Resolving Parent & Adolescent Conflict through Communication

Teenagers and conflicts, most of us see these two terms as almost synonymous. Throughout our experiences with counseling teenagers and their parents, conflict is one of the most troublesome areas parents struggle against. We often encounter comments like, “I think my teenager actually enjoys fighting with me,” or “My parents just don’t understand me.”

My brother Greg and I experience these same types of feelings as well. For example, I remember a trip where I felt my father did not understand me. We were flying into Boise, Idaho to participate in the Love is a Decision seminar. The day before our seminar, I was to drive with my dad to a special engagement. However, dad was suffering from the twenty-four hour flu and was not in the best of moods. Consequently, I'm not sure why he picked me to accompany him because we are very much alike and tend to spark conflict. This time would be no different.

Within five minutes, we were arguing about my style of clothing. I was not wearing a suite because I'd been instructed to wear khaki pants and a polo shirt with our seminar logo on the front. But dad firmly disagreed with this choice, and took his frustration out on me. Just like your teenager might have responded, I adamantly defended my clothing, and the argument escalated until we stopped talking altogether. Ironically, we were on our way to lecture about healthy relationships. To make matters worse, when we arrived I was instructed to remain in the car. Apparently, he did not want people seeing me dressed that way. I felt like the family pet instead of his son, and to get even, I was tempted to “bark” at people as they walked past our car. That way, people would forget about my clothing and just worry about my mental state!

Over the next two weeks, we were unable to resolve our disagreement because we didn't want to understand each other's feelings and needs. It wasn't until we used a special method of communication, that we resolved our conflict.

The Key To Resolving Parent & Adolescent Conflict

The same way we resolved our disagreement, is how parents can discuss problems with their teenagers. The first step in resolving any conflict is to communicate. “Obviously!” you might be thinking, “But we've tried talking and it doesn't work!” As you've probably already found out, teenagers often resist communicating. This resistance usually stems from feeling misunderstood. The communication method we'll describe below, however, can help you both feel understood during most any disagreement.

The Speaker-Listener Communication Technique

This powerful communication tool that Greg and I use in counseling was developed by Doctors Howard Markman and Scott Stanley. We also teach this technique to couples at our monthly seminar; but it's not limited to relationships with husbands and wives. The Speaker-Listener communication model is equally powerful with teenagers and their parents.

It's necessary to begin by establishing three very important ground rules. It's amazing how many rules our society has ranging from sports to war, but when it comes to arguing, rules are usually not a part of the structure. When a parent and teenager establish rules for their arguing, potentially major conflicts can be reduced to minor infractions.

1. Take a time-out when the discussion begins to escalate.

In other words, when an argument arises and emotions begin to tailspin into yelling, agree to take a break. No argument will ever be resolved in a healthy manner when emotions are high. The ability to reason logically decreases with every shout and dishonoring word.

Before taking a time-out, an important point to remember is to schedule when both parties will resume trying to resolve the conflict. If possible, tell your teen that you love him and want to solve the argument, but now is not a good time because everyone’s emotions are worked-up. However, you will talk about this again at a specific time.

2. Assign a speaker and a listener.

The speaker’s job is to express feelings and needs. For example, when my dad and I attempted to resolve our conflict we decided that I would be the speaker first. I said “Dad, I felt like a failure when you criticized my clothing.” Notice that I only expressed feelings at this time, and I did not get into the blaming game. It's also important for the speaker to keep his wording short and not get involved in long, drawn-out statements.

On the other hand, the listener’s job is to pay close attention and repeat exactly what he hears the speaker express. This is important because it gives the listener a chance to validate what the speaker is saying. It also gives the speaker a chance to clarify his statement if the listener does not repeat it back correctly. Once your teenager feels that you have accurately restated his needs and emotions, then he gets to be the listener as you express your feelings.

Continue this speaker-listener process until you both feel completely understood. Remember, understanding does not mean that you both agree with the other's position. Instead, feeling understood implies that both parties feel that their emotions and needs are recognized as being valid. Therefore, before moving into the resolution part, it's necessary to ensure that both parties feel understood and validated. The simplest way to find out if someone feels validated is by asking if he feels you understand what he's been trying to communicate.

3. The final directive is to resolve the conflict.

As you move in to resolution, first brainstorm and list as many solutions as possible. It's necessary that no idea or possible solution is criticized. Finally, after you come up with a full list of possible solutions, decide which ones you like and dislike. The best solution is the one which creates a “win/win” situation. In other words, everyone feels that their needs have been met. If a solution cannot be agreed upon, it can be helpful to involve a neutral, third party to help negotiate the impasse.

The Speaker-Listener technique is an excellent model in helping parents and their teenagers resolve differences. However, the technique can only work if you're patient and seek to understand before trying to be understood, “But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” (James 1:19).

Michael Smalley, PhD
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Dr. Smalley is the CEO of the Smalley Institute. For over 20 years, he has been teaching couples principles of loving well and loving for a lifetime. He is also the founder of the Gary T. Smalley School of Marriage and Family Ministry.

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