Conducting Verbal Conflict with Your Adolescent

Teach healthy conflict to your adolescents so they can use that skill later on

Posted Jan 13, 2014

In the great curriculum of family life, much is taught to children and adolescents by parental instruction, example, and interaction, all of which can have lasting value. Through observation, imitation, and practice, young people can learn habits of behavior that carry over into their adult relationships, for instance with a partner or with children of their own.

Conducting verbal conflict is a good example of this formative education. The conduct of conflict is largely a matter of choice. What follows are some choices and approaches that parents might want to teach.

NORMALIZING CONFLICT. Probably most important is normalizing conflict, not treating it as something bad or a sign that something is wrong in the relationship. Verbal conflict is to be expected and (depending on how it is conducted) also functional. It is the talking out process of communication (as contrasted with nonverbal acting out like yelling or hitting) that people rely on when confronting, contesting, discussing, and resolving significant differences in their family relationships. Disagreements are to be expected, some conflict is inevitable, but violence is neither.

A disagreement is not a conflict; a disagreement is just two different ways of viewing the same issue. Music that the adolescent thinks is pleasing, for example, parents may think is just hard on the ears. It’s when a point of disagreement is mutually contested that this joint effort creates actual conflict. For example, getting chores done in a timely way may be mutually contested by parent and teenager. In family relationships many more disagreements are let stand and worked around than worked through with active conflict because conflict creates opposition that takes energy and can feel emotionally uncomfortable. All conflict is cooperative. As in argument, it takes two to create it, but only one (deciding not to argue back) to stop it. 

Between parent and teenager, common disagreements that develop into conflicts can be about what is expected, what is wanted, what is allowed, what is believed, what really happened, what needs to happen next, when something should be done, and who is right, for example. Because of the push for independence and desire for more freedom, there is usually more conflict between parent and adolescent than between parent and child. For example, conflict can be joined over the issue of what freedom should (the adolescent) or should not (the parents) be allowed.

Oversimplified, here are three criteria for constructive choices in conflict that parents might want to consider: making conflict Safe, Specific, and Caring.

SAFETY IN CONFLICT. The first rule of family conflict is that in the process of mutually contesting a point of disagreement between them, parent and adolescent must have no fear or experience of giving or receiving harm. This means there will be no threats of injury, no attack language, no yelling (which is acting out), for example. If after a safety violation the adolescent says, “Well I only said that because I was frustrated and angry,” then that young person needs to find a safer way to manage frustration and express anger. And if after a safety violation the parent says, “Well I only said that to show who is in charge,” than that adult needs to find a safer way to assert authority.

Since conflict, particularly in families, can be an emotionally intense experience, the first responsibility of both parties is to manage their own emotional arousal. Conflict is no time to allow feeling to do one’s thinking because what feels right to say in the moment can do a lot of wrong, even inflict lasting harm. “You said I’d never succeed in anything in my life, and I’ll never forget that!”

So the first order of business when parent and teenager are in conflict is for each to take responsibility for their emotional arousal. Resolving the issue at disagreement must always come second. The end (winning at all costs, for example) must never justify any means. Family conflict should be a process of communication to understand and resolve differences, not an act of combat to fight for supremacy and determine a winner. So if either feels like their emotion is about to take charge, they need to declare the need for a short break to restore emotional sobriety, and schedule a time for getting back together to continue the discussion when cooler heads can prevail.

SPECIFICITY IN CONFLICT. It is because conflict can create frustration or anxiety from the opposition, that emotional intensity can arise – someone feeling irritated or threatened by the encounter. Language can change as conflict intensifies, choice of words becoming more abstract and accusatory. Thus the fact that an adolescent chore was neglected last night can cause a parent next morning to shift from talking operationally about what was not done that still needs doing (specifically, how supper dishes still need to be washed and put away) to how this behavior and the young person are now generally perceived – “inconsiderate,” “irresponsible,” “uncooperative!”

Notice what can happen when this shift in discourse from specificity to abstract language takes place. Now name calling begins, and not of a complimentary kind. In response, the adolescent in defense and in imitation of the kind of words cast his way returns the favor by name calling back, labeling the parent – “bossy,” “nagging,” “on a power trip!” Such abstract, accusatory language is inflammatory. The exchange of blame names never resolves conflict; it only intensifies it.

So in conflict with your adolescent, it’s important to not only monitor emotional arousal, but to watch everyone’s use of words. Choice of language matters. Hurtful words can have harmful impact and cannot be taken back. Best to keep the conversation focused on what each party operationally wants to happen or not to happen, on hearing and being heard, on crafting a resolution, and on keeping the conversation judgment free.

CARING IN CONFLICT. Particularly in conflict over an urgent issue when hard positions are easily taken and hard feelings easily aroused, it can be easy to see the other party in more adversarial than friendly terms. Normal feelings of caring can be pushed aside as focus on competition and command take over. Now control of the outcome may feel more important than caring for the relationship in the process. However, the more parent and adolescent treat each other as opponent, the less sensitive they may be to treating each other as a loved one, and it is the parent’s job to make sure that the priority for not endangering that loving connection between them is always in place. When either parent or adolescent believe that winning at all costs matters most, the effect on the relationship can be too costly. Means used to satisfy this short-sighted end can do lasting hurt.

Conflict must not be an alienating process. It should be a committed collaboration between parent and adolescent to communicate about and resolve some divisive issue so that the ongoing relationship between them is strengthened as a result. The parent’s commitment to caring is demonstrated by showing empathetic concern for the adolescent’s feelings about the matter, by giving the young person a full hearing, by showing understanding of the young person’s point of view, by patiently explaining their own point of view, and when it comes to working out a resolution by being firm where they have to and being flexible where they can. By this example, the adolescent is taught. Adolescents who don’t get what they want at the end of a conflict, but feel they were treated with respect and caring during the process, as an informant and not an opponent, given a full hearing, and being understood, are more likely to give consent to the parent’s final decision, and not bear hard feelings for being denied.

Adolescents who learn to conduct conflict in a safe, specific, and caring way with their parents have received an invaluable model for dealing with inevitable human disagreements in their significant relationships later on.

For more about conducting family conflict, see my book, “STOP THE SCREAMING” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.) Also my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Responding to the Adolescent Push for Freedom