Sometimes it seems as if adolescence sets parents and children on a perpetual collision course. As much as we love our kids, their seesawing moods, penchant for challenging authority and lapses in judgment can be maddening at times. Of course, to hear them talk about us (and if you’ve never listened in on teenagers’ discussions about their parents before, you’re in for a humbling experience), we can be equally exasperating: basically lovable, but overly demanding and oftentimes clueless about what really matters—to them, that is.
Place adults and children under the same roof, and some conflict is not only inevitable but normal. Disagreements and verbal skirmishes aren’t necessarily symptomatic of an unhealthy or unhappy household, unless arguing becomes the standard mode of communication. It’s certainly preferable that family members feel free to express their feelings honestly—including airing grievances—than to repress them. That’s how problems get resolved before small misunderstandings snowball into more serious conflicts. But in order for confrontations to ultimately be constructive, everyone needs to observe certain ground rules. As parents, it falls to us to model the behaviors and attitudes conducive to healthy disagreements and, we hope, resolution.
Rules of the Ring: How to Fight Fair
Before George Munson has even hung up the phone, he can feel his face reddening.
His sixteen-year-old son appears in the doorway, absentmindedly working the buttons of a handheld video game.
“David, did someone from the camera store call here yesterday?” The computerized beeping stops, and the teenager studies the tops of his desert boots.
“Oh. Uh, yeah. I guess I forgot to tell you.”
“My camera was ready to be picked up today; I could have stopped by there on my way home. You know I need that camera for the wedding I’m shooting tomorrow. Now I’ll have to make a separate trip over there at nine o’clock, which barely gives me enough time to get to the church. How many times have your mother and I asked you to write down all phone messages?” It’s a rhetorical question, but for those keeping score: twice this week and countless times before that.
Time-out for parents. If you feel your temper start to flare out of control when you confront your teenager about some lapse, excuse yourself until you regain your composure.
Take five to ten minutes. Walk around the block if you need to, march outside and dig a new flower bed in record time or barricade yourself in the bathroom, the private sanctuary of parents everywhere. After that you should be ready to address the issue at hand more calmly and rationally. Dr. Helen Pratt, director of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at Michigan State University’s Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies, has an expression to describe those moments “when you’re not ready to be ‘on’; to be reasonable, loving and nurturing. My husband or I will say, ‘I’m not ready for prime time.’ ” (The Pratts probably have more experience in prime time than most of us: In addition to raising five children, they’ve opened their home to thirty-five foster children over the years.)
“When you feel that way,” she continues, “you need to be able to separate from the rest of the family and actively do something to bring yourself around. And children should have the same opportunity,” she points out.
Use “I” statements that reflect your feelings. Sentences that begin with the word you sound accusatory and threatening, and will elicit a defensive response. Just look at the difference between the following statements:
"I'm upset about not having my phone messages, because they're very important to me and my business."
"David, you took four messages for me last week and forgot to tell me about them."
If you do make an accusation, be specific: “David, you forgot to give me four phone messages last week.” Not: “You never take phone messages when you’re supposed to.”
Explain why the behavior makes you upset or angry: “When I don’t get a message like this one, it creates a lot of problems for me that could have been avoided. I work very hard, and the prospect of having to get up early tomorrow makes me angry.”
Don’t dredge up events from the past. Complaints are like yogurt: They have an expiration date. It’s unfair to confront someone about something he can no longer change. If it bothered you then, then was the time to say so.
Never belittle the other person’s feelings. You may not agree with how your youngster sees the situation. You may not believe he is even entitled to feel the way he does. But there can be no disagreements about how he feels.
Ask your youngster to offer his solution to the problem. Our ultimate goal isn’t to win the argument, it’s to resolve the conflict. David’s family worked out the following compromise: David promised to make sure that there were paper and pencils next to each telephone. He also agreed to get up early enough the following morning to drive down to the camera store for his father and still be able to get to school on time.
You’re wrong? Admit it. The scene: six-thirty on a Tuesday.
“Denise, where on earth have you been? Dinner’s been waiting for half an hour.”
“Mom, we had a meeting of the yearbook staff after school. I told you all about it yesterday.”
“Today? Oh. I thought you said that was next week.”
“See? You and Dad are always accusing me of stuff I didn’t do! Around here I’m guilty until proven innocent. It’s really, really unfair.”
“Well, maybe I’m too quick to assume the worst because until recently you never used to tell me where you were going after school.” Mothers and fathers sometimes resist apologizing to their teenagers when they are wrong, in the mistaken belief that to do so would somehow compromise their authority. If anything, the opposite is true: Being big enough to say you’re sorry only deepens your youngster’s respect for you. Teenagers detest hypocrisy, and they figure out right away when a parent was wrong. In the example above, an appropriate and fair response would have been a simple, “You’re right. I jumped to a conclusion, and that was wrong of me. I apologize.”
To be able to say to our teenagers, “Can you forgive me?” is a humbling experience for us, but esteem-building for them. It models for teenagers how to apologize and also sends a comforting message: Mom and Dad aren’t perfect. Whether we realize it or not, our children are continually measuring themselves against us. When kids know that you’re not perfect, they realize that you don’t expect them to be perfect either, which takes some of the pressure off them.
The preceding paragraphs have presented strategies for resolving conflict. Knowing when it’s best to sidestep conflict is another essential parenting skill. Often our natural inclination is to pick up the scent of confrontation like a bloodhound and go chasing after it. We wag a finger and sternly admonish our youngster not to act so disrespectfully, or else. And we’re absolutely correct in doing so. Sometimes, though, keeping the peace is preferable to diving into a power struggle—for everyone’s sake. “Parents can choose to disengage from the power struggle,” suggests Dr. Pratt, “and decide not to argue.”