Embracing Teen Conflict for Good

If your family could be described by a television program, would it be the older than dirt Leave It To Beaver series, or more like the can’t wait till it’s over The Kardashians? Despite every parent’s earnest hopes that their family will look something like the perfect sitcom, I can guarantee there’s going to be some reality TV thrown in there, too.

Maybe you’re living some of that reality right now. Your children have hit the teen years and you feel like your home has been thrown into tail-spin. Your teens are seeking increased independence while, as parents, you are trying to let the reigns out slowly. Or perhaps raising your child has always been a battle, causing you to think about waving the white flag and giving up. I get it—the teen years are a challenge!
Conflict is a pre-cursor for change. Don’t ignore what is before you as it might just be the greatest opportunity to influence your child… in the midst of some of the hardest parenting times.

Mom and Dad, let me offer you some encouragement. While these years are challenging, they also present critical opportunities to guide your teen through the real issues of life. Don’t shy away from these opportunities that appear as headaches and heartaches. Keep engaged with your teen no matter the level of stress on either side. This is where the battle is won for your teen. And this is when you need to be your teen’s best ally not his or her worst nightmare. Here’s some guidelines for dealing with a few challenging examples.

Example #1: The Angry Teen
Maybe the situation you’re facing today is constant conflict with your teen. Let’s first normalize this. Conflict will occur as your teen’s self-interests clash with your desire to look after his or her best interests. Remember, anger is a secondary emotion, so when your teen is angry, look to understand what is the root cause. Be genuinely curious to learn what he or she is feeling and thinking, wanting or needing. Talk to you teen!
Don’t match their anger, but ask them to share with you why they are angry. Your calm approach will bring stability to them and their emotions. You may not always be able to meet their unmet needs or wants, but you can listen to them and learn about them. Most important, you can help them process their deep feelings and frustrations. Sometimes that is enough. You may even be able to relate to them on many levels, remembering when you were a teen. In this way, your teen’s anger can be a doorway for developing an honest and healthy relationship based on mutual love and respect.

You may be thinking, “This is impossible!” You may be saying, “You don’t know my kid. He’s unapproachable!” Resist reliving the past or feeling intimidated in the present. Yes, it may start out bumpy, but let you teen know you are going to keep trying, you are going to keep engaging, and you are going to keep loving. It’s been said that “no one cares how much you know until you show how much you care.”

Example #2: The Withdrawn Teen
The withdraw teen is an apathetic teen. Anger indicates they are still passionate and engaged, but apathy indicates they are in the danger zone of disengagement—checked out from everyone and everything. Signs of the withdrawn teen are that the things she used to care about no longer excite her. He has no motivation, no ambition, and lacks any strong emotion. This is the teen who can take parents to the end of their ropes because they seem unreachable.

The withdrawn teen can pose a heart-wrenching challenge–sometimes calling for the urgent action. First, keep engaging and keep reaching out to your teen in ways that are caring and loving. Again, it’s all about communication. Rather than criticizing them for their apathy, invite them into a dialogue to learn about what is troubling them inside. Let them know that nothing they can tell you will stop you from loving them. Let them know that you are genuinely there to listen and help. Take time out to show you really care. That might mean scheduling a night on the sofa to talk, a walk, a dinner out, or a road trip—whatever will create a real opportunity for real communication.

But if your teen won’t talk to you, don’t throw up your hands. You still have options. Suggest that they talk with a trusted therapist or pastor. Many times teens are afraid to share with their parents the truth about their overwhelming feelings and even dark struggles, but they will talk to someone else if given the opportunity. Don’t feel rejected or hurt. Be grateful they want to deal with their issues. If they aren’t talking to you, they need to talk to someone. In addition, a professional can assess whether your teen is dealing with something more than temporary apathy. They can evaluate if serious depression or suicidal thoughts are preventing recovery.

Example #3: The Acting-Out Teen
These are the teens who wake you up in the middle of the night asking you to bail them out of jail. These are the teens who are sexually active, using drugs, drinking alcohol, bullying others, self-harming, have an eating disorder, or are exhibiting some other self-destructive behavior. This is the time for you to resist only focusing on the external issue to look deeper to the motivational driver.

When you are tempted to berate your teen for external behaviors, stop to talk about the “why” of what they are doing. This can be illuminating to you and your teen. Often times, your teen hasn’t stop to look at the “why” or where it is taking them. Your teen may be acting out of depression, insecurity, faulty thinking, fear, loss, and peer pressure. While setting healthy boundaries and addressing the behavior, you can also offer your teen desperately needed support, love, and a place to process their pain. Let them know that there is way out and a way up.

Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston is the founder and executive director of Heartlight Ministries, a residential counseling facility for adolescents in crisis. He is also a popular radio host and speaker and leads parenting seminars across the country. He and his wife, Jan, have served families and counseled youth for more than 40 years. They have two grown children and four grandchildren.