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How to Pick Your Battles

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When you pick your battles well, you continue to build your relationship with your teen. Here's how.

As a counselor who works with teens and their parents, I often receive calls in which parents explain the constant battles they encounter with their teens. The exhaustion in their voice is evidence of the tension in their household.

After one mom described a heated conversation with her teenage daughter, she said, “I know I have to pick my battles; I just don’t know which ones to pick.”

Her words reflect a common dilemma among the parents of teens. So how do parents pick the battles that will ultimately benefit their kids? Here are two principles that might provide some clarity:

First, take time to understand the complexities of the teenage years. This will help you empathize with your teen when battles arise. Remember that constant changes, pressure to conform, anxiety about the future and personal insecurities can produce an enormous amount of stress. The teen years are some of the most difficult years to manage, and the battles at home are usually a direct reflection of a teen’s emotional state.

Second, prioritize the issues that are most important for your teen. Spouses should discuss which issues are non-negotiable, then communicate these expectations to their teen. Keep in mind that these issues will differ for every family. Although teens will still push the boundaries, pre-emptive communication will help defuse battles more quickly.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of some battles to pick, some to avoid and some to defer. Perhaps you’ll find this list helpful as you attempt to navigate the conflicts between you and your teen.

Battles to pick

Issues contrary to Scripture. Because certain behaviors lead to detrimental consequences, Scripture warns against activities such as sexual immorality and breaking the law. Being firm about who your teen spends her time with and about when and where she can interact with someone of the opposite sex will help deter major battles over moral issues. It’s also wise to enforce a no-tolerance policy for drinking or drug use.

Incidents of disrespect. Although teens often develop a sense of fearlessness and entitlement, God still exhorts them to love their neighbor and to honor their parents (Matthew 19:19). If your teen is being disrespectful to you, a family member or anyone else, this attitude needs to be corrected.

Concerns of danger. Stand firm regarding legitimate threats of danger. Your teen is still vulnerable and needs you to protect him. Technology is a new area of concern because it has the potential to open doors for dangerous behaviors among teens. It’s important to set boundaries with online and digital activities such as social media interactions, Internet browsing and text messaging.

Battles to avoid

Issues that are not detrimental to your teen’s spiritual, emotional or physical well-being. If a battle does not address an issue that would negatively affect your teen, consider letting it go. Your teen may have a messy room or dress in an unusual style, but neither issue is likely to hinder her personal development or bring long-term consequences.

Issues that reflect your own insecurities or mistakes. If you fear your teen will make the same mistakes you made, you may deny him the freedom he actually deserves. Examine your own past, and be aware of battles you tend to pick based on emotions stemming from your own teen years. If you project your past mistakes onto your teen, battles may arise because he does not understand your lack of trust. When you understand and deal with your own fears, the battles around those issues tend to defuse.

Battles to defer

Disputes that arise within a current conflict. When a conflict arises with your teen, stay focused on one issue at a time. When multiple points of contention are brought into the same conversation, explain to your teen that you will discuss those other issues at a later time.

Decisions your teen wants immediately. If your teen is asking for an immediate decision, attempt to defer the discussion. Parents need time to talk to each other, pray about the issue and come to a conclusion before sharing that decision with their teen.

Picking your battles need not be overwhelming. When you understand where to focus your time and energy, you really can create an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. And don’t hesitate to ask for help. I have seen tremendous relief for parents and teens when someone is available for the teen to talk to — someone whom the parent trusts and with whom the teen can relate. Whether it is a family friend, a youth pastor or a counselor, teens need a place to voice their frustrations without targeting their parents.

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