of their incomplete thinking.
Conflict forces young people to wrestle with things in their hearts. Their desires, emotions, and beliefs can get intertwined and they often aren’t thinking clearly. Working through conflict forces teens to evaluate their own thinking and develop tools for handling differences with others.
Three life skills are exercised when conflict is handled well: Problem solving, emotional management, and healthy communication. Parents can help their kids learn how to approach differences by thinking strategically.
Problem Solving Skills
Differences happen in life regularly for people of any age. Young people must develop a plan for dealing with those differences. In the end, sometimes it means giving up their agenda for someone else. Other times it means trying to persuade someone to their point of view. Sometimes young people only look at the end result, but the way they get there is how the life skills are learned.
How young people treat others, especially their parents, when they disagree is important. When the issue (what they want) becomes more important than the process (how we treat others), then young people justify disrespect, sarcasm, meanness, and even abuse.
It would be good to remember that problem solving requires wisdom. James 3:17 says, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” Young people need that kind of wisdom each time they experience a difference in their lives.
Parenting Strategy: Move from the Issue to the Process
Unfortunately, some parents unintentionally encourage their kids abuse by continuing to talk about the issue when the process has taken a negative turn. Continuing to talk about the dirty shirt, the party on Friday night, or permission to go out when kids are being abusive validates their process. When children at any age move to aggressive techniques to get what they want, parents must make an important shift.
Refusing to talk about an issue when the process turns ugly is essential. “I can’t talk to you about this while you’re treating me this way.” This approach can stop kids in their tracks because their meanness or disrespect aren’t working to manipulate or control the dialogue.
When young people want something, they are internally motivated by their strong desires. A firm approach can put parents in a better position because the responsibility for change is transferred to the child. Essentially the parent is saying, “I’d like to talk to you more about your request, but we have to do it in a way that allows for understanding. There’s a way to solve these kinds of problems and I’m confident we can do that together. So the next step is to sit down with me and talk about it in a calm and reasonable way.”
Blocked goals often generate emotional responses in the heart. It’s normal. When kids want something and the answer is no, or they are required to do tasks that weren’t part of their expectations, they experience frustration. Knowing how to address that internal emotional response without becoming vengeful is essential. In fact, it’s another life skill that’s learned as part of adolescence.
Some young people believe that if they are unhappy they have the right to make everyone else miserable with dramatics, complaining, or whining. Mistreating others when you’re upset demonstrates a lack of maturity. Blaming, accusing, and name-calling are hurtful and unacceptable.
Proverbs 25:28 makes it clear, “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.” Anger management is necessary for success in life. Teens practice it often when they experience differences with their parents.
Parenting Strategy: Transfer Responsibility
Angry people don’t like to be angry alone. Some times young people look for ways to draw their parents into a fight. It’s important to keep the problem the child’s problem. Unfortunately, many parents gets sucked in and the drama escalates rather quickly. When a child is being emotional and abusive, don’t get sucked in.
Children sometimes try to manipulate and control a situation with their anger. They use words that are hard to ignore. “You always…” “You never…” “This is unfair!” are hard to let go without a response, and many parents find themselves baited into unhelpful dialogue that escalates the conflict.
It’s better to reflect the internal challenge back to the child. “Son, I can tell that you’re upset. You’re obviously having a hard time with my answer here. You need to settle down and adjust your heart before you try to interact with me about this.”
When things do settle down and you do have a conversation, continuing with vocabulary that transfers responsibility to the child can be helpful. “It looks like you have a problem when things don’t go the way you had hoped.” and “Your anger seems to be a problem for you. Trying to blame others when you’re upset just makes you out to be a victim.” “You’re going to want to let it go more quickly. One of the signs of an emotionally healthy person is that they can recover from upsetting situations more quickly.”
Knowing how to talk through a challenge is a life skill. Yelling, blaming, defending, and demanding are immature forms of communicating. Listening without interrupting, talking graciously, and working toward understanding are much more healthy. Differences during adolescence provide opportunities for skill development in the use of gracious words.
Sometimes young people view their parents as barriers that they must somehow blast away. The communication strategies they use can be aggressive. They sometimes believe that they aren’t heard by their parents and so they must yell louder or engage in other forms of manipulation in dialogue.
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen.” That exhortation is important especially when there’s a temptation to do otherwise.
Parenting Strategy: Table Talk
Sometimes children make the claim, “You don’t listen,” or “You don’t understand,” when what they really mean is that you don’t agree with me. Young people are in that important time in their lives when they need to wrestle with issues, balance various values, and understand what’s wise. That invariably requires more dialogue. But that interaction can quickly turn into angry arguments.
It’s often helpful to sit down at the table with a young person to talk. You might start with, “Do you want to talk or do you want to listen?” The question itself implies that there are two different roles in play. You don’t want to talk when a child also wants to talk. In that case, it’s important to listen.
You might say, “I’d like to hear everything you have to say about this.” Then listen…without reacting. In this approach, it’s not a dialogue but rather an opportunity for you to show value to your child by paying attention to what he or she has to say. You might even take notes. “So, what you’re saying is…” might be a common phrase. Be careful that you don’t try to defend or argue even though it’s tempting to do so. Rather just listen. You don’t have to agree. The goal is to help your child feel heard.
Continue actively listening until you hear these words: “I’m done.” What you say at that point is very important. “Thank you for sharing your heart with me. You’ve said a lot of things here. I’d like to think about them and then maybe we can talk again.”
Obviously this is hard when a decision is eminent or a deadline is getting close. But listening in this noncritical way can do a lot to help a young person feel like they are being understood and valued.
After pondering your notes for a while, it might be wise to say, “I see that one of the ways that I could change is….” Or, “The Lord spoke to me through you when you said… So thank you.” “I have some thoughts about one of the things you said that might be helpful. Would you please listen to me for a couple minutes explain what I’m thinking?”
Good communication is modeled by parents who are willing to listen without arguing. It also means that parents have an opportunity to talk without being interrupted. You might say, “I was hoping to share some things with you without you interrupting. Could I finish what I was saying and then I’ll listen to you some more.”
We earn the right to speak by listening but when it’s your turn to talk don’t overdo it. Kids often have a smaller capacity to listen than parents have to talk.
Addressing differences during the teen years is important. It provides young people with a greater ability to handle them in the moment, but it also prepares them with tools for the future. Parenting young people can be a challenge, but it’s also the opportunity to build and practice skills for adulthood. After all, many adults today would have much more success if their parents had the wisdom you’re developing and using now.