I really like working with teens and admit that when it comes to talking with adolescents, I have an unfair advantage over their parents. Teens are more likely to open up to me about issues like sex and drinking, and are willing to listen to my input about these topics, because I'm a more neutral party. Meanwhile, parents often get the brunt of mood swings and blame when things go wrong.
This leaves many parents feeling out in the cold. They feel like their teen doesn't care what they have to say, and many parents want to stop trying, to give up.
But parents, you are every bit as important in your teens life now as when they were younger! Yes, you may feel like you and your teen are on opposite sides and there is no middle ground. Do not despair. Instead, think about how you approach conflict in your family and ask yourself, where is there room for improvement?
Research has consistently shown that the "authoritative" style of parenting results in the most well-adjusted teens. These parents balance control and responsiveness to their teen's needs. They set clear rules, praise their positive attributes, give explanations for their decision making process, and encourage independence.
But what does authoritative parenting look like in practical terms? The meat of it is in the difficult conversations, the arguments, the power struggles. It's in being thoughtful and measured in how your respond to potential blow-ups and melt-downs.
How to Make Conflict Work
Empathy -- see their point of view, so they can see yours. Make every effort to understand their point of view before making your case. This doesn't mean you have to agree with their point of view, simply that you want to understand what they are thinking. Ask them, "why is this so important to you?" and really listen to their reply. Are they feeling lonely? Self-conscious? Fearful? The more information you have, the better able you are to assess the situation. Next, validate how they feel. When teens feel heard by their parents, they are in turn much, much more likely to be willing to listen to your perspective!
Attack the problem, not each other.
When emotions are running high, it's easy to generalize the problem onto the person. Instead, zone in on the target problem, and keep in mind that he or she has many good qualities outside of this particular conflict. Remind each other of common or shared goals, and that you want to work together to fight this problem (rather than fight them). They will feel less defensive, and be more willing to compromise.
Give an inch so they don't take a mile.
Have some flexibility when discussing rules and decisions. Evaluate important issues on a case-by-case basis. A good approach is to give your teenager options. Giving them a few different reasonable choices will allow them to have some control over their life, and will make the rules that you do set easier to follow.
Maintain your perspective.
When talking to your teen, it is important to keep in mind your values and the kind of values you are trying to instill in your teen. Take a deep breathe, and give yourself some accolades for being the kind of parent who can face conflict, use patience to get through to your teen, and be flexible enough to keep things in perspective. If you value respect, for instance, treat your teen with respect to model this value, and talk with them about why respect is so important to you.
Explain your thought process, using descriptions of your feelings and thoughts, and how those thoughts and feelings translate into your behavior. The teen brain is still developing higher-order cognitive functioning, emotion regulation, self-awareness, and decision-making skills. You can help develop their ability to mentalize. When you explain how you are feeling and how it relates to your behaviors, it develops a template for how they will handle their own problems and feelings in the future.
Teenagers truly do learn from your modeling. They do listen to what you say, far more than what parents often believe. It may seem that your teen is dismissing your opinion, but I hear from teens very often that they really are processing what you tell them and your point of view does matter to them.
While your teen won't always express it directly to you, know that they are paying attention to you and they need to hear what you have to say.