5 ways handle confrontation with your teen

I can remember the very first time I dropped the F-bomb in front of my parents. This came as an absolute you-can-hear-a-pin-drop shocking moment for my entire family. So shocking that no one said a word as I ran away in tears. 

I was a difficult teen; I was difficult because I had a very vibrant emotional world inside me that I didn’t have the capacity to handle. Often that my sadness and need for closeness went unexpressed and instead boiled over into rage and clashes with my parents. This has taken a lot of time (sometimes years) to unravel, re-frame, and undo. 

I’m still close with my family. My parents never gave up on me, even when I wanted to. 

Here are the 5 things we learned helped us manage conflict and confrontation in a healthier, more compassionate and effective way. 

1. Tone of voice and body language matter more than words. 
A soft, non-judgmental tone lets your child know that they matter and their emotions matter. Anger, while a justified and understandable emotion, is often born out of fear and stress. Let your child see your genuine sadness or fear rather than your anger. Remain open and loving in your posture. Let them come to you. 

What this may look like: 
Your child broke curfew and came home hours late. You could, in anger, tell them why it was unacceptable. Or you could say, with love, “we were so very scared and worried. We’re so glad you’re home. Would you like to talk about what kept you out late?” Even if they don’t want to talk, they will remember the look in your eyes that showed your love and worry, and the tone of your voice that said you care. The discussion about curfew and boundaries is important – but you can have it during a time where everyone is less emotional. You’re enforcing the ground rules, but not at the expense of connection in moments of crisis. 

2. Let your teen speak first. 
Let them get the full story out. Refrain from judging, chastising, or disputing. You may be furious, but I promise you will get further if you give them the stage to express themselves. Teens have a hard time listening to parents when their main concern is, “I don’t feel understood.” They will argue with you until they feel heard. Rather than going in circles, ensure they feel heard before you offer your side of the story. 

What this may look like: 
Using the curfew example again, let’s say they stormed off and went to bed. The next day you invite them to share their side of the story. You don’t express any anger, or disappointment, you simply tell them you’re here when they’re ready to talk about it. You can offer prompts like, “Were you nervous about our reaction? Were you scared about getting home on time?”

Maybe they say, “Cassie was really pressuring me to stay at the party”. Rather than saying “Well, what Cassie wants is less important than your curfew!” try “That sounds difficult! What was going through your head? How were you feeling about that?” 

If you want to go the extra mile, and your teen is receptive, ask, “Would it be helpful to brainstorm some things you could say or do if this happens again?”

3. Explain not just what you want, but why. 
Unlike using the JADE technique (read about it here) when trying to set a rule or a boundary – which can actually backfire on you, offering an explanation for requests can help a teen comply. Teens hate feeling “policed” and are striving for independence. When you make a request and add a short explanation of why it is important to you, it includes them in the decision making process. They will feel proud that they made a choice because it had a logical explanation or because it mattered to you. 

What this may look like: 
When you want to set a curfew with a teen, you can say, “We’ve done some research and talked it over. We’ve decided our household curfew is 10 p.m. We know you might not like this, but we chose this for a few reasons. The most important is your safety and our comfort in knowing you’re safe. Being able to go to sleep and not stress about xyz is important to us and makes sure we’re available if you need us. We appreciate it if you respect this curfew and if you need an exception, we’ll discuss them at the time”.

The point of the explanation is to show that you have valid reasons for your decision and that it isn’t arbitrary. The point is not to ensure your child likes or agrees with your decision. While they may want you to “worry less”, you have every right to say that this is my reason and that is why I need it respected. It shows the teen that not everybody has to agree on a point of view, for a point of view to be valid. 

4. Work together on a solution. 
While you shouldn’t negotiate every rule or boundary with your child, it is useful to include them when you make decisions that concern them. This validates their experiences and makes it more likely they will get on board. A family consensus is way better than a battle for the sake of winning. One technique to try is the list-making technique (check out that method right here). Modify this process by asking a few simple questions about everyone’s goals, expectations, and what solutions they suggest. 

What this may look like: 
Your teen decides that they cannot make the 10 p.m. curfew. Too many of their key social events go past 10. You’ve explained why it’s important and why you chose 10, but you also see where they are coming from. Ask, “what is a reasonable alternative for you? What are some ground rules and conditions you would set for yourself?” Then you can offer counter points, suggestions and compromises. Once you have all had the chance to suggest a solution, you can say, “OK, we’ve put these ideas on the table and have suggested these alternative solutions. What are the three things we can all agree on for our new rule?”

Of course, you, as the parent, reserve the right to say, “I will accept this flexibility, but draw the line here.” You don’t need to give in to their every demand. What matters is that you’ve shown  you welcome your child’s input and consider its merit. They are more likely to respect your boundaries and decisions when they know you respect and understand theirs. 

5. Take a break and go to bed angry.
This is the most unconventional and possibly the hardest one for parents. But it is critical that you don’t chase or smother the teen with your demands, fears, anger, worries, or even your love. Everyone benefits from the space that a good night’s sleep provides. Waking up calmer and with a fresh perspective will make any conversation go more smoothly. Going to bed angry isn’t about letting them win. It’s about allowing strong emotions to simmer down. These can get in the way of effective conversation and connection. Plus, it is about gaining insight and clarity on what you actually feel and want to say. So often our conversations are reactive instead of responsive and we end up fighting about something that’s not even the issue. Sometimes what feels like anger is actually fear or hurt. Sleeping will let you be more direct about what your actual concern is. 

What this might look like: 
Your daughter storms off after she misses her curfew. You are livid. You end up yelling, “get back here, we’re not done with this”. She slams her door and yells something not to be repeated here.  Rather than bang on her door and discipline her and offer what her grounding or punishment will be, you go to bed. It hangs in the air, and maybe you toss and turn for a bit. 

But guess what? She is also scared and thinking about it. The situation is playing over and over in her mind and she tosses and turns. You and she both know that if you talk now, it will be a screaming match. So you sleep and in the morning you may be surprised by an “I’m sorry” note slid under your door. Teens care about what you think and don’t want to hurt you. Give them time to come to the realization that those feelings that were obscured by the anger. 

For more information on when and where to express disappointment, check out our article on Talking when H.A.L.T.E.D. 

The most effective conversation is one that stays on track. It will be tempting to get sucked into a rabbit hole of past offences, or he said she said disputes. Before you know it, you’re fighting about what happened 3 years ago and neither of you are even on the topic of curfews. As soon as you notice you are getting side-tracked, bring the conversation back. For example, “Right now we are discussing x and we need to keep discussing x until we resolve it. I can see you’re still upset about y, and so let’s plan a time to talk about y when we’re done discussing x.”

For a step by step guide to keeping conversations on track, read our post on preparing for difficult conversations.

Want more strategies on how to help a teen feel heard? Check out our articles on validating feelings and active listening.