The Nature of Conflict
Conflict is not fundamentally about disagreement. It is about agreement — two parties agreeing to actively disagree and contest a difference between them. When parent and teenager both agree to disagree over chores, curfew, or cleaning up, and to resolve that difference through argument, then conflict occurs. Conflict is always a matter of mutual choice.
Cooperating in Conflict
Put another way, conflict is always cooperative. It takes two to create a fight. As the bumper sticker asks, “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” Or only one party came? There would be no war. So one formula for conflict is:
CONFLICT = RESISTANCE VERSUS RESISTANCE
This is a helpful formula to remember when your teenager, after a bad day at school, is looking for an argument, but you are not. “You never let me do anything!” your teenager begins, inviting you into disagreement. But you choose not to argue in response, so no argument takes place.
Instead you offer a different option: “If you've had a hard day, I'd be willing to hear about it.” By refusing to resist back, you set limits on how much conflict you are willing to cooperate in. By responding to the underlying feeling, you are being empathetic and offering to listen.
Although you may feel you should fight for what is right every time, you cannot emotionally afford to fight about every difference that arises between you and your teenager. One secret of parent survival in adolescence is being careful to choose your battles wisely.
Picking Your Battles
For most parents, conflict with their teenager is stressful. It feels frustrating, and frustration can cause anger. Sometimes discomfort with one's own or the other person's anger causes anxiety. In either case, it has a negative effect on your attitude. In addition, conflict with their teenager can be contagious when, after arguing with their adolescent, parents find themselves bickering with each other.
The most powerful influence on how children engage in conflict is how their parents conduct conflict, so model the approach you want. Your kids learn from watching how you disagree with each other and with them.
For most teenagers, however, conflict with parents is not a source of stress. It is just fighting for freedom as usual. It even has some positive aspects to it. It can be a chance to express built-up bad feelings, to test power by challenging authority, and to assert individuality by taking stands for independence.
In most cases, the contest is a mismatch, like out-of-shape amateurs (the parents) exchanging blows with a well-conditioned professional (the teenager). So after one of these rounds is over, while parents have a need to lie down and recover from the exertion, their teenager is not even winded, talking on the phone to a friend as if nothing particular has happened.
Thus, to conserve energy and moderate stress, parents need to be selective about which differences between themselves and their teenager they wish to actively oppose. If they do not exercise this selective control, they may end up feeling like “battered parents,” cooperating in more conflict than is good for them. Parents must remember that conflict with their teenager is always a matter of choice.