How to Fight Fair with your Teen

No one particularly likes conflict, but disagreements are a natural part of any relationship, and two people are never going to agree about everything.  Children need to know how to handle conflict in a positive way with their friends, teachers, future employers, and future partners. Teenagers also need to know that it’s alright to express their own needs and opinions and that it is possible to disagree with someone and still have a good relationship. When you can teach your teen to fight fair, you will have given them a vital life skill they need to be successful in adulthood. Following are some ways to fight fair with your teen.

Establish Ground Rules

When everyone is calm and agreeable, have a family meeting to discuss the ground rules of conflict. Spend time together deciding what behavior is off-limits in your home. For example, you may agree that name-calling, cursing, or throwing things are not acceptable actions during your fights. These boundaries will help guide everyone’s actions, even when they are feeling angry. (You should let your teen know that it’s normal and okay to feel really angry in a disagreement, but it’s still important to treat others with respect.)

Seek to Understand

The best way to diffuse a disagreement is to try to understand the other person’s point of view. Here are a few things to remember that will help you understand your teen:

  • Accept that your 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 you to not take things personally and to be more empathetic.
  • Remember your goal.  In a disagreement, the goal is to resolve the conflict. It’s easy to lose sight of this goal when you are in the heat of the moment, but you will get a better result if you can view you and your teen as teammates against a problem instead of two adversaries against each other. Trying to make your teen feel guilty or get them to admit that you are 100% right will only extend the conflict.
  • Use active-listening skills. You must hear what your child has to say without interrupting, judging, 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 their answer, and you are nurturing your relationship by showing you care enough to want to understand their needs, even if you have no intention of giving in. The teen years can feel lonely, stressful and confusing; teens need to know that their parents understand them 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 also models appropriate behavior for your teen. Just because your teen is screaming at you, doesn’t mean you should scream back. 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. It can be hard to stay calm if your teen is pushing all of your buttons, so be sure to use some “fight-fair” techniques:

  • Don’t be mean.  There’s a difference between expressing what upset you or why you’re mad and just being mean. Words spoken in the heat of anger have a way of damaging relationships. This is where those established ground rules can come in handy. In general, everyone should avoid name-calling, criticism, sarcasm, 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”).
  • 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 feel defensive.
  • 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. 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 allow your teen to walk away from an argument, too.)
  • Compromise. In any negotiation, both parties want to walk away feeling like they got a little of what they wanted. While you cannot compromise on everything, particularly moral or safety issues, you 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.
  • 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 you to remember that the poor grade does not reflect on you. If you begin to worry over your teen’s grade, then your teen loses ownership of it and the problem will grow bigger. Instead, ask 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…

All families experience conflict, but no agreement is going to work unless each person’s needs are met. Keep your mind focused on solving the problem at hand. Ask “what needs have to be met on both sides?” Then with those needs in mind, discuss ways you might move forward and resolve the problem.

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