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Parents and teens: How to fight nicely

Every day there are frustrated teens and parents fighting — behind closed doors in their homes as well as in my adolescent medicine office. Here are some tips to for parents when a fight comes up with your teen.

Mayweather vs Pacquino isn't the only fight to happen recently.  Every day there are frustrated teens and parents sparring outside the ring — behind closed doors in their homes as well as in my adolescent medicine office.

In exam room #1 are a mother and her teenage daughter.  I was seeing her for severe cystic acne. Her acne was made worse by her compulsive picking at it.  She wanted to go on Accutane (isotretinoin), a powerful acne medicine that requires careful monitoring. Her parents wouldn't let her go on Accutane until she stopped the picking. When I stepped out of the exam room for a moment, I could hear some dirty fighting going on. My patient was screaming, "I hate you! You and dad hate me! You only care about my sister — she gets whatever she wants!" The Accutane face-off was only the tip of the iceberg.

In exam room #2 are a father and his teenage daughter.  The teen was angry that her father insisted on being in the exam room for some of the visit. Each time the dad said something, my patient rolled her eyes and mouthed, "He doesn't know anything." Later, when I was with my patient alone, she told me that she actually has a better relationship with her father than her mother. (Yikes!) On further questioning, I was relieved to learn that they have two family therapy sessions each week.

Why can't everyone be friends? The answer to this age-old question has to do with adolescent development. Teens are transitioning — they are no longer children and not yet adults. It may seem like teens become "in between" overnight. And they very well may! One minute they're downright friendly and the next minute they're throwing counterpunches. In order to become independent adults, they must emotionally and physically separate from their parents.  Nice fighting, not physical or abusive, is normal and can even help with this separation. For teenagers, parents are safe to fight with because they're not teachers or coaches. And they provide unconditional love — they have to — it's in the "instruction manual."

Here are some of my suggestions on how to fight nicely:

  1. Try not to yell: Because parents and teens care so much about each other, emotions like anger tend to run high. Have you ever noticed that when you start reacting with anger of your own or responding with defensive remarks or accusations, that it just makes your child angrier?

  2. Try to stay calm: If you speak slowly and quietly, you will feel calm too. When everyone is calm, begin the conversation again. Learning how to negotiate, state wishes and find compromise are important skills for teens (and parents!) to develop.

  3. Give some space: If your teen needs to storm off to a neutral corner, so be it. His or her extreme emotions will likely diminish. You may need a time-out as well.

  4. Put yourselves in your teenager's shoes: Try and understand what his or her anger is about. Understanding takes listening.  Knowing that you have been heard and understood is extremely calming. Did you ever notice that "listen" and "silent" have the same letters in them? Capisce?

  5. Pick your battles: I'm not suggesting that you outright throw in your towel, particularly if it is an important issue. But there are ways to empower your teens (and still win ... shhhhh). Take this example that has never, ever happened in my own home — not even once:

Mom says: Your room is a mess.  I see that you forgot the paper you were working on (very late) last night — it's buried under your pile of clothes.

Teen says: It's not due until tomorrow. I know where everything is.

Mom says: Please clean your room.

Teen says: Just close the door so you don't have to look at it.

Mom: Okay, fine. (Pause) Would you rather clean up your room before dinner or after dinner?

Teen says: After dinner.

Teen thinks: Ha-ha, I won!

Mom thinks: Ha-ha, I won!

  1. Know when you need help. Yes, fighting is normal but it shouldn't be the nature of all parent-teen interactions …and they should be able to tolerate being in a room together. For families with serious parent-teen conflict, please consider one of these recommendations:

In my living room are my son and me. When he was going off to college he started taking an occasional jab at me. Suddenly I had an epiphany, and I was literally beside myself with joy!

I said: Conflict is a normal part of adolescent development, son. It's helping you to become a separate and independent individual – isn't it wonderful?

My son said: (Nothing)

I could tell he wasn't as excited as I was about it. On to the next round…

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