How to Fight Fair with Your Teen

Parents of teens often wish that they could stop the inevitable fights. No one particularly likes conflict, and teens can be particularly infuriating. However, disagreements are a natural part of any relationship, and two people are never going to agree about everything.  Conflict is simply a part of life, and children need to know how to handle it in a positive way with their friends, teachers, future employers, and future partners. Teenagers also need to know that it’s alright to disagree with someone, that they should stand up for their thoughts and feelings, that they can manage their emotions enough to disagree without being mean, and that, when the fight is over, the relationship is, not only intact, but stronger. When you can teach your teen to fight fair, you will have given them the life skills they need to be successful in adulthood and created a tighter family bond. Following are some ways to fight fair with your teen.

Establish Ground Rules

Mature adults take time during a calm moment, when everyone is emotionally stable and argument-free, to have a conversation about the inevitability, and ground rules, of conflict. Because conflict brings up powerful emotions, it’s important to explain to your teenager what is “normal” so that they don’t feel out of control. Parents should tell teens that it’s okay to have their own ideas and that those ideas won’t necessarily agree with those of others, it’s okay to feel angry, and it’s okay for disagreements to be heated. If you try to deny anger, it can fester into resentment and/or revenge. But, parents should also explain that despite the anger, it’s important to experience conflict in a way that lets you move past it, and that means learning to fight fair. Spend time together deciding what behavior is off-limits. For example, you may agree that name-calling, cursing, or throwing things are not acceptable actions during your fights. Then, when you are in a fight, you have already determined ways to behave.

Seek to Understand

Conflict arises because you disagree. The best way to diffuse the situation is to try to understand the other person’s point of view. There are a few things that will help parents do that.

First, parents need to accept that their teen is an individual (separate and different from you) with his/her own perspectives, opinions, priorities, pressures and ideas. Tweens and teens are hardwired to establish an identity apart from their parents. Plus, your teen’s life is filled with raging hormones and social drama. Understanding and remembering puberty will allow parents to not take things personally and to be more empathetic.

Second, parents should remember their goal.  It can be easy to lose sight of your ultimate goal when you are in the heat of the moment, but remember that the goal of any fight is to resolve it. You should not be trying to make your child feel bad or get them to admit that you are 100% right. The argument started because you had a specific message that didn’t mesh. For example, instead of screaming about how your teen broke curfew, talk to them instead of how worried you felt about their safety. When your teen can see your curfew argument is motivated by your concern, they will be more open to hearing you.

Finally, parents need to use their active-listening skills. You must hear what your child has to say without interrupting or arguing or getting defensive. You do not have to agree with them, but understanding their viewpoint will help you find a compromise. Ask your child, with sincerity, “What do you really want?”  You may be surprised by his/her answer, and you are nurturing your relationship by showing you care enough to want to understand his/her needs, even if you have no intention of giving in. The teen years can feel lonely, stressful and confusing; they need to know that parents understand even if they don’t agree.

Don’t Escalate the Drama

Fighting fair means steering clear of tactics that will escalate the disagreement. There are certain words or actions that will only make the other person mad. Staying calm is the best way to diffuse an argument and models appropriate behavior for your teen. Just because your teen is screaming at you, doesn’t mean you should return in kind –  remember those hormones. Teens are often confused by the intensity of their emotions in this stage of life and they need you to be stable to provide balance. However, none of us are going to be able to stay calm as our teens push all of our buttons, so be sure to use some “fight-fair” techniques.

Compromise. In any negotiation, both parties want to walk away feeling like they got a little of what they wanted. While parents cannot compromise on everything, particularly moral or safety issues, parents can try to find something to give up. It’s healthy and important to allow your teen to express their opinion, provide their reasoning, make them feel heard, and then act on their ideas to some degree.

Walk away. When a fight seems to be heading out of bounds or breaking the ground rules you established together, it is healthy to take a break. (Note that this is different than storming off in a huff.) When you or your teen are very heated, or if the conversation is really upsetting you, try saying, “We both need time to cool down and think about what we really want to say” or “I need a time out” and then regroup later. While it can be really hard to walk away from a disagreement without resolving it, saying something that you don’t mean could take its toll on your relationship, which is more important. Take a break and come back to it later when everyone is a bit calmer. (It’s important to role model this behavior and then allow your teen to walk away from an argument, too.)

Stick to one issue at a time. Avoid the “kitchen sink” arguments that start with one thing and end up encompassing your teen’s every transgression over the past two years. Focus on the topic at hand and do not bring up something else that made you mad yesterday. Additionally, avoid using words like always and never, which causes others to get defensive.

Don’t be mean.  There’s a difference between expressing what upset you or why you’re mad and just being straight up nasty. Words spoken in the heat of anger have a way of damaging relationships. This is where those established ground rules can come in handy. But generally, everyone should avoid name-calling, making personal attacks, pushing or throwing things, making comparisons (such as “your sister never had any trouble getting home on time” or “when I was your age…”), and using famous parent lines that just make teens see red (such as “end of conversation” or “because I said so” or “I’ve had it with you”).

Pick your battles. If you can let the small things slide it increases the amount of peace in your home and also gets your teen to pay more attention when you are upset about the big things.

Let your teen “own” their problems. For example, if your teen earns a poor grade in school, it’s important for parents to remember that the poor grade does not reflect on them. If parents begin to worry over their grade, then the teen loses ownership of it and the problem will grow bigger. Instead, as your teen how they plan to fix the problem, enforce a consequence, and move on. This will also help reduce the amount of conflict in your house.

Final Thoughts…

Effective communication skills are an important part of navigating life. To follow up on these “fair fighting tactics” you should also read one of our previous blogs, Effectively Communicating with Teens.

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