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Parents, Adolescents, and the Nature of Conflict

Conflict is how parents and adolescent need to get along.

Parent/child conflict increases during adolescence as the healthy teenager pushes for more independence to grow and healthy parents restrain that push in the interests of safety and responsibility.

Each of "the five engines that drive independence"—separation, expansion, differentiation, opposition, responsibility (see 9/13/11 blog)—creates a different source of dispute.

SEPARATION can cause disagreements over time with peers versus time with family.

EXPANSION can cause disagreements over what one is old enough to do versus what one is not old enough to do.

DIFFERENTIATION can cause disagreements over what expression of individuality is okay versus what expression of individuality is not okay.

OPPOSITION can cause disagreements over living on adolescent terms versus living on parental terms.

RESPONSIBILITY can cause disagreements over what decisions one is not accountable for versus what decisions one is accountable for.

Given this inevitability of more friction in the relationship, here are some notions about conflict that parents might find helpful to consider.

PARENTS ARE TRAINED IN CONFLICT and they need to know what their training model is. In their family of origin they witnessed and experienced conflict in formative ways. If it was a safe and constructive model (calm discussion leading to reasonable resolution), they might want to continue it with their adolescent; if it was an unsafe and destructive model (explosive attacks leading to hurt feelings), they might want to change it with their adolescent. Parents can modify the way of conducting conflict that they learned growing up if they want.

CONFLICT IS COOPERATIVE as opposing parties work together to contest some significant point of difference between them. Conflict is a matter of mutual agreement. It takes two to start a conflict, and only one (by disengaging) to stop it. ("Suppose they gave a war and nobody came, or only one side came?") Any time a parent finds themselves fighting with their teenager, they need to ask themselves: "Why did I agree to cooperate in this argument, and do I want to discontinue my involvement?" (To stop an argument, just stop arguing back) Just as bickering siblings are jointly accountable for their ongoing rivalry, parent and adolescent are jointly responsible for any conflict between them. Engagement in conflict is a matter of personal choice.

CONFLICT CAN CREATES RESEMBLANCE, the influential conduct of one party often causing imitation in the other. Thus, if the teenager starts interrupting, voice-raising, and making general accusations when in conflict with the parent, it can be tempting for the parent to respond in kind. However, the adult must resist this temptation and model the kind of mature behavior he wants the adolescent to learn instead—hearing the other person out, speaking calmly, and sticking to specifics. When in conflict with their teenager, parents want resemblance to come their way.

CONFLICT CAN BE INSTRUCTIVE, the adolescent learning from the exchange. Conflict is not something parents have with their teenager; it is something they do with their teenager. It is a performance act. Each time they engage in conflict the parent is teaching one more lesson (by example and interaction) how to do conflict. And this education bears not only on now, but later as well. Teenagers who learn how to constructively manage conflict with their parents (talking it out respectfully and not acting it out harmfully) are given valuable tools for managing conflict in later significant relationships of their own, as partners and parents, for example.

RESEMBLANCE CAN CREATE CONFLICT when parent and adolescent share similar antagonistic traits. Perhaps they are equally stubborn. Perhaps they each have to have the last word. Perhaps they are both very strong-willed. Perhaps they are highly competitive. When parents recognize such a similarity connection they need to bring it out in the open for discussion. They do this with the adolescent in order to find strategies for managing future disagreements without getting trapped in the old familiar, similar way. The problem with conflicts of resemblance between parent and teenager is that they intensify very quickly and resolve very slowly, if at all.

COOPERATION CAN CREATE CONFLICT because cooperation requires that two parties manage to share something in common. So telling teenage siblings to share the computer creates all kinds of cooperation questions that can lead to conflicts. Who goes first? Who's in charge? Who gets most? What is fair? What is a fair share? Who decides? Who knows best? Who is right? Whose is the right way? When is whose turn? If parents want to reduce cooperation conflicts between siblings, then they can declare how the sharing is to be done.

CONFLICT IS HOW SIBLINGS GET ALONG; it doesn't mean they are not getting along. Conflict allows siblings to provoke interaction, compete against each other, practice arguing, take up for themselves, test their power, assert dominance, work out differences, and ventilate emotions, among other things. So long as parents monitor the conflict to make sure no verbal, emotional, or physical harm is being done (in which case they need to intervene, stop the proceedings, and confront the violator), and so long as siblings also have harmonious times together, the push and shove of sibling conflict can teach them how to get along when disagreeing with each other is what they choose to do.

CONFLICT CAN CHANGE QUALITY OF COMMUNICATION as choice of language tends to alter with rising tension. So, for example, as impatience builds, the words parent or teenager choose to use can change from objective, declarative, and moderate ("You didn't do what you promised") to evaluative, accusatory, and extreme ("You're completely untrustworthy!") It's up to the parent to monitor the level of discourse so it does not become inflammatory. When provocative speech intensifies conflict, parents to need to stop action, agenda the issue at difference, and take time to discuss constructive language that needs to be used.

CONFLICT CAN LEAD TO VIOLENCE when frustration with opposition leads to anger and anger leads to verbal or physical abuse. This is why the number one priority in family conflict is the management of emotional arousal, the issue at disagreement always of secondary importance. Each person must take responsibility for monitoring and managing their own state of feeling. If anyone, parent or teenager, feels in danger of emotionally ‘losing it,' they need to declare a time out to cool down, and commit to resuming the dispute at a more emotionally sober time. The rule of safety must prevail and it is simply this: conflict is never to be used as an excuse to do anyone in the family harm. Between parent and adolescent, disagreements are normal, conflict is to be expected, but violence is neither.

TOLERANCE FOR CONFLICT CAN VARY BETWEEN PARENTS with mothers frequently more comfortable in conflict with their teenager than are fathers. For example, a mother who was socialized with female peers to value closely communicative, emotionally intense relationships growing up may treat conflict with the adolescent as a chance to better understand her more argumentative son. The father, however, perhaps less comfortable with emotional interactions and more male socialized to treat conflict as competition or even combat, may want to win, shut the opposition down, and get the disagreement over with. Sometimes fathers have to work at hanging in there in conflict with the adolescent in order to provide an opinion or stand that the teenager needs to hear and to hear what the teenager has to say..

TOLERANCE FOR CONFLICT CAN VARY BETWEEN PARENT AND ADOLESCENT, the teenager more often up for an argument than the adult. Why is that? Conflict is one way the adolescent takes on the adult to fight for older, equal standing, and ultimately independence, against the most powerful adult in her world. Even if losing the argument, the teenager comes out stronger for the effort. As for the parent, there is less to personally gain and more stress to endure—having to invest energy and emotion in a dispute of questionable value that can leave the adult exhausted, while the teenager seems hardly winded. For the adolescent, in fighting trim and with more freedom on the line, conflict with parents is just a normal part of growing up: "Bring them on!"

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Also my book about family conflict, "Stop the Screaming." Information at:

Next week's entry: Adjusting to your child's entry into adolescence

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