Conflict between parents and teenagers is normal. It can happen because conflict happens between human beings anyway. Conflict can also occur because teens are going through lots of changes. Along with the physical changes, there are changes in the brain and in hormones as young people move into a new life stage.
On behalf of Parenting SA, Adelaide psychologist Kirrilie Smout gives parents and carers some tips and strategies for managing conflict with teens while also setting appropriate limits and boundaries.
More information about managing conflict with teenagers can be found at Parenting SA.
The Parenting SA website also has many other topics for parents of children aged 0 to 18 years.
Hi I’m Kirrilie Smout. I’m a Psychologist who works with kids, teens and their families and here are some ideas to think about in managing conflict with teenagers.
Conflict between teenagers and parents happens for a whole range of reasons. Sometimes conflict occurs between teenagers and parents just because conflict occurs between human beings anyway. Humans have different desires, different feelings, different opinions about what they want, and living with people can be really tough. However teenagers can cause further conflict because of the hormonal changes that are happening, because of the way their brain is structured, because of the stage of life that they’re in.
Teenagers are focussed on being accepted by their peers. They have strong emotional reactions at times. They find it difficult to look into the future. Cognitively speaking, they are not as good at taking perspective. So parents and teenagers will often experience conflict about a whole range of things. From chores, homework, whether teenagers speak respectfully or not, about what they’re allowed to do - these are all the kinds of things that I hear teenagers and parents tell me about.
Before we even think about boundaries for teenagers we need to make sure that we have a really good relationship base. There’s no point going in or coming in hard, saying ‘From now on this is what’s going to happen’ if you don’t have a positive relationships with your teenager. We need to go back and make sure there is some degree of mutual respect, some degree of positive communication and enjoyment being together. If you do that first it means that boundaries are a whole lot easier to set up.
Often we’re dealing with conflict on the fly. This is not the ideal time to be dealing with it. We really want parents and teenagers to have sat down and thought about the kinds of things that need to happen in the house before the problems occur. The more specific your rules boundaries are for the house, the more likely it is that teenagers are actually going to follow them. So this means we don’t have boundaries like ‘Have the bathroom clean’. It needs to be ‘The floors mopped, nothing on the countertop and the mirrors wiped by ten o’clock every Saturday’. Boundaries need to be written down, set out in advance so the teenager knows exactly what’s expected.
When you’re setting up guidelines and boundaries for teenagers it’s important to try and give as much choice and control to the teenager as possible. We want teenagers to be able to think through the kinds of things they think should happen. We want to give them some options as to when, how, what kinds of chores that they’re doing. At the end of the day, this is an adult’s decision, but the more control and choice a teenager can have the more likely it is that they’re going to be able to follow those boundaries.
Now of course boundaries will be broken - that’s what teenagers do. When the boundary does get crossed, or things go wrong, I know this is easier said than done, but we really need to try and stay calm. Remember when teenagers are really angry they’re not thinking straight. If you can help the teenager calm down, then your conversation is going to be way more productive. So this might mean asking the teenager to take a break, allowing them to go and talk to a friend for a few minutes, giving them something else to do, distracting them for a little while. Having a conversation with a teenager who’s angry is probably not going to get you anywhere.
Dealing with teenagers is really, really tough. You’re going to feel helpless, overwhelmed and frustrated at times. When this happens take a deep breath, take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, take a step back and start again.
It is really important that everyone who lives in a house feels safe and isn’t threatened in any way. So if it gets to the point where you feel like you are going to hurt the teenager, or you feel worried the teenager is going to hurt you, then you need to take some emergency steps. You need to get away from the situation. Make sure that you can cool down and if necessary call someone else to come into your house to help. Make sure that everyone is safe. It’s never OK to hit a young person, or for a young person to hit or threaten or hurt us.
So just remember that it’s normal for parents and teenagers to have conflict. It does happen, it’s hard to cope with but you can manage it. Make sure that you put specific boundaries down in advance of the problems coming up. Make sure you do this in the context of a positive relationship. Make sure you take time for yourself, try and stay calm, be gentle with yourself. Look at conflict later and if you need to, if you’re concerned about safety, get someone else in to help.
If you need help and support, contact a health professional.