Between parent and adolescent, there is usually more verbal conflict than was true during the childhood years as the developmental forces of separation, opposition, and differentiation cause a healthy young person to push for more individuality and independence, and cause healthy parents to restrain this push in the interests of safety and responsibility.
Now there seems to be an endless number of disagreements about requests to be satisfied, freedoms to be allowed, information to be reported, support to be provided, habits to be formed, responsibilities to be taken, work to be done, time to be spent, activities to be pursued, and so forth. Conflicts commonly arise, for example, when the teenager’s “I want” confronts the parents’ “You can’t,” or when the parent’s “You must” confronts the teenager’s ‘I won’t.”
For many parents this increased friction with their adolescent earns conflict a bad name. They do not seek it, they do not like it, they get tired of it, and they do not want it. However, unwelcome and uncomfortable as it may feel, conflict is not some necessary evil in their relationship; it is a necessary good. Conflict is only "bad" when it is conducted in an unsafe way that causes either party harm. Otherwise, conflict is the essential process through which parent and adolescent broker human differences that inevitably arise between them.
In addition, increased conflict is functional because it helps redefine their relationship, socially and psychologically wearing down the dependence between them, gradually growing them apart until the contests over control are finally over. Now the young person is willing to step out on their own, rely on self-support and live on their own terms, and parents are willing to let the young person go. This is what I believe adolescence is ultimately meant to accomplish, to be an emancipating process in which conflict has a vital role to play.
Since most of this conflict plays out verbally in discussion and argument and negotiation, it is extremely important that parents monitor their language. Unhappily, because of emotional arousal from impatience, frustration, irritation, exhaustion, anxiety, or anger that conflict can easily engender on both sides, constructive communication can become harder to maintain. Conflict can be blinding. That is, caught up in the intensity, people can become so focused on the opponent's behavior, they can lose sight of their own. So it is well for parents when in verbal conflict with their adolescent to stay mindful enough of what they say that the positive value of conflict does not miscarry.
Here are ten common ways that conflict can worsen parent/adolescent communication to beware.
1) Conflict can cause spoken language to shift from POSITIVE and RESPECTFUL to NEGATIVE and CRITICAL. From: “We see things differently,” to “You have a childish point of view.”
2) Conflict can cause spoken language to shift from OBJECTIVE and SPECIFIC to ABSTRACT and GENERAL. From: “You left the car unlocked and the lost the key,” to “You can’t keep track of anything!”
3) Conflict can cause spoken language to shift from NONJUDGMENTAL and ACCEPTING to EVALUATIVE and BLAMING. From: “I disagree with the choice you have made,” to “This goes to show how irresponsible you are!”
4) Conflict can cause spoken language to shift from REALISTIC and MODERATE to EXAGGERATED and EXREME. From: “This time you made a choice that got you into trouble,” to “You are always making mistakes and never do the anything right.”
5) Conflict can cause spoken communication to shift from CALM and REASONABLE to INTENSE and EMOTIONAL. From: “Instead of lying to us there needs to be a way for you to tell us the truth,” to “You made me lose my temper because you lied to us!”
6) Conflict can cause spoken communication to shift from DIRECT and DECLARATIVE to INDIRECT and MANIPULATIVE. From: “We need to discuss the mix of grades we believe you are capable of and why,” to “We feel very let down and disappointed in you for getting low grades like this.”
7) Conflict can cause communication to shift from ATTENTIVE and RECEPTIVE to INATTENTIVE and REJECTING. From: “We want to understand your view about what happened,” to “We already know what you’re going to say because we’ve heard it all before.”
8) Conflict can cause spoken communication to shift from OPEN and EXPLORATORY to DEMANDING and INSISTENT. From: “Help us better understand what it is you want and why,” to “We’ve told you what we want and we don’t want any argument!”
9) Conflict can cause spoken communication to shift from SAFE and APPROACHABLE to THREATENING and COERCIVE. From: “We need to talk with you about how risk-taking you describe can lead to major harm,” to “If you dare try what your friends are doing, we will socially ground you for the rest of the school year!”
10) Conflict can cause spoken communication to shift from LIGHT and HUMOROUS to HEAVY and SERIOUS. From “We may not agree on much, but we have no trouble agreeing to disagree,” to “This is no laughing matter, so wipe that smile off your face!”
Because conflict encourages resemblance, one party’s behavior often imitating influential conduct of the other, the communication a parent models can matter. Parents need to take the lead in this dance of disagreement and show the adolescent constructive steps to follow.
Thus while parental yelling and interrupting and tuning out can encourage similar behaviors from their teenager in return, when parents can master their emotional arousal and behave with calmness and reason and listening instead, they set a very different instructional example for the young person to learn from.
Doing so, parents are not only serving their adolescent well now, they are also serving that young person well for later, because this training is formative. They are preparing the young person in how to conduct conflict with significant others in the future like with a committed partner, and like with children.
So the watchword for parents in spoken conflict with their adolescent is simply this: watch your use of words. It makes a difference at the time, and it matters for the future.
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: When Adolescent and Parent are Very Different People