Focus on the Family

Conflict With Your Teen

by Gary Smalley, Dr. Greg Smalley

Good communication is vital during conflict. When we asked 5,000 adults what they wished their parents had done differently during times of conflict, they gave these three responses most often:

  1. They wished their parents had listened more.
  2. They wished they could have talked about feelings more.
  3. They wished they had talked to their parents more.

It's interesting that all three of those involve aspects of communication.

And as this list suggests, good communication during conflict begins with listening and not with searching for solutions. Men especially tend to pay little attention to what their loved ones are saying, concentrating instead on trying to fix the problem. That's why we want to emphasize in this module that we need to listen first and then look for ways to resolve the conflict. It's also why we'll discuss techniques for finding solutions.

Emotional Communication: Listen with Your Heart

Do you want to know one particularly nasty myth that keeps many people from experiencing the tremendous benefits of effective communication? Somewhere along the way, they have come to believe that real communication occurs when they understand the other person's words. They equate effective communication with accurately parroting back the words and phrases they hear.

But, in fact, good communication is more than that. True communica­tion usually does not occur until each partner understands the feelings that underlie the spoken words. People generally feel more understood, cared for, and connected when the communication first focuses on their emotions and feelings rather than merely on their words or thoughts.

Consider this the magic of effective communication. Our goal must go beyond understanding the spoken words to grasping the emotional nugget underlying the words. It's far more important to discover and address the emotions beneath the situation than to parrot the words we hear. Ask your­self, "What is the emotional impact of these words?" not merely, "What exact words did I just hear?"

Suppose a teen says, "I hate my school. Everyone ignores me and I want to be home schooled."

What did she mean? Consider carefully her two sentences. The teen used no "feeling" words but all "thinking" words. So if you reply, "So what you're saying is that you don't want to go to your school any longer and you'd rather be home schooled," you've completely missed the point. You've accurately reflected to her the words she just spoke, but you remain completely in the dark about her real concern — you remain in the "head" and we want you to move to the "heart."

But what if you listen for the emotions beneath the words by listening with your heart? What if you said, "Are you saying that you feel ignored by the teach­ers and the other students, that you don't matter?" Presto! This time, you've "got it." You listened beyond your daughter's words to her heart, to her real concern. You've tapped into her emotional message — her fear of being ignored.

A lot of us (especially men) struggle with this skill. Men tend to think in a linear way: cut to the chase, get to the bottom line. We want to solve a problem and complete a task, not deal with emotions. We want to figure out how to "fix it." Without listening for and responding to the emotions, however, all of the problem solving in the world won't get us to the real problem.

Effective communication comes down to listening and speaking with your heart. When people feel understood emotionally, they feel cared for. This is very different from listening to someone from the head — that is, looking merely for the content of the person's words, without paying attention to the feelings. The goal of effective communication is to understand the emotional message of the speaker. You have to ask yourself, What is this person feeling?

Effective Communication With Your Teen

Allow your teen's feelings to touch you, and then help him see that you truly understand his feelings.

by Gary Smalley, Dr. Greg Smalley

It is one thing to hear these emotions and say, "Boy, I can really tell you are upset." But it is another thing to allow these emotions to penetrate your heart, to allow yourself to feel the pain or the sadness. The key is not merely to understand these feelings but also to allow the feelings to touch you. This is one of the primary ways that people feel cared for and loved.

Effective Communication Saves Time

Does this sound like a lot of work? Do you think it makes more sense just to make a decision, without really understanding what the other person is feel­ing? Be careful! Just making a quick decision will not solve your problem. When people don't feel understood and cared for, they may "agree" to some decision, but they won't get on board with it. Relationally, it doesn't feel to them like a satisfying or effective solution. And in the end, you'll have to talk about these things all over again.

Does it seem as if identifying the emotional nugget will take far more time than other methods of communication? A lot of guys think so! But in fact, it actually saves tremendous amounts of time.

Guys, take note: Effective communication is ultimately more efficient and takes less time than other methods. A lot of men feel frustrated when their loved ones seem to go on and on. They don't understand that the reason they go on and on is that they don't feel emotionally understood. If these fathers took the time to actually uncover their teen's emotional concern or fear, the con­versation would move on and they wouldn't have to hear the same thing a dozen times, from six different angles. When guys finally "get" this, the lightbulb goes on for them. They get excited about their ability to condense the conversation.

"All I have to do is help her see that I truly understand her feelings?" they ask, amazed and delighted.

Yep. That's it. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Guys, hear us: If your daughter repeats the same thing over and over, we can almost guarantee that she does not believe you understand her heart. You could say at that point, "I noticed that you are repeating yourself, and that causes me to question whether you believe I am understanding you. Am I missing something?"

Is this method easy? Not in one sense — it's probably very different from what you've done to this point in your life. But practice makes perfect! And over time, it gets much more efficient. At first, we admit, it feels awkward and you may be clumsy at it. But as you get more practice, it gets easier. In fact, this is the most streamlined form of communication that we know.

So learn to listen with your heart. Put your problem-solving urges on hold for a while. Problem-solving skills remain extremely valuable, of course, but they are much more effective after you understand the emotions involved. So save time! Get efficient! And look for the emotional nugget.

Effective communication makes room for people to feel what they are feeling, and to know that their feeling — their heart, the place where they are emotionally — is not only okay with me, it's welcome, and I am going to care about it.

Unhealthy Ways to Argue

Four habits to avoid in family disagreements

by Gary Smalley, Dr. Greg Smalley

Attempts at communication between parents and teens can be extremely frustrating for both parties. Unfortunately, many families tend to use one or more of four common habits that bring further anger and destruction to the relationship. In other words, these four common habits are what we shouldn't do when we have family disagreements. Let's examine these unhealthy ways of arguing so we know what to avoid.

Four Destructive Ways to Argue

1. Continually withdrawing from an argument

Conflict avoidance or withdrawal doesn't happen only in "dysfunctional" families; it's common in otherwise healthy families as well. In our seminar survey of more than 5,000 adults, when we asked "How did you and your parents deal with conflict?" the number-one response was avoiding or with­drawing from it.

How about your family? Do you find that you and your teenager con­tinue to bring up the same areas of conflict without resolving them? If so, these discussions probably end in hurt, frustration, or fear because the issues have not been handled adequately.

2. Letting arguments escalate into hurtful, name-calling fights

If you and your teen find yourselves starting to shout and call each other degrading, dishonoring names during an argument, the anger level will usu­ally skyrocket. Nothing can make a discussion escalate out of control faster. Yet when we asked our survey respondents how their families had handled conflict, "Yelling and screaming at each other" was the third-most-common answer.

What usually starts this kind of interaction is the accusatory word you. For example, "You never ... You always ... You make me ..." As this hap­pens, you're usually left with greater hurt and frustration. Furthermore, the fear level is now higher because you remember the increased pain of the argu­ment. The result is more love-killing anger between those involved.

Usually following on the heels of an escalating argument is the third bad habit we need to avoid.

3. Belittling or invalidating each other during an argument

To invalidate someone is to make fun of him or attack his personhood. For example, during a conflict we might accuse our teenager of being stupid, uncaring, wild, immature, ugly, or something equally dishonoring. When this happens, it can cause emotional damage and sour the relationship.

Invalidation takes place when we try to cut someone at the core of her being, like saying something about her age, personality, appearance, or intel­ligence. To be invalidated can be extremely painful. Perhaps you remember a time when a parent, teacher, coach, or friend said something that hurt you deep inside, maybe not even realizing the depth of pain his comment caused.

Why do conflicts between parents and teenagers so often escalate into name-calling, yelling, and invalidation? One reason we need to understand is the intensity and variability of teenage emotions. It's no secret that adolescence is a period of emotional highs and lows. Our teens may feel as if they're on an emotional roller coaster: loving one minute and hating the next; feeling a sense of pride and then suddenly feeling shame. One moment the future looks bright, and then in the blink of an eye it's hopeless.

The intensity and variability of emotions, especially in teenagers and especially during conflict, can cause a calm discussion to turn instantly into a raging war of words. It's no wonder that you can expect to experience occa­sional escalation and invalidation.

One of the best ways to deal with escalation and invalidation during a conflict is to take a "time-out." In other words, when emotions start to heighten, body temperatures rise, and words start becoming dishon­oring, it's time to take a break. Always agree to resume the discussion when everyone's emotions have settled. As you utilize the time-out with your teenager, you will be modeling a great conflict resolution skill that he or she will be able to use for a lifetime.

Let's now turn our attention to the final habit in arguing that can pro­duce anger and become extremely toxic to the honor in your home.

4. Starting to believe that a family member is trying to hurt, frustrate, or cause fear on purpose

When we begin to develop a negative belief about someone, it can have per­manent and ruinous consequences. What we believe about our children may come true, good or bad. Once we start developing a deep conviction that our teenager is stupid, clumsy, try­ing to drive us crazy, or going to get pregnant, we'll actually hear or see signs of it even if it isn't true. Confirmation bias is particularly destructive when it comes to parent-adolescent conflict.

The Right Way to Communicate During Conflict

You'll be amazed at how easily some arguments are solved after you both feel understood and valued.

by Gary Smalley, Dr. Greg Smalley

As you can see, withdrawal, escalation, invalidation, and negative beliefs foster anger and destroy both the parent's and the teen's love if continued over time. That's why we need to be aware of these patterns and replace them with the right way — the best way we've found — to communicate during times of conflict.

Using Drive-thru Talking to Resolve Family Conflicts

The rules for drive-thru talking are simple, but they must be followed to keep the discussion honoring. One person agrees to start "inside the fast food restaurant" (the "employee"), and the other starts the discussion "outside in the car by the menu" (the "customer"). The employee says something like, "Welcome to the Smalley home. Can I take your order?"

The customer then expresses his feelings or his needs in the current con­flict. He can't bring up anything from the past or start a new argument. (We can deal with only one argument at a time.) And the customer needs to offer only small amounts of information at a time. Making large statements or blending two ideas together can cause the employee to forget or miss some­thing important.

The employee's job is to repeat what is said by the customer, making sure he understands the "order" clearly, and he isn't allowed to evaluate anything that's said. (Have you ever heard a McDonald's worker say after you order a super-sized meal, "Sir, I can see you in my mirror, and . . . well . . . are you sure you want the Big Mac? May I recommend the McLean?" Absolutely not! You'd drive away furious and never visit again.)

Drive-thru talking is successful because it helps your teenager feel safe to express his or her needs and feelings. Safety develops when your child trusts that your goal is to listen and understand, not to defend and challenge. That's why, in the employee role, we do not evaluate, edit, or defend ourselves. Instead, we simply listen and repeat. (It's better if you repeat using your own words.)

How can you be sure drive-thru talking will really work with your teenager? If you enter into it with a spirit of honor by listening and repeat­ing, you will provide your child with a tremendously safe environment in which to discuss feelings. Sit back and let God do the rest. Remember, we call this method drive-thru talking because fast-food chains have spent mil­lions of dollars testing their ordering methods. If they can satisfy millions of drive-thru customers every day, why don't we use their knowledge to keep our "family customers" happy and satisfied? We can!

The amazing part of this method is how fast anger is dissipated. When someone is listening to you with great concern and valuing who you are, the anger just seems to drain away.

Once each person feels heard, understood, and validated, you can begin to look for solutions to the problem if necessary. You'll be amazed, however, at how easily some arguments are solved after you both feel understood and valued.

Now that you've seen the drive-thru talking method in action, we sug­gest you start practicing it. If your teen is going to find value in this method, you need to demonstrate that it's worth using. Remember, the best lessons learned in life are caught, not taught. To help you, we offer the following summary of drive-thru talking guidelines:

Summary of Drive-thru Talking Rules

Fast-Food Employee (listener)

Customer (speaker)

General Rules

Warning ...

As a word of caution, we highly encourage you not to begin drive-thru talking on a highly sensitive or controversial subject or a deeply hurtful area from your past. Start with less-volatile conflicts like being late for dinner or maybe wearing too much makeup. As your skills increase at using this life-changing method, you may feel safer to use it with more serious and sensitive matters. Take your time. It's not something you try and stop using because it didn't work immediately the way you wanted. Trust us, it works if you stay with it. It has been proved for years to be the most powerful communication method available, and it definitely lowers the anger level at home (as well as at the office or at school).

Now it's time to consider how honoring, lasting solutions can be found for parent-teen conflicts. In the next article, we explain seven powerful steps any mom or dad can take to help resolve even the most difficult disagree­ments with adolescents.

Finding the Best Solution to Any Conflict

Avoid power struggles by getting on the same team as your teen.

by Gary Smalley, Dr. Greg Smalley

Once you and your teen have heard and understood each other using drive-thru talking, it's time to pursue solutions to whatever conflict remains. The goal is for both of you to come away feeling like satisfied, honored winners.

So how can we resolve conflicts with our teenagers in honor? We start by estab­lishing some ground rules. Rule number one is to act like teammates!

Becoming Teammates with Your Teenager

Why do power struggles cause us such trouble? It's simple. In every power struggle, parents and teenagers become adversaries; they take up opposing positions. So if that's true then what kind of strategy can we use to effectively counter such a ploy? Ideally, we all want win/win solutions.

But when a win/win solution looks impossible to achieve, too many of us settle for what we see as a win/lose option. Not the best, maybe, and we'd really rather avoid it; but at least it's not the worst, either. In other words, we "compromise."

When we opt for the win/lose approach, however, we don't really get one winner and one loser. In fact, we wind up with two losers. There is no such thing as a win/lose in a family. Everybody wins or everybody loses, period. There is no other option.

This is how families work. The problem is we just don't know it! Many families set themselves up for failure because, from the outset, the individuals face off as adversaries. This can be as subtle as insisting on "making a point." Even if one member of the pair "wins" the point, it means an automatic loss for the relationship.

We encourage you to make a commitment to anew way of doing things and determine to abandon the failed old model. This begins by establishing what our colleague Dr. Bob Paul calls a "No Losers Policy." In a No Losers Policy, family members agree that it will never be acceptable, from this point on, for any of them to walk away from any interaction feeling as if they have lost. Each family member has to feel good about the solution.

To make the pathway work for you, however, you have to come up with a different definition of winning. If you make win­ning about getting your own way — in any way, shape or form — you're still locked into the old pattern and still headed for the relationship rocks.

So if winning can't be about getting your way, what is it about? Remem­ber, you're part of a team. Therefore you have to redefine winning as finding and implementing a solution that both people can feel good about.

A win/win solution that makes both parties feel good gives positive movement to the relationship and leaves it in a different (and better) place than it was before. You take a trip and end up someplace other than where you started.

You tend to relax when winning becomes finding and implementing a solution that both people can feel good about. Why? Because you don't have to worry about the other person being willing to accept a solution that makes him or her feel bad.

Creating a No Losers Policy goes a long way toward creating the kind of relationships that yield joy and satisfaction rather than grief and frustration.

Rules for Fair Fighting

Before the next conflict with your teenager arises, we encourage you to do something so valuable that it can save hours of pain: With your family, estab­lish rules for fair fighting. Such specific rules concerning what's permitted and what's not will provide structure and safety and keep your discussion from getting out of control and slipping into one of the bad habits we explored earlier in this module (withdrawal, escalation, invalidation, negative beliefs). One rule, for example, could be that whenever you see one of those four things happening, you take a time-out.

Most teens have a heightened sense of fairness, so pointing out that these rules will promote fair play should motivate them to help set up some rules.

The best way to establish these rules is to begin by asking each family member, "What rules are needed when we argue in order to keep us from getting out of control or dishonoring each other?" Then, after everyone has spoken and you've reached agreement as a family, write down your rules and post them somewhere visible so you can see them during an argument.

A good rule for every family is that both parents and children agree to treat each other with respect and listen to each other's point of view.

The 5,000 adults we surveyed gave us these top 10 rules for fair fighting:

  1. Listen for understanding.
  2. Avoid yelling, verbal threats, or abuse.
  3. Maintain an honoring, respectful, and loving atmosphere.
  4. No name-calling.
  5. Use open communication.
  6. Don't bring in past "garbage."
  7. Keep the focus off the person's character.
  8. No violence.
  9. Avoid accusatory language (e.g., "You never ... You always ...").
  10. Make sure only one person talks at a time.

Select just a few key rules to start with, because most parents and teens can't remember too many in the heat of an argument. And the calmer the argu­ment, the better the chance of an honoring outcome. Make sure you follow the fairness rules from the start, too, as researchers have discovered that the first 30 seconds of a disagreement can determine whether the next two hours of arguing are carried out in honor or in anger.

Dads especially need the safety of rules and calmness to fight fairly. If the rules for fighting are not clear and a man feels overwhelmed by angry words, his tendency is to withdraw. As we have previously discussed, withdrawal does a great deal of damage. Anger flares. But using the drive-thru talking communication method and fair-fighting rules make it much more likely that Dad will remain and work things out.

Once your rules are established, you'll be ready to jump right into the seven steps for wisely resolving almost any conflict with your teenager.

Making Wise Decisions During Conflicts

Eight tips for creating a win/win solution

by Gary Smalley, Dr. Greg Smalley

When the Smalley kids were teens and large conflicts came up within our family, we tried to follow the next eight steps as closely as possible. They helped greatly to keep our anger levels low and our honor high. They also helped us create a win/win solution.

1. Remember you're on the same team.

This is huge! Just keeping this in mind can change the way you treat one another as you communicate and negotiate. Remember, it is not acceptable for one of you to walk away feeling like you've lost. It is not worth it!

2. Clearly define the problem issue and facts through listening.

To resolve a conflict, it's necessary to first clearly define what the conflict is about. It could just be the result of fatigue, miscommunication, unclear rules, or a low sugar level. Or perhaps someone has an unspoken desire.

Take time to understand how the other person feels. There's a great likelihood that your conflict will melt away as you really go deeper and under­stand each other's deeper feelings and concerns. Often, a parent and teen will find out that they are really not as far apart as they thought.

It may help to ask questions like "What's really going on?" or "What change would be needed to satisfy you?"

3. Don't be impulsive — get the facts.

The next step in resolving a conflict is to consider all the facts. Impulsive actions can be limited if we agree as a family to gather facts before making a decision, especially during the heat of a disagreement. But don't get overwhelmed thinking, Great, we have to get all the facts before we can make any decision! Sometimes the resolution to a conflict or the wise deci­sion to make is so obvious that you don't need a major fact-finding mission. On the other hand, there will be times when a solution is not immediately apparent, or you and your teenager won't agree on the solution.

Sometimes, of course, we parents have to make tough decisions when we can't reach agreement with our teens, and they have to abide by them. But gathering the relevant facts often makes the right choice clear to everyone involved, and it also increases the honor and decreases the anger in our homes. Further, it teaches teenagers a valuable skill: logical discernment. It never hurts to consider facts, but ignorance of the facts can cause a lot of damage.

4. Pray and seek wise counsel.

Pray together. Some conflicts resolve at this point when you discern God's leading on the issue. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to want to pray with someone when you're really angry or "closed." This step is a good internal check-in. If you don't want to pray together, you probably shouldn't be trying to resolve the conflict at this time — you're probably not very safe and are likely to say or do something that means you feel more like an enemy than a teammate.

In addition to prayer, another way to help solve difficult problems or make wise decisions is to seek opinions from wise people. This doesn't mean just going to someone who you know already agrees with your position. We want to stress the word wise. It does no good to seek advice from those who may not know anything, are immature, or may be "darkened in their under­standing" by sin.

Whether the wise counsel comes from a parent, a teacher, a coach, a mentor, a youth pastor, civil servants, or other authority figures, help your teenager to actively pursue good advice when faced with a significant deci­sion.

5. Create solutions by brainstorming a "pro versus con" list.

Brainstorm solutions. Now that each of you understands where the other person is coming from, you can begin to generate ideas that have the poten­tial for being win/win solutions. Don't judge or criticize the ideas at this stage; the idea is to be creative and generate a list of options.

One of the best methods our family found for brainstorming was a "pro versus con" list. It's simple, and it keeps peace in the midst of negotiation. It also helps guard against a major roadblock to honoring solutions: manipulation.

When parents put pressure on their teenager to make a particular choice (or vice versa), it can cause major conflict. But the pro versus con list enables us to look at the issues more objectively and factually, promoting harmony in the process.

6. Agree on one or more of the solutions.

Remember, the goal is for both of us to feel good about our decision. But suppose we've done a pro versus con list with a teen and we're still at odds.

Our recommendation is that the parent and teen brainstorm several additional potential solutions. We've found that when parents and teens do this, a choice usually emerges that they both like. This is different from a compromise because instead of both parties giving in, they've identi­fied a new solution that they both find acceptable.

Sometimes the win/win solution becomes apparent with amazing ease and quickness. But it must be done in honor. As parents working through this process, we need to make sure we don't close our teen's spirit. Even after having a good drive-thru talking experience and doing a pro versus con list, anger can reemerge if a win/win solution isn't found right away. But if we remain persistent, most conflicts can be resolved.  

7. Write down the agreement.

Because it's so easy to forget what decisions were made during an argument, it's good to develop the habit of putting agreed-upon solutions down on paper. That helps to assign responsibility for the future, as each person will then know exactly what's expected of him or her. It also holds those involved accountable for their future behaviors and choices.

8. Make sure anger is dealt with after the conflict has ended.

When we parents admit our contribution to the problem and seek for­giveness, our words and actions go a long way toward promoting honor and decreasing anger in a teenager's life.

When You Still Can't Resolve Conflict

When all else fails, get an outside opinion.

by Gary Smalley, Dr. Greg Smalley

We encourage you as a family to establish a mutually agreed-upon per­son who, in the event of a major impasse, will listen to both sides and help solve the problem. This goes beyond seeking wise counsel, which we dis­cussed earlier. Find someone acceptable to each member of the family — someone who can remain unbiased, whom everyone respects and feels safe with, and who will maintain confidentiality and privacy.

Having such a person available gives your family support and accounta­bility. Likewise, when you get an outside opinion to help solve a family conflict, you can tap into a source of new information or perspectives you hadn't considered before. That person might provide the fresh idea that helps you and your teen to find a win/win decision.

A Final Comment About Resolving Conflicts in Honor

Part of resolving conflicts with our teens in honor is to recognize that they need the freedom to make more and more of their own choices. Just how many and how soon depends on their age and maturity level (it will be dif­ferent for every child). This is a normal and necessary part of growing into adulthood. As they demonstrate the ability to make wise choices, they earn further responsibility.

As parents, we help them not only by giving them this increasing free­dom, but also by holding them accountable for their decisions. If they make poor choices, they need to face the logical and natural consequences that fol­low. This is called discipline, which is a clear parental responsibility: "Correct your son, and he will give you comfort; he will also delight your soul" (Proverbs 29:17). For our teens, discipline is a learning opportunity. Look at what the Bible says about receiving it:

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. (Proverbs 12:1)

Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, but he who regards reproof will be honored. (Proverbs 13:18)

He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding. (Proverbs 15:32)

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, how­ever, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

Agree ahead of time on what the consequences of poor choices will be. The more our teens know in advance about what to expect, the easier it is to hold them accountable.

As we've said before, there will also still be times when parents have to make a decision their teenagers don't like. In that case, it's essential for both parents to be in agreement. If they're not, teens will use the conflict to their advantage. (Most teens seem to have a built-in radar that detects even the slightest marital discord.) King Solomon wisely said, "Two are better than one. ... A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart" (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 12). So, once you and your spouse agree on a decision, instead of simply "laying down the law," explain lovingly why you have made that particular choice.

Conflict between parents and teenagers is inevitable, but it doesn't need to weaken their relationship or tear the family apart. Using drive-thru talking, establishing some basic rules for fair fighting, and utilizing the seven steps toward resolution described in this module will enable us to work out most disagreements in honor. If, after all that, a conflict has still not ended and a win/win solution hasn't yet been found, we can repeat the process or seek a third party to help bring about an honorable resolution.

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources to help you improve communication with your teen

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