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Talk Your Way Through Conflict

Disagreements aren't the same as fights, and the former don't have to lead to the latter. That's true when it comes to hairstyles and junk food, and it's true where media choices are concerned.

How can you calm the troubled waters of an entertainment-related conflict? Authors Joe White and Lissa Johnson, in their book Sticking with Your Teen, offer the following advice. If your child isn't a teenager yet, don't worry. Most of the tips are adaptable to raising younger children — and even to keeping the peace with spouses:

Confrontations happen in practically every home, but they're guaranteed when you and your teen aren't close. How can you communicate in a way that helps you reconnect?

Here are a dozen tips for talking your way through conflict:

  1. Start strong. Psychologists say the first three minutes of a conversation generally dictate how the rest of it will go. Begin a confrontation with a soft voice and respect for your teen, and it's likely that the confrontation will be more productive and less destructive. As one teen testifies, "My mom and I had effective communication because I was treated as an equal. Not in terms of who was in charge (that was clear) but in that I had a voice."
  2. Let your teen speak first. Young people we surveyed said that if they have a chance to talk first, they're more receptive to what their parents say. Once teens get to speak their minds, they're usually willing to listen to the other side.
  3. Don't interrupt. It's tempting to dive in and react to a piece of what your teen just said, but one girl described how that looks from her point of view: "My parents interrupt me and lecture/yell. Then while they're talking and I want to get a word in, I'm yelled at for interrupting. It's really unfair." If either of you tends to talk nonstop, set a timer for two or three minutes and take turns.
  4. Watch your tone of voice and body language. Model what you want your teen to do. When parents yell or use sarcasm or point fingers, kids figure it's OK for them to do the same. They also put on their protective gear and get into "fight" position. If you turn angry, use a quieter, calmer voice. If nothing else, your teen will have to listen harder to hear you.
  5. Explain what you want and why. Some teens say they just don't understand what their parents are asking them to do. Have your teen restate what you've told him. Explain the reasons for your request or rule. For example: "I understand you'd like to be with your friends at the concert. But you've been out late every night this week and you can hardly get out of bed in the morning. That's not good for you, or for your schoolwork. Maybe next time."
  6. Fight fair. No name-calling. Stick to the issue at hand. Don't dredge up past failures. Avoid the words "always" and "never," and don't compare your teen with anyone — living or dead, related or unrelated.
  7. Don't beat your teen over the head with Bible verses or biblical concepts. Sure, it's crucial to pass principles from God's Word on to your child. But most arguments don't qualify as "teachable moments." Your teen won't be too receptive if you declare, "I don't care if it makes you look like a nerd! You'll wear that orange sweater to school because the Bible says to obey your parents. Besides, vanity is a sin!"
  8. Give weight to your teen's feelings and opinions. You may think it's just "realistic" to tell your teen, "So, the girls said mean things about you. Forget it. You have to get used to people doing that." Instead of feeling like you've just prepared her for the real world, though, your teen will feel dismissed and misunderstood.
  9. Don't try to control your teen's side of the confrontation. It doesn't work! Let's say your teen is "sassing" you. You could retort, "You will not talk to me like that!" Not a good move, since a statement like this challenges him to prove he, not you, controls his tongue. Instead you could say, "I'll be happy to listen to you when you speak to me more respectfully." Now you're saying what you will do — something you can control.
  10. Keep the issues in perspective. How important is this fight, anyway? Is it possible to work toward a win-win solution, or at least one everybody can live with? Are you choosing your battles wisely? Stand up for the values that are most important to you and to your teen's welfare — but consider flexibility on lesser matters.
  11. Take a break when necessary. If you or your teen are getting too wound up, take a time out. It doesn't hurt to put a conflict on the back burner until people calm down.
  12. When talking fails, write a letter. Writing gives you time to sort through your thoughts and express yourself carefully. It gives your teen time to respond instead of reacting defensively. A notebook passed back and forth can work, too; so does e-mail. That's what a mom and dad discovered when their 13-year-old son wanted to see an R-rated movie; they kept telling him "no," and he kept arguing. Finally Mom wrote him an e-mail, explaining their reasons. The boy never asked about it again, and seemed warmer toward his parents than he'd been in quite a while.

Disagreements can be healthy. Your whole family can grow closer by dealing thoughtfully and lovingly with media-related differences of opinion.

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From Plugged-In Parenting, published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2011 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.