A 16-year-old teenage girl is in dialogue with her mother. They are talking about an incident at school when the girl suddenly becomes emotional, agitated and verbally disrespectful. Then the mother becomes angry and deeply hurt, since she was simply trying to process this incident with her daughter. So, she sends her daughter to her room knowing they have a brief window to deal with the situation before heading out to a family dinner. The mother has to figure out what to do so that this issue doesn’t dominate and ruin the rest of the evening for the entire family.
Communicating choices and consequences to resolve conflict with your teen
The frustrated mother is feeling like an inadequate parent and yet has empathy for her daughter’s emotional reaction. She wants to be able to talk with her daughter, but she does not want to be the victim of emotional or verbal abuse. How does this mom have the next conversation with her daughter to help them communicate about and resolve this issue?
Some responses I have heard from parents (and teens who shared what their parents have said) sound something like this:
“I am so tired of dealing with your emotions! This is the third time this week this has happened and we need to do something about it! Let me know when you cool down!”
“You are not going to speak to me that way! Go to your room, and you will not be going out to dinner tonight because of your disrespectful attitude!”
“I guess you have had a bad day. I wish you would not speak to me like that. Maybe a dinner out will help.”
These moments of conflict are quite crucial for parents and teenagers.
Among a number of issues related to any situation when conflict arises, we need to remember the teenage brain is rewiring, often dis-regulated and unpredictable. Also, the brain state of a teenager can flip very quickly. They are both vulnerable and teachable in these key moments.
It is important to recognize that two things need to happen.
One is to help the teenager make better choices in how he/she acts or communicates. The other is to set boundaries by using consequences relevant to the situation we are encountering.
Parents should be setting clear boundaries and giving the teenager an appropriate level of responsibility for his/her actions and impact on others.
In so doing, teens learn their words and actions really can have a negative impact on those around them, that negative consequences occur to their relationships and privileges, and that they have the power to make choices. The choices they make teach them to cope better with life-stress and issues without being hurtful to others.
The above typical parenting statement examples can shame, command or (on the other extreme) try to move past an issue without any consequence.
I am not at all trying to say that parents sometimes should not be direct—particularly when there could be injury to the teenager or someone else. But if we are going to help our teenagers realize their impact on others, learn boundaries and have the power to make better decisions, we need to address the problem holistically.
So maybe a better parent response would be something like this:
“It sounds like you were really upset by this situation. I always want you to be able to talk with me about stuff that happens in your life. However, your disrespect was hurtful to me and it is not appropriate to speak to me or others that way. Since we are now going out to dinner as a family, you can decide whether you should go, based on your ability to be in control and enjoy our family time. This is a special time for us, and I do not want it to be full of conflict. In fact, I want all of us to enjoy each other!”
This type of statement does several things.
- It acknowledges the struggle and the situation.
- It appropriately addresses the impact of disrespect to their relationship.
- It gives the teenager the power to choose what they will do next.
- There is a statement about the boundaries of not causing further family discord.
- Finally, there is a statement of vision for what we want to create in a more positive way and becomes a positive outcome for the family and the teenager.
In the heat of emotional and relational struggle, it is often difficult for any of us to have such a balanced approach with our teenagers. However, if we really think about choices and consequences, we will have more capacity to help our teenagers understand their impact, help them make better choices, and provide boundaries for what is and isn’t appropriate.
Good discipline creates new levels of responsibility while it empowers a teen’s brain to make good connections between behavior and consequences for that behavior. It is often very difficult to communicate choices and consequences because of our own angst and stress, but it is a great way to create all the right messages to our teens.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network