When having conflict and struggle with your teen, it’s easy to feel as if the entire family is falling apart. I’ve found that a better view of handling conflict is to see it as an opportunity to pull your family together, like never before!
Conflict Can Be the Precursor to Positive Change
I believe that relationships that stick together through conflict and hardship become closer relationships. In fact, the teens in our Heartlight program that I remember the most fondly are the ones that caused me to want to pull my hair out when dealing with their constant arguing and bad behavior.
Parents tend to put a lot of time and effort into peace-keeping or preventing conflict in the home, but it may be better for them to engage in it. Why? Because if you never engage in conflict, things in your home may never change, or take longer to change than they need to. Could it be that by avoiding conflict you’re stifling an issue that God wants to use to bring about His plans for your life and the life of your teen?
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
Most of us prefer to avoid conflict. It is tough to pull a family together when your teen is on one side of an issue and you are on the other. That’s why parents need to better understand conflict, and how to engage in it in a way that is positive. Conflict can actually build a bridge between your differences and most kids simply need to know that you’ve heard them out, even if you don’t agree with them.
Managing Conflict with Your Teen Means…
…Learning to Argue Well
It’s okay to have disagreements with your teen as he matures. Did you think there would never be conflict in your discussions or that your teen’s growing independence wouldn’t cause him to question your values? Could your teen actually think a bit differently about things than you do? You bet he does.
Sure, conflict will happen. And since it is inevitable that you will argue about some issues, why not use those times as an opportunity to honor your teen’s independent thinking and also allow them time to process your side of the argument. They’ll never listen to your side unless you honor their need to explain their side.
My point is this… don’t allow conflicts to create a roadblock to future growth in your relationship. It’s okay to feel anger in discussions at times. But scripture reminds us to “Be angry, but don’t sin.” So, never allow an argument to get physical, disrespectful, or demeaning. Know when to take a break, and when to stop until emotions can calm down and the discussion can continue on more respectful terms.
My goal for every difficult and sometimes heated discussion with a teen is this: At the end of the argument, I want there to be an opportunity for us to hug one another, even if I didn’t change my mind at all. That’s the goal. Even if we can’t agree, I still remain in charge, and we can at least agree to disagree because it was all talked out.
The stance that you take in the heat of the battle is a reflection of who you are in real life. How you communicate during conflict teaches something very important to your teen. The messages that you will want to convey include:
It’s okay to not agree with everyone.
It’s okay to not follow what everyone else is thinking.
There are times that we have to stand up and fight.
We can have conflict, and still remain friends.
And sometimes… I’ve heard your side of the argument, but for your own good, you simply need to follow the rules.
…Engaging in Order to Pull Together
Parents often make the avoidance mistake when conflict shows itself. In other words, they break away. They stop spending time with their child and avoid the conflict at all costs. That may be a reasonable tactic for a short time, until everyone has a chance to cool off and respect is restored. However, ongoing avoidance will only serve to build walls between you and your child. Instead, by engaging in discussion you will let your child know you’ll continue to love them and spend time together even though you are at odds.
Fathers especially need to spend time with their teens. In group counseling at Heartlight, the most often wished-for thing by teen girls is, “I want more time with my Dad.” They want time together, even if they act like they don’t. For instance, when you make the effort to take your child out for a weekly breakfast, coffee, or dinner, she knows she is worth spending time with, even when she is at her worst. She also comes to understand that the conflict between you can be resolved, and it doesn’t mean your relationship has to stop when you have problems or disagree.
…Parents Are to Model Appropriate Action
Teens are somewhat limited in their ability to solve problems. They often don’t have the maturity to unravel life’s bigger issues, and they don’t understand how to change their behavior in order to help themselves. That’s where a parent comes in. Demonstrating your own resources for managing frustration is one good way to teach your teen how to handle their own frustration. Tell them how you go about solving problems at work, or with your spouse. Let them know you need and daily seek God’s help, and that you don’t have all the answers. Help them learn how to use different behavior as a way to solve their own problems or to change their situation for the better.
…Establishing Firm Boundaries and Clear Consequences to Maintain Respectful Discussion
When conflict emerges, it’s time to make sure that everyone knows the rules for the “fight” by setting up some basic boundaries. For instance, “We’re not going to be disrespectful or dishonest with each other.” Put it into words, and back it up with consequences. Words without backbone mean very little. Let the consequences for crossing boundaries of respect speak louder than your words. And for consistency, make sure those on both sides of the conflict embrace the idea of respect, 100% of the time.
…Taking Care to Not Heat Up the Fire
As you discuss your problems or conflicts, choose your words wisely. Stop saying things like, “No, I will never support that.” You’re setting yourself up for failure, and you may have to eat your words when you say that. Avoid words like “you” or “always” and speak in broader, less offensive terms. Be more open to what you will or won’t support, and pick your battles carefully. A wise parent will use the eternal perspective as a barometer for choosing which stances are worthy to fight for, and which ones may not be as important or are just a personal preference on your part.
By the way, be clear on your limits. Don’t say, “It’s your choice,” or “What do you think?” It is better to say, “Here are my limits… what I will and won’t allow in this situation. Then, explore their needs and ideas and try to find a way to meet each other halfway, listening more and talking less.
…Loving Them – Regardless
Teens need to know they have a relationship with their parents who love them through the conflicts, while at the same time a relationship that shows them the true character of God.
When I said earlier that the teens that I’m closest to are the ones that I have fought with the most, I meant it sincerely. Conflict, when handled properly, can improve relationships rather than tear them down. Just as you can rely on the fact that you will have conflict with your teen, rest assured that your teen will have conflict with their future college room-mate, their future spouse, a future employer, and even their future children (turnabout is fair play- Ha!). So, engaging with your teen in conflict now is more about teaching them how to manage conflict in the future, and less about who wins today’s argument.
Now, get in there and fight!!!!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.