Parent and teenagers’ conflict: Tips for approaching conflict in a healthy way.

Written by Dr Siobhan McCarthy

Q1. What are the most common causes of parent and child conflict?

Between the ages of 10-16, the most common conflicts are around the growing independence of adolescents from their parents and this process happening at the wrong pace for either the child or parent. Conflicts can arise around curfews, organisation skills, self-care, time spent with the parents, timetabling, homework, where time is spent or the amount of time on devices. Parental control and the amount of independence a child might prefer are common issues. For example, when and for how long they want to see their friends and not do things the parents would prefer the child to do. It is however not unusual for young people to spend less time with their parents and this can make parents feel more anxious, which may result in conflict. 

Q2. Is it normal to have conflict with your parents?

It is completely normal to have conflict with your parents, but the extent and frequency of the conflict may indicate if there is a problem. For parents with adolescents, it can be stressful. Parents are likely to be juggling a job, money concerns, managing children, elderly parents and household/life administration – all with limited energy. For the child, it is a time of constant change – from school requirements, and exams, to their bodies developing and wanting more independence as as an individual outside the family unit. Teenagers can feel more tired from the growing process. They may feel stress or confusion and there may be uncomfortable friend dynamics, bullying or body image issues. Combined, this is a perfect recipe for misunderstandings and parental standoffs.

Adolescents want to differentiate themselves from their parents emotionally and to do their own thing. It is a time in life where the child can develop, separate from the parent and hold a different view while expressing their own opinions. This stage of development is important in terms of personality development. But like all newly acquired skills, adolescents can get it wrong. They can be disrespectful, demanding or overly aggressive. They need to develop skills around disagreements and show their parents they are responsible. Ultimately, most parents want their child to be able to hold independent thought and to manage themselves and differences with others. Adolescence is the perfect place of safety to practise such skills.

Q3. How can parent and child conflict shape on-going relationships both positively and negatively? 

It can be very distressing to be in the relationship which is in conflict. To experience the distress, disconnection and separation, which can be stressful for both the child and the parents. Parents are used to being in control but as their child continues to develop, they can feel a separation from a place where they had complete control. This in itself marks a new phase and can be stressful for both parties because nobody knows the new rules. At this point it is important parents understand conflict is a normal process and to pick their battles well rather than pick on every small issue. It is a good opportunity to show your child in an age-appropriate way how to be respectful, to deal with differences of opinion and to help the child negotiate important life skills. This process done well, need not affect the relationship between parent and child in the long term.

It will not be helpful to the relationship to escalate conflict or for the parent to take things personally or be personally attacking. Perhaps it is healthy to understand and accept most adolescences are generally not impressed with their parents, but this again need not be worrying. I would expect that if managed well, the relationship between child and parent would return to the quality of the preadolescence stage.

Q4. How can you deal with this conflict in a healthy way?

For the parent, try not take these conflicts personally. Stay calm, remember you are the adult and you set the pace. If you lose your temper, they will too. See conflict as an opportunity for your child to practice independence from you and as part of their healthy development, allow them to negotiate against a healthy backdrop of healthy boundaries, so they understand respectful disagreement and how to practice not offending others (their parents) or being excessively rude. Try to keep the lines of communication open, keep checking in with your teenager and building relationships with them, even if they do not look keen on this. Try and build a connection through the things they like such as doing things they may want to do.  For example, let them choose dinner or cook dinner with you, let them shop with you or have a burger or ice cream (or equivalent) together. Do not take things personally if there is absolutely nothing they want to do with you, just accept this phase will end and keep telling them that they are loved. Listen to what they have to say, stay calm but explain (only once, do not repeat yourself) your decisions and why you have made this decision. If they are rude make sure you have your agreed consequence for rude behaviours and implement them. Be true to your word.

Try holding a family meeting where you can all talk through things that are annoying and also what is working well as an opportunity to chat. End the meeting by doing something nice. For example, a family film, extra device time or dinner treat. Agree rules for the house. This will help them feel respected and part of the household. Allow them to have their say even if you cannot agree with them. If it is something you might think about agreeing to when they are older, say this, and set a date when you might review the situation. Listen to them and see if you can give some ground on certain things. It will make your teenager feel more respected. If meetings are held regularly, they can be used to discuss small issues which can prevent things building up. But remember, try to keep it positive and also focus on what things your teenager is doing well or responsibly.   

Q5. How can you communicate your opinions and feelings to your parents while still remaining respectful towards them if they do not agree with you?

The best thing a young person can do is ask to speak to their parents. Tell them why this is important to you, whether it is the time you spend with friends or the time on devices and tell them what you believe is reasonable. If they disagree, stay calm. No one listens properly if voices are raised and it will make you look immature. Ask if they can meet you halfway or quarter way. Maybe you can negotiate or ask them to trial something. This can be an opportunity to prove you can respect their concerns. If you cannot remain calm, write down what you want to say and give it to your parents to discuss later on. Try to remember it is hard for your parents to adjust to your changing developments. They are used to having more responsibility for you. Show them you are responsible – for example, can you offer to do chores in return for privileges?  If you feel your parents are being harsh, they are likely to be doing this for very good reasons. Ask them to chat it through with other parents with children your age so they can see for themselves what other parents do. They may need a bit of guidance and support from other parents to meet halfway.

Q6. What are some things you can do if you find it hard to communicate with your parents in general?

If you really feel it is hard to communicate with your parents maybe you might find it easier to confide in a close relative or family friend. Could they speak on your behalf to your parent if it feels too difficult? Try writing it down and reading it aloud to help you practice speaking for yourself. Reading aloud can help you hear your own views and can also help you get used to hearing the sound of your own voice. If you need further help you should be able to get help from the school councillors who will be happy to help and you can usually approach them directly. School councillors can help support and coach you to approach your parents the right way to help with communication.

If you are struggling with any of the above issues do contact Dr Siobhan McCarthy to make an appointment.

UK Psychologists