By Vanessa Van Petten
When I was a teenager it felt like my parents and I got in the same fights over and over again. After working with thousands of teens and parents I have realized that there are several common fights parents have with their teens. Below, I have described these three fights and offered some solutions for stopping the argument cycle.
1. The “It’s Not Fair” Fight
– Older brother gets to stay out late with his friends. Teen finds this grossly unfair.
– Parent gets to have soda, child does not. Teen finds this grossly unfair.
– Teenager cannot buy new outfit for dance because it is too expensive. Teen finds this grossly unfair.
Emotional Intent: When you hear a teen talk about how unfair something is, what they are often feeling is, “I am not important or special enough.” If you feel like your teenager is constantly arguing about justice or fairness, they are most likely feeling like they are not being heard or cared about enough to get what they want. Of course, this is usually not the case. In the examples above parents would be worried about safety, health and money, while teens feel like they are not as important as their sibling, that their parents do not understand how important the dance is, and so on.
Solutions: The best way to stop the “it’s Not Fair” fight is to address the emotional intent. The best way to do this is for parents to push into the “it’s not fair” feeling from their children instead of pushing against it. For instance in the new outfit example a parent might say to their teen, “I hear you think this is unfair, will you tell me why?” A teen will most likely respond, “You buy stuff for yourself all the time,” or “But I deserve this dress.” These answers are important because it will show the parent the emotional intent behind the upset and feelings of injustice. If a parent addresses these by saying something like, “I could see how you feel like us not buying this for you is about you not feeling worthy. But the truth is we are trying to save for the big vacation we are taking this summer—which is for all of us. I know how important this dance is for you. Maybe we can get you a new pair of shoes or…” then the fight is stopped.
2. The “Treat Me Like A Grown-Up” Fight
– Teen wants to be able to stay out late with friends. Parents say no. Teen thinks they are being treated like a child.
– Teen wants to go away for Spring Break, parents say no. Teen thinks they are being treated like a child.
Emotional Intent: Most fights during the teen years are actually based in this ‘treat me like a grown-up’ motivation. The earlier you can catch and address it the better it will be. It derives from the fundamental pulling away that comes with a teen trying to assert their independence.
Solutions: It is very important for parents to discuss reasons for decisions that are making a teenager angry. This way teens are sure to understand the real reasons for a parent’s choice. Another great way to help teenagers get less upset in fights surrounding their maturity is for parents to help teens feel mature in other ways. For example, perhaps parents do not want their teen to go away for the whole Spring Break because they want to have family time. A great way to address this with teens is to say clearly, “We really want to have family time with you, but we know you are getting older, so how about you do a weekend camping trip with your friends for one of the weekends.” This teaches teens you trust them, but it is all about balancing needs.
3. The “We Are a Different Person” Fight
– Parent wants their teen to join band, teen doesn’t want to.
– Parent expects higher grades and when teen doesn’t do well, a huge fight ensues.
– Teen does not keep room tidy, parent gets upset when guests come over.
Emotional Intent: Often times teenagers tell me that they will purposefully keep their room dirty or choose unapproved hobbies just so they can be different from their parents. Parents frequently misinterpret room cleaning or bad grades for laziness, when something deeper might be going on. Teenagers often will ‘misbehave’ or fight with parents simply to show them that they are their own person—even if it gets them into trouble.
Solutions: First, it’s important to make sure that you do want your child to be their own person. Be careful not to push expectations or your own goals onto your kids. Second, make sure teenagers know that some of the requirements you have for them (good grades a tidy room for guests) are not to make them feel less like an individual, but for them to have more choices in their future and to present a nice home to guests. I recommend parents being very direct with teenagers about their need to be ‘their own person’ you might be surprised what common fights are actually based in this emotional intent.
Overall, fighting can be stressful, but teenagers often tell us that ‘fighting’ with their parents is their way of discussing issues. Look at fights as a way of getting to know a new aspect of your teens and be open with them about hoping to stop harmful cycles.
Vanessa Van Petten is one of the nation’s youngest experts, or ‘youthologists’ on parenting and adolescents. She now runs her popular parenting website, RadicalParenting.com, which she writes with 120 other teenage writers to answer questions from parents and adults. Her approach has been featured by CNN, Fox News, and Wall Street Journal. She was also on the Real Housewives of Orange County helping the housewives with troubled teens. Her new book, Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded?, was just released in September 2011 with Plume Books of Penguin USA.