Ep 5: Resolving Conflicts with Teens

Episode Summary

Lianna Tsangarides, a family therapist and leading expert in Dialectical Behavior Therapy points out that teens are struggling with some significant inner conflicts. Lianna teaches us how to reduce external type of conflict as a parent by understanding more about the inner type of conflict.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Let’s face it: conflict is a way of life when you have a teenager in the house. They can often seem to be masters in turning every small thing into an argument. There might also be times when you find yourself conflicting over big decisions in life such as college choices or their career path. When this happens, effective conflict resolution for teens can improve communication and help you come to a place of compassionate understanding. But how can you achieve this with an overdramatic teenager?

When emotions run high, it can be difficult to come to a place of mutual understanding. It may feel like your teen is being difficult for the sake of being difficult, while your teen thinks the exact same about you. But fear not! There are ways to achieve conflict resolution for teens that both validate your teen and assert your authority as a parent.

In this episode, we spoke to author Lianna Tsangarides, a clinical social worker who specializes in conflict resolution for teens and young adults. She specialized in patients with a history of addiction, trauma and depression. She points out that there are also significant inner conflicts that teens are struggling to deal with themselves.

Lianna teaches us how conflict resolution for teens is possible when parents understand more about their teen’s inner conflict. Although it may be an uncomfortable moment, learning how to interact with someone you’re at odds with is a valuable skill for everyone involved. Conflict forces you to be an active communicator and listener.

The first step to conflict resolution for teens is being able to recognize their internal conflicts. For instance, on one hand they want independence and autonomy but on the other hand they still need help and support from their parents. Tsangarides points to “dialectical behavioral therapy”, or DBT for short, to help process these ideas.

What is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?

“Dialectical” refers to the idea of having two opposing things that are equally true and valid all at the same time. Teenagers striving for independence and looking for support is an example of this. On one hand, teens are excited to explore the world on their own terms without their parents supervising them. On the other hand, because they are so young, they are not mature enough to support themselves entirely.

Parents can also exhibit dialectical behavior. For example, parents can protectively hold on to their children while at the same time push them to autonomy by giving them responsibilities. Finding a healthy and realistic middle ground between these ideas is the foundation to conflict resolution for teens because it requires you to come to a verdict that benefits everyone. Your teens won’t be teens forever, but while they’re at this age, parenting them is a balancing act.

In this episode, Lianna works through a specific example of how you can handle a disagreement with a teenager and explains that there are different kinds of validation. To achieve conflict resolution for teens, use words of affirmation and give them the space they need to air their feelings.

How to Use Validation to Settle Arguments

1. How to slow things down when your teen is acting really intense:

The first step in conflict resolution for teens is controlling your emotions. When emotions are running high, your teen may very well see you as the bad guy in this situation. The last thing you want to do is to give them any fuel to that mindset. Have your first response be something calm and kind.

“I hear this is really important to you. I want to give it the time and the thought that it deserves. I’m going to get back to you. And I’m really glad you came and talked to me about this.”

This validates your teen’s strong feelings. When your teen is feeling strongly about anything, the last thing you should do is brush them off, underplay or completely disregard their feelings. Start by letting them know that you understand how strongly they are feeling in this moment.

2. Use the value of Integrity:

The second step in achieving conflict resolution for teens is to teach them how to be accountable. If your teen is dropping the ball in regards to things like being on time or finishing their homework, you should emphasize the power of sticking to their word.

“You know, things are going to change in your life all the time. You can’t go to your boss once you get a job and say, ‘You know, the TV schedule changed last night and I had to watch my show, so I didn’t get that report done. But it’s coming soon.’ You’ll be fired! Things are going to change in your life all the time. You still have to follow through on your word. If I only teach you one thing in your life and it’s the importance of staying true to your word, then I’ll consider that a huge success.”

Sometimes, teens may not see how their behavior may grow into an unhealthy trait in the future. You can use your experience as an adult to help paint a larger picture for your teen. Don’t approach it as dictating your opinion, rather, showing them an informed perspective.

3. How to enforce a teen’s curfew using a value of Health:

The third step to conflict resolution for teens is teaching them how to properly negotiate, specifically regarding curfews. When your teen wants to stay out late with their friends on a school night, they may ask for their curfew to be lifted. Start by highlighting how staying out late may affect them instead of making it all about the rules. 

“Sleep is really important. I know how melatonin works in your brain and how the sleep cycle works and it’s just not going to develop properly if we start messing with your sleep cycle. It’s a health issue.”

In this scenario, you’re emphasizing that you come from a place of caring and concern for their health. This communicates the fact that you’re not just trying to be mean and strict, rather, you’re being loving. 

This also asserts the importance of boundaries that were previously set. This also emphasizes that changing a boundary can never be one sided. Although conversations like these may not be enjoyable, they are absolutely crucial and valuable to have.

4. How to enforce a teen’s curfew using a value of Safety:

If the health aspect doesn’t break through to your teen, a fourth step you can take in achieving conflict resolution for teens is to elucidate how safety and security is an issue. 

“This is when we go to sleep. So if you were out past that and there was an emergency we wouldn’t be able to respond and help. It wouldn’t be safe.”

This also emphasizes the point that you’re concerned for them and not trying to make their lives difficult or less fun. Sometimes it’s difficult for teens to see that parents do in fact want the best for them. By giving a concrete reason for curfew, such as their physical safety, teens are more likely to honor their curfew.

5. What to say after your teen yells or calls you the WORST:

The fifth step to reaching conflict resolution for teens is avoiding blaming or name calling. Although it may stir up negative emotions within you, your job as a parent is to be the bigger person and set an example for your teen, no matter how mad or frustrated they are with you. By validating your teen’s emotions, you are de-escalating a tough situation. 

“I hear that I’m really upsetting you right now. I must have done something that’s really angered you. I can hear that you’re really upset––you’re really mad at me. Sounds like you don’t really want to be around me right now.”

This goes back to the first point about validating your teen’s feelings. Even when they say something out of anger and frustration, validate that. Responding to anger with even more anger escalates the conflict, which is the exact opposite of the goal at hand. Practice validation in times of tranquility as well as in times of heightened emotions. 

Want to learn more about conflict resolution? 

In this episode Lianna speaks on the following ideas: 

  • Validation not being the same as agreement. 
  • Inner conflicts feeding external conflicts. 
  • How to handle external conflicts with grace. 
  • Utilizing DBT in times of conflict. 

Understanding that opposing ideas can co-exist is a big step in de-escalating conflict in your household. Resolving conflicts with teens can be hard but it can be done. Listen to the episode to learn more about DBT and the role of validation when you’re in the midst of a disagreement with your teen.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. How to slow things down when your teen is acting really intense

“I hear this is really important to you. I want to give it the time and the thought that it deserves. I’m going to get back to you. And I’m really glad you came and talked to me about this.”

Lianna Tsanangarides

2.  Enforce a teen’s curfew using a value of Integrity:

(Members Only)

3.  Enforce a teen’s curfew using a value of Health:

(Members Only)

4.  Enforce a teen’s curfew using a value of Safety:

(Members Only)

5.  What to say after your teen yells or calls you the WORST:

(Members Only)

6.  When your teen asks to come home later tonight, speak to the unspoken feeling:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Validate Your Teen’s Emotions Without Agreeing:

Practice validating the intense emotions behind your teenager’s statements without agreeing that the statement is true. Lianna told me this is one of the key skills to de-escalate any conflict with a teenager. When teens get angry, scared, frustrated, or down, they can lash out and say things that are meant to be hurtful, like, “You’re the worst mother in the world.” You can validate this statement without agreeing with it. For instance, you might say, “I can hear that you’re really angry with me right now. It sounds like you really don’t want to be around me.” Of course, you won’t know exactly what the specific emotion is that your teen is feeling but Lianna says not to worry about this. She recommends just taking a guess at the emotion. Getting it right is not as important as just trying to empathize. To practice validating the emotions behind hurtful things your teen might say, try the following exercise. Read the following statements your teen might make and try to write down how you could respond, focusing on the emotion rather than the literal words…”I hate you!” “You are ruining my life.” “You’re so embarrassing.” “Maybe I’ll run away. Then you’ll be sorry.” “I can’t stand your voice. Stop talking.” “How many times do I have to tell you? Leave me alone!” “Don’t you care about me at all?” “This is the worst day of my life.”

2.  Take a “Time Out” Next Time Things Start to Heat Up:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Okay, so DBT you’re an expert, dialectical behavior therapy but my big question is what the heck is a dialectical? What does that mean and how does it work?

Lianna: So dialectic refers to the idea that you can have two opposing things that are equally valid and equally true at the same time. I think for teenagers something you see a lot is that dialectic between striving for independence, versus still asking for help and needing the support of their family. So, I want to be independent, I want to make my own decisions you can’t parent me but can I still borrow money? Can I still get a ride here? Will you still wake me up? Will you still make me lunch? And where is that middle ground between establishing independence and still needing their family?

Andy: Yeah, yeah right.

Lianna: I think parents have similar parallels of dialectics between making light of problem behaviors or making a big deal out of normal adolescent behaviors, or holding on too tight or pushing for independence, where is that learning? So learning to think dialectically, learning to think that both of these things can exist at the same time, they’re normal feelings to go through and where is that middle ground and where is the synthesis? Teens are trying to learn what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate and where is their own identity? And developmentally that’s where they should be.

Lianna: They’re trying on different hats, they’re trying to figure out who they want to be. Do I want to be the kid with the blue mohawk? Do I want to be the kid who knows how to clean my room or who doesn’t know how to clean my room? And where are my responsibilities in this and what’s my identity? And they’re trying to break away from some of their family’s identity. So there’s a little bit of pushing, a little bit of opposition. Some kids push a little too hard and you see some overly oppositional behaviors, but there is a little confusion I think for a lot of teens on what is an appropriate way to find out who I am and how to become independent while still living at home? And how to navigate that water and how to navigate that for the families as well?

Andy: Okay, so that brings me to the big question what I really wanted to talk to you about today, for you as a therapist if you’re working with a teenager who’s dealing with something like this, where they for instance… they have this dialectical relationship between wanting autonomy but still needing their parents. How does DBT look at this relationship and what are some DBT related tools that you would maybe try to give to a teenager that you’re working with who’s dealing with something like this?

Lianna: Yeah, so DBT teaches a lot about learning to think dialectically, and so for that particular you could look a lot at finding the middle paths. So how do I think dialectically when it comes to change versus exceptions? Is my home too strict? Are the rules to lose? Where is it? Where is the middle path? How do I think dialectically? How do I learn to find the synthesis between these two opposing things, as well as navigating rules in the household? You can incorporate some interpersonal effectiveness skills, how do I talk to my family about this? If I really disagree, if I want to stay out later, if I want to ask for a change how can I talk to mom and dad about this? We’re not arguing about this every time. So there’s different interpersonal effectiveness skills that you can look at, and for the parents as well to approach your children. So if you want to say… set limits with your kids, if you want to look at negotiating things within the household how do you resolve conflict and still maintain a relationship?

Andy: Yeah, I hear that that’s really cool. I wonder if we could just try and jump into one here, like what’s a specific situation where a teenager and a parent could be in conflict and could be arguing? And then how would we use the tools of DBT as a parent to kind of turn that into something more collaborative? So, like okay we got a teenager and there’s a late start at school tomorrow. So the teenager thinks they should be able to stay out later tonight and that they shouldn’t have to come in at their same curfew that they normally do, because they don’t have to get to school as early as they normally do. So you as a parent are saying, “No, there’s maybe a little bit of a conflict there,” where you have this curfew that you set and now the teen is kind of trying to push against it or argue against it, and maybe they kind of got a good point here. How would we use the DBT skills to turn that into something more collaborative?

Lianna: What I would recommend to most of my parents in that situation is if their intention is to hold the limit and want to be consistent at home, would be to start with validation. So, there’re different levels of validation you can observe and reflect what somebody is going through, you can summarize what they’re saying, you can speak what’s unspoken-

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Lianna: Which can be really important. So if somebody has an unspoken feeling that you’re picking up on, and so if somebody seems sad or somebody seems anxious that they’re not saying it, what’s important with that is you have to be open to being wrong.

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Lianna: Like in that you can say, “I hear that you’re really disappointed that we’re not changing the curfew, and we’re going to stick with 11 o’clock. We’ve previously discussed this and we’re just… we’re not going to change the curfew.” So you can speak to the unspoken feeling of disappointment. So, you speak to maybe what they didn’t say but you imagine how would I feel if I was in that position? And so speak to the unspoken portion as well. So, there’re different ways to kind of validate, you can hit different levels of what’s going on.

Andy: I love that, that is so cool and a lot of times… I mean I think we talk about that you need to validate your teenager or empathize with your teenager before you jump into a conflicting statement, right? There’s something really valuable about having the skill that you’re using there, which is that really deep level of validation. What are some mistakes that parents often make when they’re trying to validate their teenagers feelings?

Lianna: A lot of what you see at least what I see with parents and teens or teens with their own internal dialogue, is that there’s a miss on the validation. It’s often unintentional but there’s this invalidation in communication.

Andy: Interesting.

Lianna: So, teens often are very self critical which is internally invalidating, and sometimes just quick communications between parents and teens or teachers it’s very invalidating, we’re just trying to move along with our day and we don’t realize that we miss the feeling, and then that can lead to quick escalations with teenagers.

Andy: Even though you validated them and you really made your teem feel like, “Hey, I understand why you’re disappointed here,” You’re still stuck with it, right? You still held to the limit of the curfew. Like as a parent you don’t have to give in to your teens demands in order to validate them, and make them feel like you understand why they’re making those demands.

Lianna: Yes, validating is not the same thing as agreeing, and you might agree, they might have a very factual case that they’re expressing to you but they might not. So, sometimes you hear things like I hate you, you’re the worst mother in the world and you don’t have to agree that you’re the worst mother in the world, but you can validate the feeling behind that. You can say, “I hear that I’m really upsetting you right now, I must have done something that’s really angered you.”

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Lianna: I can hear that you’re really upset, you’re really mad at me, it sounds like you really don’t want to be around me right now without saying, “I agree I’m the worst mother in the world.” So you can validate their level of frustration and sadness and anger towards you without saying you agree with what happened or what they’re upset about, and sometimes as parents it’s like we get so trapped or therapist sometimes we get so stuck on what happened or we can get triggered into this defense mode of like, “Well, that’s not really what happened,” That we end up in this back and forth and we miss this feeling and like the real message behind what’s being set.

Andy: One of our kind of big tenants here at Talking to Teens is values, not just making an arbitrary rule and saying this is how it is but wrapping our rules or policies into a larger value. I wonder if this is an opportunity to do that. Maybe it’s that, “Hey, this is when we go to sleep and so if something happened to you and we were asleep, and you’re out past that and there was an emergency we wouldn’t be able to respond and help, right?” So it’s a safety thing or hey, this amount of sleep is really important and I know how melatonin works in your brain and this is the sleep cycle, and that your brain is just not going to develop well if we start messing with your sleep cycle, so it’s not a health issue, right? But taking a value of some kind and wrapping that rule that we’re trying to impose into a value.

Lianna: I agree, so I think that it’s easier for teens to get on board though they don’t always, if we explain the reasons and the values behind why we have some of the established rules, that they’re not just there to sort of keep the kids under lock and key so to say, but we’re going to stick with 11 o’clock because it’s unsafe and you have school. I know it starts a little later tomorrow, but you still have school and you still have homework. The household goes to bed and so we’ll be asleep, so we’re going to stick with our curfew as it is but I do, I agree absolutely it’s definitely helpful for people to understand what’s going on.

Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah and another principle that would be really effective I think, to wrap that rule in two is like things are going to change in your life all the time, right? You can’t go to your boss once you get a job and say, “Oh, hey yeah the TV schedule changed last night and so I had to watch my show, so I didn’t get that report done but don’t worry I promise I’ll get it done tomorrow.” All right, things are going to change so yeah I hear you. Even in school, right? You can’t go to your teacher and say, “Yeah, the schedule is a little different today with soccer practice so I didn’t get the report done, but don’t worry it’s going to be… we’re going to be back to the same schedule today so I’ll get it done today.” As a parent if I allow you to come home later, to change your curfew, to change the rules just because it’s a late start tomorrow I’m just not teaching you the skills that I think are really important that are going to serve you in the rest of your life.

Andy: To me that’s my role as a parent, it is to teach you these skills, these values, these principles and one principle that’s really important to me is integrity, right? It’s that I always do what I said I was going to do, and we had an agreement I got to hold you to it and I think that’s my responsibility as a parent, and I understand if you don’t like that but I think it’s really the best thing for you and for us as a family.

Lianna: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a good sleeping habits, good whatever…we go to bed at the same time, there are exceptions. One thing I also like to teach I work with families especially around curfew is, when it comes to trust building, when it comes to changing or having exceptions what needs to happen? So if they wanted to stay out later one night or they needed to earn trust back, what do they need to do? If a teen wants to re-earn their later curfew back what do they need to do so it doesn’t feel so unattainable?

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Lianna: Because I think a lot of times parents pull limits especially after trust has been broken, and so what needs to happen to re-earn if trust has been broken and so that’s a big part of our interpersonal discussions as well. How to maintain a relationship and to resolve conflict after conflict has occurred. I like to remind parents to always give themselves like a three second rule. Three seconds can feel like a really long time, but it’s not that long in a conversation. So to just pause and maybe count to three before you respond, and to remind themselves that nothing is that urgent when… if feelings are intense there’s a sense of urgency but especially with our children, teens have this sort of magical way of making everything feel urgent. For them everything kind of is urgent, it’s that developmental stage where going out with your friends is very urgent. Their world’s going to end if I don’t go to this Carnival with my friends tonight something can happen, and I won’t be included in the social media and this and it’s very important for them.

Andy: Yeah.

Lianna: And it is, and it has these very intense emotions, everything’s spontaneous and magical and big it’s one of the best parts of working with teens. It’s also one of the hardest parts of being a teen and that feeling is contagious. So when they come and they ask you for something it feels urgent, like I have to answer now I can’t tell them I need to ask your father and you have to wait, and then things escalate but it’s not that urgent. So to take those three seconds and breathe and remind yourself that this really isn’t urgent, that you can always say I’m going to get back to you. You can take a break, give yourself five seconds, five minutes, just breathe.

Lianna: Remind yourself that this is not about you, that you’re a good parent and that this is about your kids emotions, but to kind of pick a go to self kind of statement that when you feel that physical warning sign, and it starts with knowing what your physical warning sign is, breathe and say whatever your go to statement is, this isn’t about me I’m going to be here for my child and then kind of come back and say, “What are they really saying to me right now? What are they really feeling?” And then like with any other skill we teach in DBT, validation is a practice skill. So practice it all the time because if you don’t practice it when you’re calm, you’re not going to be able to access it when things are heightened. You can’t wait till you’re having your first argument and then be like, “Let me get out my cheat sheet here, what am I supposed to say?” So, practice it on little small sort of things that don’t evoke emotion for you.

Andy: Well, you mentioned something in there that I really have never even thought about which is, it is totally okay to push the pause button and say, “Hey, let’s take two hours I’ll get back to you on that or whatever it is,” I mean what kind of language would you use and how could you do that in a parent in a way that your teem will accept? [inaudible 00:16:30] a lot of research is showing that if we can take a break in a highly emotional situation where there’s a lot of autonomic arousal going on in our brain, even just cooling off for a few minutes and then coming back studies show we’re much more able to think rationally and logically and to make a good decision.

Andy: So, I think that is such a cool idea and there’s a certain amount of confidence that takes with your teenager, right? To be able to say, “Hey, let’s take a little time out here push the pause button, I’m going to take two hours and I’ll get back to you, right?” Or let’s hit the pause button on this conversation for a second and talk about this ideally on it, because I think it’s so cool and I’m curious is there anything that you need to know to be able to do that more effectively? Like, are there certain phrases that I should use or certain way that I need to do this so that my teem will be okay with it, and will let me take that break and come back to it later?

Lianna: Yeah, I think that’s an amazing answer I would avoid a timeframe you can’t stick to, if you can’t stick to it that’s great because it reduces anxiety. So if you feel really confident that you can come back in two hours then great, but if it’s dependent on something outside your control like talking to your spouse or someone else, then I would avoid a timeframe because if now they’re running late from work, or they have been answered or something else now you’ve potentially broken your word. So maybe I’ll get back to you once I talk to your father or your mother, but other than that yeah I validate as much as possible. Like I hear this is really important to you I want to give it the time and the thought that it deserves, I will get back to you and I’m really glad that you came to me and talked to me about this. I’m glad that we have this open communication, I’m glad that we can talk about changing curfew or whatever the case may be.

Andy: Because really at the end of the day you do want them to talk to you about this stuff, right? You want to reward them for coming to talk to you even if it’s about something that you maybe don’t really want to talk about, like their curfew that we already talked about. It’s good that they’re coming to you and that they’re open and they want to talk about it.

About Lianna Tsangarides

A practicing therapist in Connecticut, Lianna specializes in working with people who are struggling with negative self-talk. She is a leading expert in a therapeutic technique called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, which focuses on teaching people the skills to handle conflicting thoughts and feelings.

In addition, Lianna is a blogger who writes truly exceptional posts about how to use DBT skills to deal with these types of conflicts in our own lives. One of my favorites is called Stop Walking on Eggshells Around Your Teen: The Three C’s of Parenting.

You can also find Lianna on Twitter here.