Stop fighting with your teenIn this corner, weighing in at 142 pounds and five feet three inches tall, we have Deb, the frustrated, conflict-averse yet relatively enlightened mother of two from Bloomington, IN. And in the other corner, her 17-year-old daughter, Annelise, who is convinced she's old enough to stay out until two in the morning because she's going to college next year and you might as well get used to it already...
I don't know how it happened, but somehow my happy home has turned into a verbal boxing ring. I won't pull any punches: I hate fighting. I'll do anything to avoid confrontation, even if that includes pretending I don't notice the half-eaten bagel with cream cheese that has been sitting on my daughter's nightstand for two weeks. But it turns out I'm not doing my kids any favors. Fighting - done fairly - delivers a huge payoff: a stronger relationship with your child, and the confidence that comes from knowing you've equipped her with emotional survival skills that will last a lifetime.
Fighting fair helps your kid build backbone while learning how to manage his emotions. "Conflict is part of life, and our kids need to know how to handle it with their friends, employers, and partners, and their own kids someday," says Joanne Stern, Ph.D., author of Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life. "This is your time to prepare them for the day they leave home and don't have you to help them."
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Fighting is also your chance to say, "I want you to have your own thoughts and feelings, even if they clash with mine. And when that fight is over, I'm still going to love you."
Gone are the days when you could resolve conflicts with a withering glare, the all-purpose "Because I'm the mom, that's why," or the famous countdown to doom ("You have five seconds to remove your feet from your sister's head. Five...four...three..."). Teens and tweens are sophisticated thinkers, and they're notoriously moody - which means they'll find even more reasons to challenge your authority, says Stern. So you might as well learn how to make every fight count.
Rule 1: Establish Some Boundaries
One day when you're not mid-argument, start a conversation about the inevitability, as well as the benefits, of conflict, suggests Stern. You might say something like, "You're getting to the age where you're going to have your own ideas and we're going to disagree on some things, and that's normal. You can talk to me about anything, but you also need to know that I'm the parent, so the buck stops with me. Things may get heated, and that's normal, too. Let's set some rules now, before we fight." Explains Stern: "You want them to know that it's normal to feel angry sometimes. If you try to deny anger, it turns into resentment, bitterness, and revenge. We want to encourage our kids to experience conflict and get past it." Then it's up to you both to decide what's off-limits - behavior like cursing, name-calling, damaging your home. Stepping out of bounds will carry the consequences you, as the parent, have determined.
Rule 2: Understand Your Kid's Mindset
Remember those lovely years known as the "terrible twos"? They may be back. Tweens and teens are hardwired to establish an identity apart from their parents, which often results in fighting. Plus, your teen's life is tumultuous - think hormones, social drama, and school pressures. Once you manage to view your teen as someone struggling to maintain his footing as the tectonic plates of puberty are shifting beneath him, you're more likely to be patient and empathetic. When your kid is mid-screamfest, you won't take things personally. You'll be able to say, and mean, "I can see how hard this is for you, and I really want to figure this out with you. Let's take a breath or a break and talk this through."
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Don't escalate the dramaRule 3: Don't Escalate the Drama
Just because your teen is hollering doesn't mean you should volley back. If you stay calm, your teenager will come to see you as someone she can trust, even if she disagrees with you, says Scott Haltzman, M.D., clinical assistant professor in the psychiatry department at Brown University and author of The Secrets of Happy Families. "Teenagers are often very confused about their emotions. They need you to be stable in order for them to tolerate the intrinsic instability and intensity of their own lives." But by keeping your cool, you're modeling how to manage strong emotions, a skill she will eventually master herself (hard as that may be to believe during a white-hot moment).
Sure, it will be tough to maintain Zen-like detachment when your kid is pounding on your hot buttons - or your home's walls. Here are a few fair-fight techniques you can employ right away to minimize collateral damage to your relationship (and house):
- Ask her to tell you what she really wants. Asked with as much sincerity as you can muster, the simple question "What do you really want?" can be disarmingly effective. "It ends the feeling of being 'caught in the loop' in arguments, and communicates to your kid that you care enough to want to understand her needs," explains Vickie Falcone, author of Buddha Never Raised Kids & Jesus Didn't Drive Carpool: Seven Principles for Parenting with Soul. After you pose the question, really listen to the answer. Now's a good time to dust off your active-listening skills. Mirror back her key points: "What I hear you saying is that you want to get a tattoo because you think they're beautiful and you've put a lot of thought into finding the perfect design. Did I get that right?" When you demonstrate that you understand what she wants and why, you're actually nurturing the relationship, even if you have no intention of giving in.
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- Give some ground. While you're not going to compromise on the big-ticket issues, look for opportunities to make at least small concessions. If you've ever bought or sold a house, you know that the most satisfying negotiations end with all parties feeling as if they've gotten at least some of what they wanted. When your kids were young, you could get away with offering them a choice among options you picked ahead of time. At this stage, you need to be willing to really compromise. Obviously you're not going to concede on any nonnegotiables - personal-safety issues, for instance - but you can probably find something to give up. For instance: "We can talk about a tattoo when you're closer to your 18th birthday, but right now I'm open to your looking into a temporary tattoo." "Teens need to express their opinions and have those ideas not only listened to, but also acted on to some degree," notes Peter Scales, Ph.D., developmental psychologist and senior fellow at the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting healthy communities for young people. "It's a real victory for a teenager when he can persuade an adult to do things his way."
So, advises Stern, tell your child, "Give me reasons for your thinking. Try to convince me that your way is better than mine, because if it is, then I want to do it that way." Obviously there comes a point where the listening ends and the limit-setting begins. Stern suggests saying something like, "I hear you, and I want to be flexible, but I'm the parent here, and I have my own ethics and standards. I'm not going to change my mind, because this is what I believe is right. I'm sorry you're upset and disappointed."
- Walk away. When your kids were younger, you couldn't absent yourself during a fight - you can't exactly leave a little one unsupervised in the middle of Macy's. Now you can, and sometimes should, give yourself a breather. "It's OK to walk away," says Dr. Haltzman. "Just be clear that it's a decision you are making" because the fight is heading out of bounds; you don't want it to appear that you are storming off. Stephanie Sacco, mom of six in Troy, MI, finds it useful to tell her 15-year-old daughter, Rachel, "We both need time to cool down and think about what we really want to say" and then regroup later. Just don't get baited into continuing the argument, says Dr. Haltzman. Once you say you're tabling the discussion, mean it: Don't say another word.
- Allow your teen to walk away, too. "When you're tempted to say, 'Don't you walk away from me when I'm talking to you,' remember that your teen is actually doing what you've taught him to do - that is, remove himself from a situation that's getting out of hand," says Peter Benson, Ph.D., an expert on adolescents and the author of Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers. "Waiting allows for a conversation that's much more productive." To restart the conversation, you can say, "Now that the dust has settled, let's finish this conversation so we can both move on."
- Know how to recover from a bad fight. When an argument is over, try to smooth things over fairly quickly. Even if he's not talking, Stern suggests, say something like, "I know this has been a rough one, and I'm sorry about that. I know that we're both in the middle of our feelings right now, but I want you to know that I love you and as soon as you feel better, I'm ready to do something fun or talk through this."
Avoid phrases that may trigger angerMany kids will signal that they're ready to reconnect by emerging from their rooms to get something to eat from the kitchen or grab a magazine. Take that opportunity to say something like, "Are you OK? Want to go out and get some ice cream? Or can I have a hug?"
And while you're waiting for that to happen, remind yourself that fighting - provided it's done right - is a good thing. "People who are good at solving conflicts are better leaders, parents, and partners," says Falcone. "And by fighting fairly with our kids, we're preserving - and even enhancing - the most powerful parenting tool we have at our disposal: our relationship with them."
Avoid These Triggers
Fighting fair means steering clear of tactics that act like a match to gasoline. Here, advice from our experts:
- Stick to one issue at a time. Avoid the "kitchen sink" arguments that start with one thing and end up encompassing your kid's every transgression over the past two years.
- Nix "forever" words: "You always throw your towels on the bathroom floor"; "You never listen to me when I talk to you."
- Avoid comparisons like "Your brother never had any trouble getting home on time."
- Skip these proven kid-enraging phrases:
- "End of conversation."
- "When I was your age..."
- "Just do it, OK?"
- "Here we go again with this."
- "I cannot believe you just said that."
- "My mother would have slapped me in the face if I'd talked to her that way."
- "I've had it with you."