Parent & Teen Conflict: Choosing How to Respond

One of a teenager’s primary functions in life is to help parents and carers discover limits of their patience, or more particularly what happens when those limits are reached.

Adults who once regarded themselves as calm, level headed, easy going people find cause to consider anger management classes or a sedative prescription from their local doctor.

It is a well established fact that conflict within households increases during the teenage years, particularly in the early teenage years. While each situation is different and every family has its own unique dynamics, there a few common processes of adolescence that contribute to an increase in conflict:

  • Teenagers desire more independence and want to expand their boundaries. Parents and teens often disagree about the nature and timing of these boundary expansions.
  • Teenagers become more emotionally autonomous. This means they seek to disengage from the emotional dependence on their parents that marked their childhood. In this process parents can become de-idolised in the eyes of the adolescent.
  • As a teenager’s thinking abilities develop they become more logical and critical. As with most new skills they are keen to practice their improving arguing abilities.

Why Yelling Doesn’t Work

It can be very easy for even the most mild mannered adult to find themselves raising their voice to ever increasing levels when arguing a point with their teenager.

While the desire to yell can come easily, finding an appropriate use for a raised voice is a bit harder.  Yelling is great if you are trying to get someone’s attention from a distance, warning people of imminent danger, or trying to give instructions to large groups of people.

But it does not work as a means to manage conflict or discipline teenagers. Behavioural Therapsit James Lehman gives 3 really good reasons why yelling at teens doesn’t work:

  1. Your Teenager sees you lose control—and learns that by pushing the right buttons, he can make it happen.   Once you start using yelling as a behavioural management tool, you teach your child everything he needs to know about pushing your buttons and gaining power over you.
  2. Your Teenager learns using power and dominance is how things get done. They grow up thinking in order to get their own way they have to overpower someone.
  3. Your Teenager shuts down both mentally and emotionally.  As soon as the yelling starts, he quickly learns to stop listening. During an argument, kids will stop paying attention, reject what they’re hearing, or start yelling back. When people yell, usually they aren’t feeling anything but anger, agitation or frustration.

Understanding Why We React

There can be a multitude of reasons why adults might respond with overly loud or aggressive language.  Psychologist Carl Pickhard offers the 5 “S’s” of why people may over react in certain situations.  It is often over reaction in the heat of the  moment that can cause conflicts between adults and teens to escalate.

SURPRISE. Sometimes it is the shock of a teenagers response that causes an adult to yell.  If your previously compliant child suddenly responds with blatant defiance a parent can over react purely out of shock or surprise. An assumption has been violated.

SUPPRESSION. On some occasions an over reaction can be due to an emotional build-up from a accumulated stress.  Sometimes teenagers choose to push the limits at the wrong moment.  After a trying day at work, or during a stressful period in your personal life, it does not take much for a teen to cause you to crack.

SIMILARITY.    A current response revives old memories that still cause pain. A teenager may inadvertently use a phrase or a name that you associate with very painful memories of the past.

SYMBOLISM.  A current response represents a general issue that remains unresolved. As an adult you may interpret an action or phrase as being connected to another larger ongoing issue, and you respond to the whole issue rather than the situation at hand. For example you may be feeling disrespected in general by your teen and you assume the current words or behaviour are a further example.

SUPPOSITION. Your teenagers behaviour or response provokes imagining in you of something worse that is actually isn’t going on.

Constructive Choices

Adults can choose to either diffuse a potential yelling match or contribute to its escalation.

Anger is an emotion that usually gives us warnings it is coming. We tense up, feel flushed, experienced increased heart rate, or breathing gets more shallow etc.  Having an awareness of what might be happening for you gives you choices about how you respond when you find a teenager pushing your buttons.

When you feel an angry outburst welling up some constructive choices available to you are:

  • Take some deep breathes and consider what is happening for you before you speak.
  • Choose to ask questions in order to clarify what the real issues are so you are not responding to false assumptions or suppositions
  • Suggest that you don’t want to discuss the issue at hand right now and nominate another time for the discussion to happen.

It’s may not be easy, but it is definitely worth persisting in working hard at monitoring and being intentional about how you respond to conflict with your teen. All the best.

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