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Magazine Article

Same Family--Different Worlds: Conflict Resolution for Parents and Teens

Island Parent Magazine Feb. 1998: p. 8

The most frequent statements I hear from teens are "Nobody listens to me" and "Nobody understands me."

As parents, most often we do listen and we do understand what is going on for our teens. Sometimes we may say, "I am listening and I do understand what it's like for you." Their response may be, "No, you don't. Nobody understands." Our teens often feel alone and that they are the only one on the planet this is happening to. Sometimes we give advice, and advice is not listening.

Step One

One of the skills of conflict resolution is to acknowledge feelings. When we acknowledge a teen's feelings, the teen is sure the parent has got it. And if you did not get it, they will tell you and then you have new information. When we give teens advice, there is an assumption that they do not know what to do or how to handle a situation. Advice can wipe out their experience or feelings.

Here is an example of what this might look like:
Teen: You are always on my case. All you ever do is tell me what's wrong.
Parent: That's not true. There are lots of times when I give you all the space you want. (defensive reaction)
Parent: If I were you, I'd start doing my chores and I wouldn't have to bug you. (advice)
Parent: So, you feel like I'm always in your face with lots of criticisms. (acknowledging feelings)

This last statement may be easy to say and it is sure hard to do. It is so hard because it may sound like we are agreeing with our teens. Sometimes we want to defend ourselves by telling them they are wrong - we become defensive - or we may become angry. In fact we are not agreeing; we are empathizing with them and letting them know that we understand where they are coming from. We are listening. (We will tell them how we are feeling later!) By acknowledging their feelings, we are earning ourselves a hearing. If we do a good job listening, they may be more likely to hear us. The intention is to model constructive listening. The important point here is that listening and understanding are not the same as agreeing. Acknowledging their feelings also helps to defuse angry emotions. This may take some self-management on the parent's part. It may also take a number of acknowledging responses to let them know we are sincere. The goal is to let our teenagers know we are willing to resolve conflict by listening and showing that we care.

Step Two

Once we've let them know we are willing to listen and understand, we need to get more information. We need to ask some questions: open questions (what, how, who, where, when or which) are broader in nature than closed questions (did you, could you, don't you, will you etc.) which tend to give you "yes" or "no" answers. Asking open questions means we have to shift from a position of judgment to curiosity. When we are curious about what is going on for our teens, we are more likely to find out what their experience is.

Here is an example of what this might look like:
Teen's response: Yeah, you're always in my face. I can't stand it.
Parent: Do you feel like I'm too hard on you? (Closed question)
Parent: What kinds of things am I in your face about? (Open question)

With the closed question, the teen can respond with a flippant "Yeah!" With an open question, teens have to stop and think about specific times when they felt that way. If we can get our teens thinking to answer an open question, we can help defuse angry feelings by moving them from emotions to thoughts. If we are really listening we can hear what is important to them and we can acknowledge their answer and learn what the next open question could be. The goal is to get more information so we can understand what they are going through.

Step Three

Once we have a sense about what is going on for our teens, we can then let them know what is going on for us. This is the time to tell them what our point of view is. Teens are much more likely to hear your point of view if you speak from your own perspective using "I language." When you use "you language," the teen may feel judged or blamed and this may take the communication into right / wrong thinking.

Here is an example of what this might look like:
Teen's response: You are always giving me a hard time about cleaning up the kitchen.
Parent: Your friends are always over here after school and dirty every dish in the house. You never clean up after yourself. You had better get on it now. (aggressive response)
Parent: This is just too hard. Why even bother? (passive response)
Parent: I get frustrated when I come home from work and I'm pretty tired and I have to clean up the kitchen before I can start cooking dinner. I would really like some help from you. (assertive response)

Notice with the assertive response that the parent is not making the teen wrong. The parent is taking responsibility for his/her feelings and asking for what might be done differently. The assertive response is more likely to get an empathetic response from teens because they understand why their parents wants their help. With an aggressive response the teen may feel threatened or challenged and the power struggle begins. With a passive response, we just give up, let it go or pretend there is no problem. The goal here is not to focus on who is right or wrong. The main point is that you get to state what is going on for you.

Step Four

Now you come to resolve the conflict. At this point the teen may have heard what is going on for you and may feel badly about the problem. The intention is not to make the teen feel guilty. Developing mutual respect for one another is important to the outcome at this stage.

Here is an example of what this might look like:
Teen: You never want to hear any of my ideas.
Parent: What are your ideas? I would really like to know. (open questions and I language)

Here you request their input and ideas to solve the problem instead of telling them what to do or how to fix it. This is an excellent way to help young people develop decision-making experience. They feel part of the solution and therefore will own the agreement that has been made. It is my experience with young people that when they are given the opportunity to participate in the solution, the likelihood of the agreement working is far greater than if they are told what to do. The goal in the conflict resolution process is to improve communication and establish a model for resolving conflict in an atmosphere of trust.

So let's review:

  • Step one: Listen to understand and acknowledge the teen's feelings.
  • Step two: Ask open questions to get more information.
  • Step three: State your point of view using "I language."
  • Step four: Solve the problem by combining your input and the teen's input.

This model for resolving conflicts with teens requires skill and practice. I hope this article helps add to your parenting repertoire. As a mother of a 30 year old daughter, I can safely say that developing conflict resolution skills has helped to keep her strong will and spirit alive. I tell her that she has taught me so much about resolving conflict. I say has because she is no longer a teenager and our communication has changed to a relationship between friends. When she was a teenager I was working at the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre in Burnaby and was not easily shocked by her behaviour because the young people I worked with were at risk to themselves and their communities. It is widely documented that teenagers are under the most pressure and stress of any other age group in North America. Teaching teens to negotiate through conflict helps them be responsible for their actions as healthy young adults.


Books: Coloroso, Barbara, Kids Are Worth It! Hendrix, Harville, Giving the Love That Heals

Publications: B.C. Council for the Family 1-800-663-5638 or 604-660-0675

(c)2002 Soules Consulting LTD.