Conflict is an inevitable part of family life. Families will always have conflict, particularly during the adolescent period. During these years our teens are dealing with physical and emotional changes, as well as struggling with identity, authority, and responsibility. Parents rarely face a day without conflict and stress. Thus, we often hear comments like: “Just wait until you have teenagers. They won’t be cute and cuddly forever. Once your kids become teenagers, your house will never be the same.” Such comments leave little room for optimism, but take heart: these years can be very rewarding.
Learning how to deal with conflict is an essential part of family life, but it requires time and commitment. Results of a recent Gallup survey of American youth revealed more than twenty-five percent of teenagers don’t discuss their day’s events with their parents. More than forty percent hadn’t received a word of praise from their parents; fifty percent hadn’t received a hug or kiss; and fifty-four percent hadn’t heard the words “I love you” during the survey period.
Family conflict can drain the life and joy out of our homes, but conflict is not to be feared. When understood, it can result in growth for us and our teens. From an international survey, Dr. Dudley Weeks listed the most frequently used responses to the word “conflict.” They were: anger, avoid, bad, control, destruction, fear, fight, hate, impasse, loss, mistake, pain, war, and wrongdoing.’ It’s obvious that conflict is perceived as a negative experience. But, in itself, conflict is neither positive or negative. The way we respond to and deal with conflict is what’s negative or positive. With the right attitude and the Lord’s help, conflict can be constructive.
When we lack an understanding of conflict, misconceptions occur, and they can hinder the resolution of the conflict. Four common misconceptions are:
Conflict is a sign of poor family relationships. This misunderstanding causes parents to feel insecure and lowers self-esteem. It can make us believe we’re poor parents if conflict occurs and causes unnecessary worry and anxiety. The truth is, conflict does occur. We must learn to anticipate it before it happens, deal with it immediately, then rejoice in its absence.
Anger is always destructive and negative. Anger, one of many human emotions, is not always negative. The difference is in the attitude in which we display our anger. Attitude is one of the most important decisions we make each day. Properly directed, anger can bring resolution and a positive end to conflict.
If alone, alone, will take care of itself. This tends to be the most popular way to deal with conflict, but it’s not the most effective. Occasionally, time will diminish conflict, but it seldom resolves it. Often, feelings reappear at a later date and at an escalated level of conflict.
Conflict must be resolved now. This is a solution-driven response, but it doesn’t allow for flexibility or a multiple step solution. It makes us believe conflict must be quickly “fixed,” which can result in the illusion that everything is fine. This too can repress emotions that will appear more intensely later on.
IDENTIFYING LEVELS OF CONFLICT
Parents and teens end countless debates, arguments, and conflicts without properly identifying the seriousness of the disagreement. If we can identify the level of conflict, whether it be the result of poor communication or blatant rebellion, it will help us know how to deal with the problem. Successful resolution is the ultimate goal, which will turn the potential destruction of conflict into a learning, growing experience.
Poor communication. Conflict that results from poor communication is a common occurrence in everyday life. It can simply be a misunderstanding of what is communicated, which is easily resolved; or it can be the intentional withholding of information between parents and teens. When we withhold information from our teens (i.e., not fully explaining our requests; giving “do-it-because-I-say so” orders), we cultivate frustration. By the time our kids reach their teens, we should communicate more fully when we give them responsibilities, when we impose restrictions or limitations on their social life, when we require certain attitudes and behaviors. When we explain the reasons behind our actions, rather than just dishing out orders, we give them a chance to understand our decisions. By explaining all sides of the issues, we give them a part in decision-making, which is vitally important as our kids move toward adulthood.
When our teens withhold information from us, they cultivate mistrust and suspicion. We want to know “what they’re hiding” when they may simply lack the right words to communicate; they may not yet be ready to share; or perhaps they’re seeking more independence. If we recognize this, we’ll be less apt to react and more willing to respond.
We must do everything possible to keep communication open between us and our kids. Our ability to communicate-and communicate well-is essential to our effectiveness as parents. We must be good listeners, learning to hear what our kids are saying verbally and non-verbally. It’s important we “hear” their frustrations, doubts, fears, and concerns, even when they’re not expressed. Statistics suggest that many teenagers value their friends above their parents. If that’s true, perhaps it’s because they’re able to communicate with their friends without condemnation or anger.
Aggravation and irritation. Everyday we face situations that cause aggravation and irritation. These are generally minor incidents that can be overlooked and don’t have an effect on the overall relationship between us and our teens. But should the incidents escalate and become increasingly repetitive, they need to be addressed; otherwise they can lead to a decline in the parent-teen relationship. It’s possible that an increase in minor irritations can be symptomatic of a larger, underlying problem.
Battles. Conflict at this level is more intense, more serious, and can be described as a “win-lose” situation. When a teenager disagrees with his parent in a given situation, he will often be more interested in his personal benefit than the good of the family. It’s common for heated arguments to occur at such times. The teen will often bring up past mistakes or broken promises, and often the accusations will be intense and exaggerated. It requires additional patience on our part to keep the situation under control. We must stay focused on the issue, separate the problem from the person involved, and not resort to personal attack even if the teen does.
To diffuse conflict at this level, we should approach the situation with resolution as our goal; not victory. We must set the tone, striving for a controlled, non-antagonistic atmosphere. If we must delay confrontation to achieve this, that’s okay. In discussing the conflict, avoid generalizations: be specific. Look for areas in which both parties agree, and use them as a starting point. Compromise where possible, but do not violate your standards to do so. When that happens, nobody wins.
Conflicts in which battles occur are almost unavoidable, especially with teenagers in the home. Don’t feel like a failure, or like you’re losing control because they occur. Learn how to face them responsibly, and they can result in growth for everyone involved.
Rebellion. Rebellion, which is characterized by outright disobedience, lack of respect, and disregard for standards and values, can negatively influence other siblings. This is a level of conflict from which nothing good can result. It must be dealt with swiftly and firmly. Once again, it’s important to separate the behavior from the individual, regardless of how personal the rebellious teen becomes.
Generally, at this level there are no “quick fixes.” As in all areas of conflict, prayer is essential to a positive outcome. God, who is as desirous as we are to resolve the problem, provides wisdom and insight when we pray. Beyond that, we must lovingly, but firmly, address the behavior and get to the underlying cause. We must be willing to see it through to the end no matter how hopeless the situation may seem. Too much is at stake to write off a son or daughter. We shouldn’t nag them, or allow hard feelings to brew beneath the surface, and we should never be afraid to discipline them.
It’s important to focus on getting a rebellious teen through the difficult time. They need our unconditional love and acceptance. It may be necessary to recruit reinforcements to help us deal with rebellion. Pastors, youth pastors, counselors, friends in whom we trust and who are respected by the troubled teen, can all lend assistance. Proverbs 12:15 says, “. . . a wise man listens to advice.”
Parents and teens may look at the same situation and see things differently. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses that aren’t our own: things look out of focus. In the same way, we can’t expect our teen to see clearly through our glasses, or from our viewpoint. They have an entirely different perspective. We need to try to understand each conflict from our teen’s perspective, and try to help them understand ours. We can’t expect them to naturally see the situation in the same light we do. Once again, the importance of communication cannot be understated.
When trying to understand our teen, we might ask the following questions:
What are the needs of my teen? What has led him to think or behave as he does? Am I listening to and understanding what my teen is saying and meaning? What vulnerabilities (areas that will trigger negative responses) does my teen have, and what can I do to avoid them?
When trying to understand conflict, we might ask these questions:
What is the conflict about? What is it not about? Am I sure this conflict is with my teen and not with
myself? What have I done to contribute to the cause of the conflict? Is this conflict a single event that shows no consistency with the rest of the relationship? Is this conflict the latest in a series of conflicts showing a problem with the relationship as a whole? If so, what needs to be done to improve the relationship? What are my vulnerabilities, and how will I deal with them? What needs to be the outcome of this conflict?If the outcome is different than what I want it to be, what damage or impact will that have on the relationship?.
Understanding these areas as they relate to conflict can be a major step in resolving them.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
In working through conflicts with our teen, we should focus on the present and learn from the past. Memories of a conflict that got out of hand can be a roadblock for dealing with present conflict. We must not let the past impede us in our efforts for the present. As we and our teen grow in our ability to deal with conflict, what happened in the past doesn’t have to happen now.
Ways to learn from the past:
1. Remind our teen (and ourselves) of the enjoyable times we’ve had together. We’re not enemies; we’re moving toward positive resolution together. This will help us face the current conflict more favorably.
2. Look at past conflict and determine what skills were (or would have been) helpful in resolving the conflict quickly and effectively.
3. When in conflict, remember other conflicts have been resolved. Remember how we grew and learned through them. It should help us be able to work together in resolving the present conflict.
A POSITIVE ATMOSPHERE
Atmosphere is the framework on which we will agree, disagree, and strengthen the relationship with our teen. We need to be aware of the atmosphere we establish by our attitude as we confront conflict. Here are some ways to ensure a positive atmosphere. We should:
1. Select a time that is free from interruption and is sufficient to complete the discussion.
2. Select the best opportunity for concentration and clear communication. For example, if it’s late at night and everyone’s tired, it might not be the best opportunity for achieving positive resolution.
3. Select a place that is non-threatening and won’t allow anyone to be embarrassed. Teens are very self-conscious. We must deal with conflict privately, and never try to embarrass them in front of their friends.
4. Establish a feeling that “we’re dealing with this together.”
THE DON’TS OF CONFLICT
Don’t get involved in a power struggle. This will only sabotage our efforts. Experts agree as power increases, authority decreases. To avoid power struggles, we should not argue. It only wastes time and fuels the conflict. We should not approach conflict with the idea that we must “win.” Positive resolution requires that everyone wins.
Don’t become detached from the conflict. Don’t allow business or anything else to diminish our passion to be dose to our families. A minor conflict may not seem important to us, but it may consume the thoughts of our kids. We must be sure to resolve every conflict to keep communication open and our relationships solid.
Don’t blame. Attaching blame intensifies the problem and hinders resolution. Seldom does conflict rest solely on the shoulders of one person. We must all be willing to acknowledge our contribution to the conflict and get onto the solution.
Don’t make it worse than it is. Our emphasis must be on resolution. We delay that when we exaggerate the problem or bring other issues into it. We need to deal with the issue at hand without magnifying it, throwing around insults, and letting our feelings get out of control.
THE POSITIVE SIDE
The foundation of a Christian home is Jesus-even when there’s conflict. Though frustrating and, at times, painful, conflict can produce growth in everyone concerned. If we learn to deal with it in a Christian manner, not only will our home be a happier place, but we’ll prepare our teens to victoriously face a world that’s filled with conflict.
The Reverend Norm Schulz, an ordained minister with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, served as youth pastor in Canada from 1983 to 1989. Since then, he has served as missionary evangelist to Eastern Europe with a focus in Romania and Albania.
Pastor Schulz, a graduate of Northwest College, is currently working on his Master’s.
He lives in Lynden, Washington with his wife Lynn and their two children: Brandon and Brittany.