Don’t stress! Managing conflict with teenagers

One day your delicious toddler is begging for more cuddles, and then it seems like no time at all before your enter the years of slammed doors, one-word answers and ‘how embarrassing, mum!’ But life with your teenagers doesn’t have to be that way, writes psychologist Elizabeth Neal.

Teenagers face major developmental challenges, many of which have been occurring well before parents actually notice them. Changes occur on biological, physiological, sexual and cognitive levels. This is a time where they master the ability to think in abstract, creative and critical ways. It’s a time where the formation of self-identity and individuation occurs.

Yet while their bodies and minds catch up to the external world in this way, teenagers can be plagued with strong emotional responses. It’s extraordinarily common for young people to experience mood swings. This coupled with their need to exercise control over their environment and test out their emotional or physical strength puts extra pressure on relationships with parents.

Five Ways to Manage Conflict with Teenagers

1. Put it into perspective

Remember: They are right in the thick of a private journey of self-discovery. The continual adjustment to new experiences can be emotionally disruptive and anxiety provoking. This often leads to moodiness, prickliness and edginess.

It’s hard for parents to know what kind expectations they should have that are normal and realistic responses to strong emotional challenges.

Recognizing the bigger picture and the ‘hidden’ changes can help when managing conflict with teenagers

2. Respect their ‘subjective reality’

This is vital to managing conflict with teenagers. You can disagree with the facts but you need to validate their feelings. Rather than offering them a solution to their problem, simply validate the feelings they have about the issue and leave it at that.

A classic example of invalidation came while working with a mother and daughter in my Gladesville practice. They were describing a situation where they got into a heated argument. The 14 year old said “I was so embarrassed, mum. It was so embarrassing”.

“Well I don’t know why you would feel that way,” said mum.

The daughter got angry and teary and frustrated and after back and forth of this, she was furious.

Whether or not you think your teenager should or shouldn’t feel a certain way is irrelevant. The point is that they do and they need more than anything for parents to simply feed back that they can see they feel that way.

This is a well known way to help young people regulate their emotions works in managing conflict with teenagers.

3. Deal with your own triggers

There’s always an underlying core belief or fear that gets nudged when we get triggered. Disappointment? Failure as a parent? Perpetual guilt?

Figure out what’s going on for you when you feel your blood pressure rising. Get a hold on your own ‘flooding’. Having solid personal insight into what’s actually going on for you when you get triggered allows you to leave your own stuff out of it and deal more effectively with the first two steps.

Remember: A heightened emotional and defensive reaction tells the teenager that you’ve lost control of your own emotions. Slow down and move towards a more considered and empathetic response. This will arm you more effectively when managing conflict with teenagers.

4. Turn towards them when they need you

Building on the connection and trust through sensitive responsiveness is a key way to managing conflict with teenagers. You don’t have to drop everything immediately for them but you can turn towards them and validate their need for connection without compromising your own needs. “I see you want to talk darling. I will just finish this off and be with you in 10 minutes”. Psychologists have found that dismissing bids for connection (however they arise) results in less attempts bids for connection in the future.

5. Practice respectful communication in all relationships, especially the primary adult ones you’re modeling

Modeling respectful communication is key to managing conflict with teenagers. Not only does it provide a template for them to wotrk with, but it also normalizes respectful rather than hostile (aggressive or passive-aggressive) interactions.

Part of this is having a “we-ness” approach with parenting if you are parenting teenagers within a partnership.

Did your teenager go through a tricky time? How did you handle it?

More on relationships…

Elizabeth Neal is a Registered Psychologist specialising in relationship and couples therapy. She works in private practice in Neutral Bay and Gladesville and provides 1 hour face to face sessions, phone and email consultations and intensive weekend workshops. Elizabeth lives in Gladesville with her husband and two boys.

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