Family conflict and the Teenage Pressure Cooker


One of the most important ingredients in the teenage pressure cooker is family, and families with teens often have at least a little bit of conflict. Adolescence is not only a transitional time for the individual teen, but also for parents and siblings as they adjust to new behavioral and emotional patterns.

It’s natural during this period of development for there to be some disagreements between parents and teens (and teens and siblings), but too much regular conflict creates a tense and stressful environment for everyone and can be particularly hard for teens to cope with.

It is important for parents to be sensitive to how they guide their teens and set good boundaries and standards for behavior while not sending the message that their teens are “bad” or a “failure.” It’s also important for both parties to choose their battles and to use disagreements to arrive at positive resolution, rather than engaging in endless arguing that is draining and destructive. Here are some tips to help decrease conflict, build better communication and achieve more resolution!

Sit down as a family and agree on your terms of engagement for “fair fighting.” M ake a list of rules or standards that feel helpful, fair and maintain control and respect during a disagreement (i.e. no shouting, name calling, etc.).

Avoid words like “always” and “never.”

Use “I” statements. Instead of saying, “You never knock and always barge in here!” try, “I feel invaded when you come in my room without knocking.”

Or instead of “You always come home late and never tell me where you are,” try, “I worry about you when you don’t call and feel disrespected when you don’t come home on time.”

This helps people communicate their bottom line more effectively in a non-blaming way.

Recognize that the presence of conflict often reflects an unmet need. Going with the example above, the teen has a need for privacy and autonomy and to feel respected. The parents have a need for open communication. Try to ask yourself what the underlying needs are during a disagreement so the real issue gets the attention it needs.

Avoid “you are” statements (for parents, especially). Instead of saying “You are lazy,” say “This is lazy behavior.” This is another way to help teens not negatively internalize the content of a disagreement.

Avoid bringing up the past and stay focused on the issue at hand. This is more likely to keep the conflict from escalating and helps produce a useful solution to a specific problem.

If you can’t resolve the issue right then, or it gets too heated, walk away and come back to it. Don’t continue to pursue your teens after they’ve expressed a need for some down time. Do agree upon a time when it can be re-visited and discussed so that no one feels abandoned or ignored in the exchange.

Stay emotionally focused on your teen. Teens sometimes have a hard time identifying and articulating their feelings, but they have them. Ask your teens how they are feeling in a conflict and try to validate them. Understanding or sympathizing with your teen in conflict doesn’t have to mean giving up a necessary boundary, but it helps them feel heard.

Note: Marital conflict or conflict between separated parents ban be extremely harmful for children and teens. If parents are experiencing heavy conflict with each other they need to address the issue outside of the family. Please seek therapy to help resolve couple conflict and avoid fighting in front of kids.

Tara Murphy is a counselor with Bainbridge Youth Services, a 50-year-old organization that provides community youth (ages 12-19) with no-cost, confidential and high quality professional counseling. Bainbridge Youth Services can be reached at 206-842-9675.

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