While it’s every parent’s dream to hug it out with their teens following a fight that’ll stay resolved forever (if only!), reality couldn’t look further from the truth. Sorry to burst your bubble, as we cue in the scene we all know too well – shouting matches followed by slammed doors until the next one strikes again. Pause right here. What if we could shatter our preconceived notions about fighting with them and completely flip the script? As in, reimagining conflict as the best way for us to teach them problem solving, empathy, negotiation and confidence.
Record scratch moment, I know. Especially for the conflict avoidant, any kind of disagreement (especially the ones on repeat) surely makes you want to crawl out of your skin and do anything else but face the problem head on. Just imagine how much harder it is for our tweens and teens, whose neural pathways are developing as we speak. For us, another fight about curfew, chores, privacy, social media, school and whatever crossfire they find themselves in is just that…typical. To be fair, it feels anything but typical for them. More like me-against-the-world power struggles or in real terms, an unexpressed need that lies just below the surface of emotional chaos. They are finding their footing, and sometimes it’s messy.
Psychologist Carl Pickhart writes, “The young person is testing his or her power of disagreement with parents by contesting their power of authority. Argument takes assertiveness, something adolescents need more of to handle the more aggressive push and shove with teenage peers.”
Disagreement can be healthy and frustrating (enter: growing pains), and that’s okay. They’re lacking the tools and safety to navigate this with a level head on their shoulders, which is where you come in. We’re not advocating that you give your teenager a free pass for inexcusable behavior. Yes, they’ll probably push all your buttons and you’ll likely want to react with the usual suspects (“I don’t have time for this,” “my kid is impossible, “ or “I can’t stand this anymore!”). In the heat of the moment, this only makes you human. Unlearning these automatic triggers is hard work especially if we didn’t learn the alternatives from our parents growing up. Yet, the short and long term rewards for fighting (fairly) make a good case for putting in the effort. The benefits of conflict management are loud and clear, according to the experts:
- Strengthens your relationship with your child
- Reduces family stress levels by increasing empathy
- Helps your child manage their emotions across all relationships (friends, future employers, partners and eventually, kids)
- Gives you both the opportunity to listen to each others’ perspectives without necessarily agreeing
- Empowers your child to develop confidence, negotiation skills, and problem solving
- Set them up to be conflict competent now, so that they’ll make better leaders, parents and partners in the future
Believe it or not, it’s more beneficial for teens to argue with us than it is for us to argue with them. As Carl Pickhart says, “What is wearing for the parents is often stimulating for the adolescent. Even if they haven’t prevailed, they’ve stood up for themselves, dared to challenge their authority, improved their argumentation skills, held their own, and generally acquitted themselves well.”
So, it’s high time to level up for them. How you lead the charge on modeling instructive behavior is completely up to you. If you’re up for the challenge, buckle up and remember: it takes two to argue, and one to pivot the conversation. Put your coaching hat on and let’s jump in.
5 steps to win arguments with (and in support of) your teenager
As you tread new conflict territory, the following steps are designed to meet you where you are. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. For the most constructive payoff, just be mindful of leaving your triggers, assumptions and frustrations at the door. If you’re hitting snooze on a recurring issue that’s already been resolved, scroll directly down to the section, “Stop dead-end arguments in their tracks.”
1. Establish the ground rules
It could be a battlefield…or not. Remember, how you set the tone is already positively instructive of how they’ll navigate conflict in the future. The goal is to encourage our kids to experience conflict and learn from it. Help them set the stage with clear intentions and boundaries of what’s acceptable vs. off-limits (like cursing, name-calling and getting physical). If at any point during the process either of you feel like taking a break, don’t think twice. Give yourself and your teen permission to cool down and regroup later.
Try: “You’re at the age where you’re going to have your own ideas and we’re going to disagree on some things, and that’s normal. You can talk to me about anything, but you also need to remember that I’m the parent. Things may get heated, and that’s okay. Let’s set some rules now, before we fight.”
Skills you’re helping them build: using respectful language, speaking calmly, listening without interruption, staying on topic, showing empathy, and staying on topic with rational statements.
2. Understand your child’s mindset
Hello, puberty! Empathy goes a long way here, and we’ll hammer this point home until the cows go home. Put yourself in their shoes to establish connection in a heated moment. Whatever you do, don’t escalate the screamfest. Find this moment of pause as a chance to create the stability they’re looking for, but don’t know how to ask for. Avoid proven kid-triggering phrases, like “end of conversation,” “when I was your age…,” and “here we go again with this.”
Try: “I can see how hard this is for you, and I want to figure it out together. Let’s take a breath and talk it out.”
Skills you’re helping them build: de-escalating a tense situation, managing strong emotions and connection through empathy.
3. Ask them what they need
Now that you both are in a calmer place, ask the simple and pivotal question, “What is it that you really want?” You might be surprised by the answer, you might not. Either way, the question is what counts, showing them that you’re ready to listen and level with them. Now would be a good time to bust out the active-listening skills and mirror back their key points.
Try: “So what I hear you saying is that you want to get a belly button piercing because you love the way it looks and feel it could really boost your confidence. Did I understand you correctly?”
Skills you’re helping them build: Active-listening without agreeing or interruption, clarifying communication and inviting connection through questions.
4. Meet them in the middle
Compromise comes next, within reason. There’s plenty of wiggle room here that doesn’t involve breaking curfew rules or jeopardizing their personal safety or academic futures. Truth is, they do need our rules and they’ll thank us for them later. Developmental psychologist Peter Scales makes the case for smaller concessions: “Teens need to express their opinions and have those ideas not only listened to, but also acted on to some degree.”
If you fail to meet them in the middle and worse, offer rational thinking, you could seriously derail the situation. Avoid acting on the impulse to write your kids off with the following:
- Because I say so, that’s why
- Because it’s important, that’s why
- Because I know what I’m talking about, that’s why
- Because I can’t stand it, that’s why
- Because I want it that way, that’s why
Try (following the example above): “Let’s revisit the belly button conversation when you’re closer to your 19th birthday. Right now, I’m okay with you looking at fake belly button rings.”
Skills you’re helping them build: Negotiation, constructive communication, respectful compromise and rational thinking with logic to back it up.
5. Stop dead-end arguments in their tracks
If you sound like a broken record (“How many times have we talked about this? You need to clean your bedroom!”), it’s time to clarify your boundaries. Opening up space to argue about a clear boundary you’ve already set sends mixed messages. Not good for you or your teen. It’s essential you discern between listening to their needs and encouraging false hope that you’ll change your mind, and draw a clear line in the sand. Waffling not only creates confusion (and oftentimes anger) but worse – might lead them to thinking you’re a pushover. Another battle to fight. Take a deep breath, recall the tenets of healthy communication from earlier, and reinforce your boundaries with clear consequences if they’re not met.
In the event that there’s back and forth disagreement, don’t be shy. Declare that your decision is not up for further conversation, take space, and regroup again later if you need.
Try: “I need you to clean your room, but you don’t have to do it right now. As long as it’s clean by Sunday night before bedtime, we’re good. If it doesn’t get done by then, I’ll be giving you some more chores to do next Friday night. I hope you can make the right choice for you.”
Skills you’re helping them build: clear communication with leeway for your teens to express and boundary setting.
Give yourself a hug or pat on the back for making it this far! We love our kids and we want to see them build muscle around their problem solving, empathy, negotiation and confidence – now, and especially for the future. The next time your inner teenager wants to rebel against them, channel your inner coach and find the reframe: argument isn’t bad, it’s just another way to build healthier and more solid relationships. Who doesn’t want that?