3 Tips for De-Escalating Conflicts with Your Teen
Have you been getting into frequent arguments with your teen? The following tips can help you de-escalate tension and communicate more effectively.
Tip #1: Maintain a Calm Presence
“Imagine that your pet gets scared and responds by barking, hissing, or otherwise attempting to intimidate the ‘threat.’ Most of us instinctively know to do our best to calm the pet […] speaking softly, and providing a calm environment that counteracts the [stressful] internal experience of the pet.”
While we all know that’s an effective way to deal with an overwrought pet, we tend to have a very different reaction to teens: “We often order them to stop, tell them they are being inappropriate or unreasonable, or otherwise invalidate their reaction.” (Rathbone and Baron, What Works with Teens, p. 173)
As mediator Douglas Noll says, “Displaying anger, frustration, or resentment [… can] drive teens away, and escalate emotions.” (De-Escalate, p. 65)
Of course you may feel anger, frustration, or resentment. The goal is not to display those feelings. This means carefully choosing your words, and also becoming more aware of your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language.
Tip #2: Consider Underlying Causes
Depressed kids don’t necessarily look sad, and they may find it hard to articulate how they’re feeling, “showing instead a sullen irritability, impatience, crankiness, and anger—especially toward their parents.” This can “set in motion a downward spiral that typically ends in constant arguments and alienation.” (Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p.240)
Similarly, young people who’ve experienced trauma may not appear to be frightened and may not verbalize a need for help. Instead, they might try to self-medicate through drugs or alcohol, or they might act out through risky behavior. This can lead to arguments about their actions, while the underlying problem is never addressed.
If your kid seems unusually angry, or if their behavior has suddenly changed, there very well might be an underlying cause that has nothing to do with ‘typical teenaged rebelliousness.’
Be open to the possibility that your child’s undesirable attitude or behavior might be an attempt—however unskillful—to deal with serious issues in their life.
Tip #3: Validate Their Experience
In their book What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home, William Stixrud and Ned Johnson suggest using the following types of responses to show that you’re actively listening to your kid. (I’ve added italics to emphasize the types of phrases that are helpful, regardless of the specific situation.)
- “What I got from what you said is that you feel like Erin betrayed you.”
- “Am I getting this right—that the way she said it made you feel like she was trying to embarrass you?”
- “It sounds like you’re pretty disappointed about your performance.”
- “I think you’re saying that your emotions were so strong in the moment that you freaked out.”
- “Let me see if I’m understanding. Other kids were doing it, and you feel like your teacher singled you out and that’s not fair.” p. 19)
Use whatever phrasing feels most natural to you, just be sure to convey that you’re listening carefully and making an effort to understand what they’re experiencing. Too often, kids try to open up to their parents but are shut down by invalidating reactions like: “I’m sure she wasn’t really trying to embarrass you,” or “You shouldn’t have lost control like that.”
Conversations with your teen will be much more productive if you can:
1) remain (at least outwardly) calm;
2) consider possible reasons for their behavior; and
3) validate how they’re feeling (without necessarily approving of their actions).
This can all be quite challenging in the moment, but it will be worth it in the long run. As they start to see you as an ally rather than the opposition, your relationship will become closer, and your kids will be much more likely to follow your advice.
If you’re located in California and need help determining if your child and/or family need professional help, contact Family Spring by submitting an inquiry at this link.