Communication in Conflict

Imagine your older child or teenager arrives home two hours later than you had agreed. How do you feel? How do you respond? When we are angry, we might snap and raise our voice, which can cause unnecessary distress in relationships. When we are sad, we might tend to avoid “that” conversation, thus letting strong feelings and tension develop.

Here are four steps to more effective communication with older children and adolescents.

  1. Focus on the Problem:

We’ve all been there: we get swept up in the upset and we lose focus. Suddenly, it’s not just about coming home late. It’s also about that permanently untidy bedroom, or the time your child fought with their sibling a few days ago. When we are feeling annoyed and frustrated, these other issues may come to mind. However, bringing these issues into the conversation makes us look like we are on the attack. Instead, try focussing on the one problem at a time. It is a more effective way for you and your child to problem solve the issue together.

  1. Know When to Take Time Out

When it comes to timeouts, we tend to think they are only for children. But stepping away from an escalating conflict is also a very effective tool for parents. It allows you to ground yourself, think more clearly and focus on solving the problem, instead of yielding to strong emotions which may cloud your ability to problem solve. For example, you can say, “I am feeling very angry at the moment and think it would be a good idea to take a break. We can continue this when we are both feeling calmer”. Alternatively, you could introduce a code word to express this that both you and your young person understand.

It is important to remember that a time out is not avoiding the conflict. Both you and your child should return to the discussion when the big feelings subside and you have considered the situation calmly. Talking things through calmly can lead to a healthier solution, and avoid the added stress of arguing.

  1. Reflective Listening:

Reflective listening is when you hear and interpret what the other person has said, and reflect it back to them in your own words. For example, “so what you’re saying is, you are late coming home because you missed the bus” or “so what I am hearing is that you don’t care that we had agreed a curfew for you tonight”. Reflective listening is a very helpful way to check you clearly understand the other person’s viewpoint, instead of focusing on what you are going to say next. Conflict can be resolved more effectively when both people are listening to each other. Also, the other person can clarify what they are intending to say and feel heard and understood. 

  1. Use “I” Statements:

Blame is a tricky pattern during a disagreement. We point out behaviours or characteristics that we do not think are helpful and we blame the person for how they make us feel. For example, “you are always late and you never care about the rules”. This can feel like an accusation and is likely to make your child feel defensive. An “I” statement would be: “I feel angry when you come home later than agreed”. Here, we are sharing our feelings and taking responsibility for them ourselves, while also explaining what has triggered this feeling.

As a final thought, consider that problem solving is a shared responsibility. If we are really mad, doing all of the talking and not listening, we are not doing our part in problem solving. But if we are calm, listening carefully and expressing how we feel without blame, it is more difficult for someone to escalate a disagreement. These are very healthy skills to model to our young people as they grow up and experience their own conflicts and interpersonal challenges.

Top Tips for Helping your Teen Stay Healthy

  1. Provide Lots of Healthy Food and Snacks. Many teenagers have voracious appetites-it may feel like a full time job keeping them fed. If you have lots of filling, healthy snacks on hand (think fruit, cut up vegetables, hummus and pita, wholegrain bagels and peanut butter, wholegrain pasta with tomato sauce), they will be more likely to reach for these than fill up on junk
  2. Get Active Together. If your teens see you leading a healthy, active lifestyle, they will be more likely to follow suit. Ask your teen to join you on an evening walk—they might surprise you and actually come, and this can be a great way to connect
  3. Communicate and Share Information. Many parents find it challenging to discuss some issues, such as sex and drug and alcohol misuse, with their teens. The reality is that teens who can communicate openly and honestly with their parents about these issues tend to make better, healthier choices. So, get in the habit of talking about these issues openly and honestly.
  4. Help Them Build Resilience. Teenagers are under a lot of pressure from school, friends, social media, etc., and many teenagers are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Developing positive coping strategies can help teenagers manage these pressures and improve their overall well-being. Explore things like exercise, diet, meditation, yoga, breathing, mindfulness, etc. with your child and help them find a strategy that works for them.

This article was written by HSE Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Services, a member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations.