As a father, I know firsthand how difficult and disruptive conflict can be during the teen years. And after almost four decades as a therapist, even though I know how to deal with a family conflict, I also know that some conflicts just don’t resolve the way we’d like.
It would be great if we could solve all family conflicts in a few easy steps. But in real families, some conflicts can’t be resolved easily. Serious issues involving dangerous or violent situations require professional help and an approach that produces an immediate result. But most unresolved family conflicts are a normal part of living with other people even though they can feel like an ominous storm that keeps building in strength and intensity.
Maybe you don’t like who your daughter is dating, but pushing the issue doesn’t change the situation. Or maybe your constant conflict centers around daily fights over homework.
The presence of conflict doesn’t reflect the quality of your family or your parenting ability, but how you work through the conflict can determine the quality of family time and your relationship with your teen.
As parents of teens, we’re in unchartered territory. Things that used to work don’t work anymore. Our teens are trying to manage their day-to-day lives while dealing with surging hormones, developing their independence and figuring out who they are. All of this can lead them to push boundaries and challenge rules. We have to adjust our reactions and attitudes while our teens are undergoing such profound life changes.
If a conflict cannot be resolved and change can’t or doesn’t happen, don’t throw your hands up in frustration and don’t turn your back on your teen. Your challenge is to create and maintain a healthy family relationship despite a conflict that just won’t quit.
How to Handle Family Conflict: Put Relationships First
1. Understand the conflict.
In dealing with a difficult family conflict, the first thing you need to do is identify it for what it is: an ongoing conflict without an easy solution. When my wife and daughter found themselves locked in a constant conflict over our daughter’s behavior, my wife had to learn to give it time instead of continually pushing the issue. We discovered that tension diminished for everyone when there was less effort spent trying to eliminate the ongoing conflict and more effort put into maintaining the family relationship.
2. Keep sight of what’s important.
You can’t win a fight with a hurricane, so you protect what is valuable. When conflicts are intense and ongoing, stop fighting the storm and protect what matters to you—the relationship with your teen. Establishing and following rules are important, but the relationship you have with your teen is vital and needs to be protected even in the midst of conflict.
3. Limit the negative focus.
When a conflict is ongoing, you need to put more effort into what is good in the family and in your teen, rather than on what is going wrong. Something as simple as making a list of the good things can help remind you of your long-term goals.
4. Find common ground.
Just like in a military conflict, both sides of an ongoing conflict can agree to declare a truce. During these times, you each agree to put aside your disagreement and do something enjoyable together that puts positive energy back into the family unit. In my relationship with my daughter, photography is our common ground. When we put cameras around our necks, we both calm down and focus on this shared interest.
Find the common ground with your teen instead of focusing on the conflict. Go for a hike or share a family meal, to give yourselves time to reconnect in a way that has nothing to do with your conflict.
5. Agree to disagree.
Putting your foot down as the parent may work in the short term, but we need to allow for independence, growth, and even failure in our teens. It’s okay to acknowledge when you don’t see eye-to-eye with your teen and then agree to disagree. You don’t have to agree on everything to be a family—or to have family harmony.
6. Move on.
This is the hardest step in dealing with ongoing family conflicts. It requires beginning the process of forgiving each other and choosing to move past what you can’t resolve. Focusing on the relationship is a much better investment.
Perpetual conflicts leave us with two choices: continue focusing on the conflict or make the relationship a bigger priority than the problem. When a conflict can’t be resolved, creating a workable solution can add calm to your relationship. If you can maintain your relationship through the storm, then when the storm settles, you and your teen will still have a strong connection. The glue that holds all of these steps together is the decision to focus on what is important.