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What Adolescents Can Learn From Parental Conflict

How parents conduct marital conflict teaches the teenager by their example

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

The question was: “Can parental conflict with each other affect adolescent growth?” I believe the answer is ‘yes,’ because parents are influential and adolescents are impressionable.

The reason why adolescents are so impressionable is that they are experimentally in search of a more grown up identity that contrasts with the childhood definition they are letting go. Adolescents are open to be influenced.

The reason parents are influential is that they provide the most immediate and powerful models for acting grown up. Watched much more closely than they ever realize, parents have more modeling effect than they usually appreciate.

Think of it this way. By instruction, interaction, and particularly by example, parents teach a 'Curriculum of Family Life’ to their adolescent daughter and son. Included are lessons from daily experience about communicating, relating, valuing, self-managing, and much else that can have formative value in the years ahead. Much of what is practiced ‘now’ in adolescence can become permanent ‘later.’ Within this curriculum, how parents manage verbal conflict with each other has much to teach of lasting impact.

Consider, for example, different lessons that young people might carry over into later relationships based upon conflict they saw between their parents.

“In disagreement I listen to the other person’s point of view and then work something out together, like my parents do,” or “I fight for the final word and won’t back down, just like my parents refusing to let each other win.”

“Because my parents were comfortable settling their disagreements, so am I in mine,” or “Because of what fighting did to my parents’ marriage, I avoid conflict whenever I can.”

“Because I only saw my parents of one mind, I thought in a good relationship people never disagreed,” or “Because my parents fought all the time, I only wanted a relationship that was conflict-free.”

"Because I saw my parents talk out their differences reasonably and calmly, I learned to do the same,” or “Because I only saw my parents arguing in anger, when I get crossways with my partner I get angry too.”

Disagreement and conflict are not the same. Disagreement is just seeing the same issue differently. Conflict is a mutually agreed upon opposition over some difference in wants, perceptions, beliefs, or values. It requires the active cooperation of both parties. Without joint engagement over a point of disagreement, there is no conflict, only an uncontested point of difference that is let stand. In marital relationships, there are many more minor disagreements that are worked around and let go than there are major disagreements that are contested and worked through. Thus avoidance and encounter are both essential skills for managing points of disagreement, and knowing when to use one or the other.

When a joint encounter occurs in family view, parents get to model the dance of conflict with each other, illustrating steps which observant young people might learn to follow when engaging in conflicts of their own. At best, I believe witnessing some parental discord can show young people:

How family conflict is Normal (there are incompatible differences in all relationships),

How spoken conflict is Safe (it is never used as an excuse to do anyone hurt),

How argumentative conflict is Productive (it can fashion agreement out of disagreement.)

How communication in conflict is Informative (it can deepen intimacy as each party understands more and feels better understood.)

How conflict is Passing (after the issue at opposition is encountered and resolved, normal relations are restored.)

How conflict can be Creative (as opposing parties construct a divergent solution neither might have found on their own.)

This doesn’t mean, however, that all active discord between parents should be shared with their adolescents. In fact, parents need to be selective. As a general rule, if the issue is emotionally loaded, involves a complaint about the other person, is about the children, or involves issues better kept private, don’t conduct that conflict in front of the adolescent.

Otherwise, seeing parents differ, and constructively conduct and resolve that difference, is a great example for young people to see. This can show that conflict does not have to mean that something is “wrong” in the marriage – a sign that parents can’t get along. Rather it can mean something “right” is happening. Parental conflict can illustrate how they get along when mutually agreeing to confront, discuss, and resolve significant human disagreements that arise between them.

Probably the most important aspect of conflict to impart to the adolescent is the model parents follow. At issue is whether conflict is treated as an act of collaboration or as a contest.

When parents treat their conflict as an act of collaboration, they approach it as shared problem solving. The purpose is to increase mutual understanding, and then to use some combination of communication, change, concession, and compromise to achieve unity both can support. They treat each other as informants, not opponents. In adolescent eyes, a parental conflict seems like a “discussion.”

When parents treat their conflict as a contest, they act like it is a competition over who is right or who gets their way. The purpose is to dominate using combattive tactics such as manipulative or forceful language, perhaps unsafety so. They create a winner and a loser in the process. The goal is not unity, but control. They treat each other as opponents, not informants. In adolescent eyes, a parental contest seems like a “fight.”

I think which model is used in parental conflict can have a very telling effect on an adolescent. Obviously, I favor the collaborative approach. As for constant parental bickering, lodging public complaints against each other, arguing to let off steam, or yelling to get one’s way – parents just need to remember these behaviors are the ones they teach the adolescent witness.

Then there is this to consider. We live in an age where divorce is very common, and even if parents are not divorced, adolescents will have friends whose parents are, parents who could not work out or around their significant differences.

I believe that parents who follow the contest model of conflict are more apt to arouse divorce fears in their children. By approaching conflict in combat mode they signify that in active disagreement they cannot get collaboratively along. Thus you hear the teenager who declares: “I hate it when my parents fight!” Now conflict has been given a bad name, and that is unfortunate and unnecessary.

Finally, consider what the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, had to say about human conflict over two thousand years ago: “The poet was a fool who wanted no conflict among us…from the strain of binding opposites comes harmony.” (Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, Brooks Haxton.)

In all human relationships, we need to be at peace with conflict, make peace out of conflict, and hopefully do so in non-violent ways.

For more about parental conflict and adolescents, see my book, “STOP THE SCREAMING – How to turn angry conflict with your child into positive communication,” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Parental Conflict and Adolescents: Further Thoughts

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