Raised voices, rolled eyes, slamming doors… parents of teenagers are no strangers to conflict. Fighting is never fun, but every disagreement is an opportunity to teach teens how to handle conflict constructively. With the right skillset, disagreements and misunderstandings can lead to closer, more authentic relationships – right now and throughout your teen’s life. Here are our picks for the top ten conflict resolution skills to teach teens:
1. Name and claim emotions.
In adolescence, big changes in teens’ brains, hormones, and social lives happen all at once. Teens really do experience emotions more intensely, and their prefrontal cortexes aren’t yet fully developed to help them balance their feelings with adult-level logic. Teaching them to label what they’re feeling is a powerful first step in dealing with conflict because it gives them time to pause and reflect. That helps them keep their cool and communicate from a place of self-awareness and self-responsibility.
2. Skip the silent treatment.
It’s not easy to be the one who brings up conflict, but teens need to know there’s no benefit in holding their emotions inside, sulking, or hoping a disagreement will just blow over. Teach them how to talk it out. Model a proactive approach by speaking up when the two of you are at odds. Let them know that taking steps to resolve conflict helps relationships get stronger, and that should always be the number one priority.
3. Focus on problems, not people.
Teens are often tempted to blame others for conflict: the mean teacher, selfish sibling, or catty friend. Help your teen learn to avoid attacking the person involved. Most conflict is not due to another person’s character flaws; instead, it’s about different perspectives or needs that don’t match up. Help your teen identify the problem and stay focused on finding a solution instead of making it about the other person’s character.
4. Use “I” statements.
Talking through a conflict when emotions are running high is hard at any age. Teens need to learn the foundational skill of using “I” statements like, “I feel angry” instead of “You make me angry,” or “I need some time to cool down” instead of “You need to leave me alone.” “I” statements help teens take responsibility for their own emotions and needs instead of blaming the other person and making the conflict worse.
5. Practice switching perspectives.
One of the most powerful skills teens can learn is how to look at a conflict from the other person’s point of view. Help your teen get in the habit by asking them 1) what they think the other person is feeling and 2) what they think the other person needs. Stepping into someone else’s shoes helps them build empathy.
6. Remember to breathe.
Teach teens how to regulate intense emotions with their breath. Diaphragmatic breathing is proven to help people stay calm in conflict. Box breathing– a simple 4-count inhale/exhale– is a powerful stress-reduction strategy that’s easy for teens to learn. And taking one deep, slow breath is a great way for teens to clear their minds and get grounded before they speak up.
7. Remember, it’s not about you.
One of the most difficult kinds of conflict is the kind that seems to come out of nowhere, like a bully who suddenly targets your teen or a stranger who makes an ugly comment about some aspect of their appearance. Let your teen know that often people who are hurting inside try to make themselves feel better by lashing out at others. Their actions are usually about their own struggles and not the people they lash out at.
8. Stay focused on the present.
Teach teens to keep the focus on resolving the current challenge and to avoid bringing up past issues or saying things like “You always…” or “You never…” Such statements reflect strong emotions instead of reality, and tend to make the conflict more confusing and difficult to deal with. Focus on fixing one problem at a time. And if the problem is a repeat issue, let them know they can reflect on it and decide what to do when they’re not feeling angry or defensive.
9. Be assertive.
Teens who are less sure of themselves may need to practice being more assertive and speaking with a more confident voice and body language. Teens who tend to be more aggressive may need help toning it down so they don’t intimidate or alienate others. Help teens assess their assertiveness by teaching them the three C’s of conflict resolution: Stay in the zone where you come across as calm, confident, and compassionate.
10. Know how to apologize.
Saying “I’m sorry” is a skill many people struggle all their lives to master, but when it comes to resolving conflict, nothing works like a sincere apology. Parents who are willing to apologize when they make a mistake set an example that teaches teens to do the same. Apologizing is an art form, but the best apologies don’t include “buts” or involve excuses. Nothing makes a bigger impact than simply stating, “I was wrong, and I’m sorry I hurt you.”