My three previous columns have discussed the key challenges of the teen years: isolation, mediocrity and risky behavior, and conflict. The best way to minimize these problems is to lay a foundation prior to (and during) adolescence of loving intimacy, positive motivation, and effective problem-solving.

In this column we will explore how parents can solve problems, resolve conflicts and stay out of unnecessary fights with their teenagers. That is a large subject, so what follows is a brief summary of ideas that have worked with other families which you should adapt to your own unique situation and values.

The nature of conflict

Conflicts happen when parents and teens have different wants. What are those wants?

I think almost all wants have a positive aim at their root. For example, underneath the alarming desire of a teenager to experiment with drugs and alcohol are fundamentally positive desires for pleasure, for belongingness with friends, or for exploring the world. While the form of expression of those wants through trying drugs and alcohol is problematic and needs to be regulated, the underlying wants are themselves alright and simply need better means of fulfillment.

Find the underlying positive wants

By naming and appreciating their underlying positive wants, both parents and teens feel understood and respected. And there is a much more positive basis for negotiating more appropriate ways to fulfill those wants.

Try to figure out what the positive wants are behind the worrisome or maddening behavior of your teenager. Use your empathy, and memories of your own teens. What were your underlying, positive wants as a teenager? Did you ever pursue them in problematic ways (confusing to your parents, risky, loud, irritating, etc.)?

Adolescents often express themselves in provocative or confusing ways; try to see through the camouflage to the person, the child, behind the screen of upsetting words and behaviors. What are the underlying, positive wants of your kids? Most teenagers have powerful desires for autonomy, connection with peers, feeling respected, and the development of a personal identity separate from their parents. These are developmentally good aims. From your teenager’s perspective, are those deep needs being fulfilled? And does your teen see you as more of an ally or a hindrance in that fulfillment?

Conflicts with teenagers are often framed unwittingly as struggles between the desires of the teenager for autonomy, etc. and the parent’s desire for obedience, achievement at school, or help around the house. If this occurs and push comes to shove, many adolescents will pay whatever price they need to pay (getting yelled at or grounded, losing allowances, etc.) to fulfill the need that is more important to them, and to hold on to their autonomy, connection with peers, self-respect, or sense of a separate identity at any cost.

Try to avoid head to head battles over these deep aims of adolescents. Try to emphasize the ways that what you want them to do is actually consistent with their deep needs. If you must thwart the fulfillment of a deep aim – such as insisting that your teen return from the world’s coolest party by 2 am – at least express some sincere compassion and respect for the underlying desires for autonomy, connection with peers, etc.

You are still the boss

Dr. Mike Riera, Dean of Students at Marin Academy, has written a very wise book called Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers which contains the idea of parents of adolescents shifting from the role of “manager” to that of “consultant.” This means that you find ways to join with your teenager in common aims (such as autonomy or self-respect), that you help your teen to learn necessary lessons more from life itself than from you, and that you position yourself as much as you can as a sympathetic, encouraging, and helpful friend throughout this difficult process. This shift lays the foundation for a good, lifetime relationship with your child when both of you are adults.

Nonetheless, an adolescent is still a minor, and a parent has a continuing moral and legal duty to and responsibility for the care, guidance, and (yes) control of that child. You need to make the call as to how far you are willing to go to enforce your values or will, particularly when doing so poses risks to your long-term relationship with your child. But it is your call to make! Teens need parents who are personally comfortable with being the ultimate authority in their home, who are willing to exercise power and to calmly ride out the volcano that erupts.

There is a little speech parents usually need to give a few times during the teen years. It takes many forms, but it goes essentially like this: “I love you and respect you. I think you are great. I know that you need to make your own decisions more and more, and to live with the consequences yourself. I’ll try to stay out of your hair as much as I can. I know that I’m wrong sometimes, and I am open to your reasonable efforts to persuade me to your way of thinking. But make no mistake about it. You are still a minor, and I am still legally and morally responsible for you. When I think it matters, I am willing to be the boss – and I am the one who decides when it matters! I have to do what a lot of people say to me – such as the lawmakers, or police, or my boss – and you have to do what I say to you. It’s as normal as that. On basic issues like your safety, the long-term effects of failing in school, or not being mean or obnoxious to me on a daily basis, I am willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill my responsibilities as a parent. It’s just going to be painful to both of us if you push me to that point – but it’ll be a lot more painful for you. You might as well accept the basic principle of my ongoing protection and influence in your life and save us both a lot of grief.”

Be clear on your stands

Know where you stand on such matters as schoolwork, help around the house, schedule and curfews, teenage sex, drugs and alcohol, and how family members treat each other.

These can be slippery and loaded subjects. See if you and your spouse can write down your positions for each of these areas, the “house rules” for your home. Hopefully you will be close enough to each other to form a common position. If you and your spouse cannot resolve a significant disagreement about your “policies,” involve a third party. Your positions about your stands will be tested regularly by teenagers, so it really helps to have them as clear as possible.

Communicate your policies, your house rules to your kids. In principle, your kids need not agree to the rules – whether they agree or not, they still have to live by them or there should be serious consequences. But obviously it is much better for teens to buy into the “home program” as much as possible. Be open to their input about them so they have more sense of ownership. Appeal to their sense of reason, or fairness, or simple self-interest.

Each parent has their own “bottom line.” I have seen parents forge an arrangement with their teenager that basically goes like this: “If you (1) achieve in school up to your intellectual potential, (2) stay out of danger, (3) avoid trouble with the law, drugs and alcohol, or your sexuality, and (4) treat your parents with some basic civility and openness, then we will give you a lot of breathing room and stay off your back. But those four principles are our bottom line: we’ll talk with you about details of implementation but they are not negotiable as general standards, we are very serious about them because we love you deeply, and we will do whatever is in our power, on our watch, to see that you fulfill them. If you don’t, we will be a major pain in your neck. If you do, your life will be very sweet. What do you choose?”

Choose your battles wisely

Before getting into a conflict, take a big breath and make sure that the answer is “yes” to both of these questions: Is my position (= my want in this case) based on principle (rather than the heat of the moment, my own personal neurosis, etc.)? And if it is, is this matter truly important?

Lose the occasional battle, but win the war

Research shows that the great majority of adolescents get through the teenage years fairly well and do fine as adults. You most likely want to have and will have a long-term, lifetime relationship with your child. What sort of relationship do you want it to be?

Think about your own adolescence and your adult relationship with your parents. What was the cost to your long-term relationship with your parents of all that happened between you in your adolescence?

Sometimes parents force their will upon their teenager successfully, prevailing in a particular issue, but at the price of losing for a long time – and perhaps forever – some piece of closeness or goodwill from their child. I say this not to make you nervous about exercising reasonable authority; ultimately you have to be the boss. But keep in mind the long-term view. Much of what parents must do during the teen years is simply survive them, and get through them with their long-term relationship with their child intact.

Let reality be the consequence, not you

As much as possible, arrange for reality to be the consequence, not you. Let your teenager struggle with the world instead of with you! For example, if your child chronically uses up her allowance and then borrows from you (rarely repaid), stop loaning her money and let her figure out what to do.

Someone once defined karma as hitting a golf ball inside a tiled shower. When your child “hits the ball” and it comes back to smack him in the head, generally get out of the way. With love, position yourself in those situations with your arm (figuratively and sometimes literally) around the shoulder of your teen, saying essentially, “I’m sorry that golf ball you hit (ie. report you failed to turn in, quiz you didn’t study for, curfew you broke, speeding ticket you got, P.E. teacher you flipped off, etc.) came back and hit you in your head. My, that’s a big welt. It must really hurt.” In most cases, do not point out the lesson yourself because that will give the adolescent something with which to argue, and distract him from looking squarely in the mirror. Sometimes it takes a few real whacks by the golf ball, but most teenagers eventually get the lesson on their own – or from watching their friends.

Break the conflict script

Conflict often takes the form of predictable “scripts.” Break up those scripts by changing the setting, sequence, or state of the people involved. If you can see a predictable routine coming, you might as well intervene early.

Don’t get sucked into an adolescent’s emotionality or illogic. Remember that you are the grown-up! Teenagers can get a kick out of seeing their parents come unglued; then the youngster can feel like the one who’s got a grip on things. Be civil and controlled in your speech. Do not rage at or become physical with your teenager. If you are losing control, take a break and come back when you have cooled off.

Imagine watching a videotape of a typical argument with your teen: What are you glad to see? And what doesn’t work – or even makes matters worse?

Negotiate solutions

Narrow conflict with teenagers whenever you can. Make the wants at issue concrete so you can negotiate them realistically. Rather than have a philosophical battle over adolescent autonomy versus parental authority, argue over the thirty minute difference between the 1:30 am curfew you want and the 2:00 am curfew your daughter wants.

If possible, offer alternative ways for them to fulfill their underlying positive wants.

Promote integrity and morality

When you make an agreement, write it down if it’s at all fuzzy, or if there is any history of your teenager making promises and then breaking them. Most teenagers are consummate jailhouse lawyers who will find the least loophole or ambiguity.

If your teen doesn’t take promises with you seriously, ask her if she keeps her word with her friends, or how she feels about friends who break agreements with or lie to her. You can then relate this back to her being trustworthy with you.

It’s also powerful to explore your teenager’s emerging personal code of integrity. I often ask adolescents: “Are you being true to your own code, your own inner feeling of morality or integrity?”

Some research has indicated that the most powerful factor protecting teenagers from risky behavior is their own moral code, a personal intolerance of unethical, irresponsible, or illegal actions. Try to find ways to cultivate a positive morality in your adolescent. A sincere religious dimension to an upbringing is a common method. Additionally, you can read and discuss fiction with a moral foundation or watch videos together that raise ethical or moral questions.

Beware drugs and alcohol

Drugs and alcohol are a huge, unsolved problem for many sectors of our society, including teenagers. This is a complex subject and loaded with values-laden controversies. In Marin County, it is a simple fact that most students from the sixth grade up are exposed to drugs and the opportunity to get high every day.

Many teenagers try drugs and alcohol and do them occasionally. Some teenagers get into serious trouble with drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol are sneaky and fundamentally addictive substances that contain serious health consequences for the body and risks to the mind.

Many parents will choose to take a strong stance of no tolerance for drugs and alcohol. If parents consider that no-tolerance is not realistic, my own recommendation is that an absolute minimum standard is:

  • No use before or during school
  • No driving while under the influence
  • No lies or deception about drugs or alchol
  • No binging
  • No regular use
  • No increasing use
  • No trouble with the law

I also recommend that parents educate themselves about drugs and alcohol by reading books and attending presentations such as parent education evenings sponsored by schools. There are also a variety of good programs for young people, many of which are associated with schools, such as New Perspectives.

Respect their pride

Adolescents can regard their parents’ legitimate concerns about safety as infringing on their autonomy, and as a result resist their parents’ input or constraints. One way to deal with this is to express your concerns in a context of uncertainty:

I feel scared about what might happen to you if you stay out all night. I know you have good judgment and that there is only a small chance of anything bad happening. But if that unlikely event occurred, the consequences could be catastrophic, and I am just not willing to take that chance, even though it is a small one.

A wake up call

It can help to bring teenagers into appropriate contact with some of the harsher possibilities of life, so they can see the potential consequences of blowing off school, scrapes with the law, and risky behavior. Visit an unemployment office, welfare office, drug rehab center, courthouse, police station, or soup kitchen. Don’t do this punitively or contemptuously but with compassion and humility.

Encourage young people to enter situations, appropriate to their level and physically safe, that give them opportunities to deal with the sometimes all too real world. Examples include athletics, martial arts, performing arts, starting a little business with their own money, outdoor experiences such as rock climbing or sailing, or Outward Bound. One possibility is for one of their chores to be the mechanics of paying your monthly bills: that’s a definite wake-up call for many teens!

Sometimes use third parties

If you are embroiled in recurring conflicts with your teenager, it can often help to get an outside perspective. Talk with other parents and see what they do that works; this is also a great way to develop some fairly uniform expectations among the parents of teenagers’ friends so that the young people cannot so easily “divide and conquer” by claiming that “John’s parents let him _________ , so why can’t I?” Sometimes a hip-but-responsible relative – like Aunt Betty who designs for that rock-and-roll T-shirt company – can have an authority in the mind of your teen that a parent couldn’t dream of.

And if that isn’t enough, therapists can often provide refereeing and a neutral perspective.

When all else fails

A small percentage of teenagers will engage in seriously oppositional, illegal, or risky behavior. Let’s suppose that parents have done all the standard, reasonable things to guide and redirect their child, but to no avail. What are their options now?

Frankly, they are not that great. One, parents can give up. Two, they can arrange for the youngster to live elsewhere, often with a relative, sometimes with the family of a friend. Three, there are limited opportunities for residential placement through social services; these programs are typically well-intentioned and hard to get into. Fourth, at considerable cost, they can place the teenager in boarding school; there is a range of schools, depending on the needs of the child, and if families can afford it, this is often the least-bad alternative. (And of course there are positive reasons for boarding schools in addition to helping troubled teens.)

Intervene early and strongly

The bottom of the slippery slope is not pretty. That is one reason among many for parents to intervene early and strongly. By the second or third time a teenager has engaged in serious misbehavior, I think that parents should have a good action plan; if they cannot come up with one on their own, I recommend getting professional help. The stakes are too high not to.

Taste the sweet

I’ve spent a lot of time here talking about the “stick” – but let’s not forget the “carrot.” As I discussed in my three previous columns, there are wonderful rewards for responsible, ethical, industrious behavior. Expose teens to the concrete rewards of civility, respect for others, cooperation, investment in relationships, foresight, effort, skill, and deferring gratification. Introduce them to people they can admire, to lives that they wouldn’t mind having themselves. Link the work, frustration, and sacrifices – that must be done in order to live a productive and high-integrity life – to the sweet fruits of those necessary labors.

An adolescent is involved in a difficult and fundamentally extraordinary process of civilizing and directing the passions toward the rewards of a responsible and contributing life. As adults, we should be honored ourselves for coming through that difficult passage — and we should honor our own children no less.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.