Adolescent Development and Conflict

Many times in my career I have had a parent of a teenager come to me with a parenting issue to which their ‘solution’ is something like: “fix my kid.” It is pretty routine in conflict to have one party blame the other party and express thoughts like, ‘if only he/she was acting different this problem wouldn’t be happening,’ but it’s an entirely different situation when one party is a parent and the other party is their own teen.

The major difference is that usually these two people, more than in any other conflict scenario, want and need to keep their relationship operational. This means that unlike in a workplace conflict or even a marriage conflict, walking away is rarely an option for both parties. The other big difference is the power non-balance. This means that one person is an adult who is fully capable to look after their personal needs (if they aren’t able to do this I don’t think they should have become a parent in the first place!) and the other person is legally a minor and does not have the resource for full independence (even if they tell you they do!).

Just like in most other conflicts, both the parent and the teen regularly say exactly the same things about the other: s/he is being unreasonable, s/he is acting unfairly, s/he isn’t showing me respect, s/he doesn’t understand me. In order to properly make sense of this dynamic in the parent-teen context, however, we need to remember that when teenagers clash with their parent(s) it is completely biologically and evolutionarily appropriate. As Charles Hughes says, “They need you and they don’t want to need you.”

So there’s a teen on one hand who is working hard at growing up by moving through the complex developmental tasks of adolescence, and on the other hand is an agitated parent who is exhausted with the constant disagreeableness of their child. And by the time they come to me this situation is usually entrenched and has become very emotionally heated. This is the most basic essence of parent-teen mediations. Patty Wipfler writes,

You’ve got an emotional project on the table when your child does one nutty, difficult or out-of-touch thing again and again, and you’re coming to your wits’ end. Both of you are involved. Your child seems to have the problem, according to our time-honored tradition of pinning responsibility on children when they have difficulties. But when you look carefully, you realize that you, too, are emotionally spent. You have no patience, no new ideas, and at some point, you don’t want to understand your child. You just want him or her to stop. The one thing your child can’t do. He’s emotionally exhausted in this area, too.

This ‘time-honored tradition’ of blaming the young person is something I want to shift through mediation, because a conflict is something that happens between people. It’s a relationship thing. Since the parent is the adult in the situation it’s only fitting that we humbly take our half of the responsibility. And seek out help when we are no longer being effective on our own.