As I explain in my recent book about family conflict, "Stop the Screaming," the frequency and intensity of conflict between young person and parents increases as the process of adolescence causes them to grow apart.
The purpose of this growth is ultimately to establish independence between them. The engines that drive this process are three: separation, differentiation, and opposition. Each of the three creates its own source of conflict.
SEPARATION is the process of pulling away from parents and family to create one's own independent social world of friends, to give more guiding influence to peers, and to establish more privacy from parents, communicating with them less than one did as a child. So now there are more conflicts over the young person's reduced involvement with family, over increased activities with peers, and over how much personal information parents have a right to know.
DIFFERENTIATION is the process of experimenting with one's own individuality, trying on and off a host of interests and images to sort out the authentic person one wants to become. So now there are more conflicts over fitting less well into family than one did as a child, over assuming identities that parents find unfamiliar, and over appearing and acting differently than the person parents want him to become.
OPPOSITION is the process of actively and passively challenging parental authority in an effort to become more self-determined. So now there are more conflicts over arguing with parental demands, over delaying in response to parental requests, and over disobeying parental rules.
While the child enjoyed his parents' company and the opportunity to share common interests, was comfortable living on parental terms, and sought to please parents most of the time, the teenager is not so inclined.
Come adolescence, the age of command is over and the age of consent has arrived. The young child believed that she had to do what she was told and that parents had the power to "make" (command) her to behave. Aware of her independence, however, the teenager knows that their influence depends on her cooperation. They can't make her or stop her without her consent.
Picking up on this change, and wanting to reverse it, parents will sometimes treat conflict with their adolescent as a battle over who will prevail? This is a mistake.
If your primary objective in conflict with your teenager is to win control, then you have already lost. There's no contest. Who makes the adolescent's decisions? The adolescent does, and he or she will often go to stubborn extremes to make this reality clear.
In addition to creating a power struggle by shifting the focus from the issue at disagreement to proving who is in charge of the outcome, parents have lost two opportunities that conflict provides - for understanding and for unity.
Conflict arises from two different ways of looking at the same issue. Teenager and parent disagree about such issues as what's desirable, what's appropriate, what's right, what's wrong, what's allowed, what's needed, what happened, what's really going on, what will happen now.
By making the effort to appreciate each other's point of view and self-interest, understanding is increased because both feel better known. By bridging the difference at issue with a working arrangement both are committed to support, unity in the relationship is strengthened.
When it comes to gaining teenage compliance, parental orders, threats, and punishments with a stubborn adolescent usually have less persuasive power than listening, empathizing, and explaining because the last three alternatives convey respect, while the first three do not. Often, if parents will respectfully let their teenager have his say, the teenager will finally let parents have their way. He has stood up for himself and has been given a fair hearing.
In counseling with parent and teenager who are at a standoff with each other, or who keep contesting the same issue without reaching resolution, my job is to help them gain understanding and unity. Through communication, change, concession, and compromise, I try to bring family members who are in opposition into a state of common cause with each other.
Forming a shared objective increases the likelihood of reaching a shared solution. "You both want graduation from high school to happen, so let's talk about how you each can help get this done." Hopefully, having accomplished this with my assistance, they are better prepared to do this on their own when the next conflict inevitably arises.
The model of communication used to settle their conflicts can make an enormous difference. An authoritarian parent, for example, used to demanding his way, may use an "arguing to win" approach. This often resists resolution because each person knows that conflict can only end in one party's defeat, and neither one wants to suffer that.
A collaborative parent, however, accustomed to working things out, may use a "discussing to understand" approach. This often facilitates resolution because both are collaborating to reach an agreement each helped create.
One behavior to avoid in conflict is blame. Blame never resolves a disagreement, it only intensifies ill feelings. Blaming conflict on the opposition, parent or teenager just cast off personal responsibility, victimizes the blamer, and criticizes the person blamed.
Besides, conflict is never one person's fault. It is both people's fault because conflict is always a cooperative act. It takes two to start it, maintain it, and conclude it. And conflict is never primarily about disagreement. It is always fundamentally about agreement.
The two parties, in this case parent and teenager, mutually agree to disagree about and contest a difference between them. Hence the endless conflicts arising from separation, differentiation, and opposition that unfold between parents and teenager over the course of adolescence.
In general, the parents I have seen who manage conflict with their teenagers most effectively seem to subscribe to five articles of conduct.
1)They express interest in gaining understanding. "Can you tell me more about your point of view?"
2)They express sensitivity by showing empathetic concern. "How is this issue between us causing you to feel?"
3)They keep discussion safe by being non-judgmental. "Just because I disagree with you doesn't mean I disapprove of you."
4)They keep the focus objective by sticking to specifics. "Let's talk about what we each believe happened, and what we would like to have happen now."
5)They honor their parental responsibility without being rigid. "I will be firm where I have to, and flexible where I can."
Conflict doesn't mean something is "wrong" in a relationship. It simply means that, for both parties, there is a difference in wants, values, perceptions, or beliefs that needs to be declared, discussed, and resolved.
Come adolescence, conflict doesn't mean parents and teenager can't get along.
Rather, it is how they more frequently are going get along.
Conflict, this process for brokering human differences, is never easy. As my wife informed me years ago: "To learn to conduct loving conflict well is the work of a lifetime."
Next week's entry: Is my adolescent acting spoiled?