What Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Can Teach Us about Resolving Conflict with Teenagers

Remember Ferris Bueller’s sister Jeannie? What we see in the movie is an eye-rolling, sarcastic young woman, and most of us agree with school secretary Grace’s evaluation of Jeannie: “what a little asshole.”

But Charlie Sheen’s juvenile delinquent character actually nails her problem: Jeannie is pissed off because Ferris ditches school and doesn’t get caught.

At the beginning of the movie Ferris feigns illness and his parents buy the lie, even though Jeannie calls BS on the whole act.

There is no conflict at this point, but Jeannie’s anger has been fuelled. She storms off and attempts to deal with her feelings on her own. In fact, she is not shown to have any understanding friends or allies until she meets the brutally honest Charlie Sheen character in the police station near the end.

Honesty, partnered with lack of judgement, helps Jeannie to see her distress more clearly.

Judgemental honesty will get you defensiveness, which usually means it will get you deeper into conflict. But Sheen’s character appears calm and rational with his honesty, even though she calls him names, swears at him, and threatens violence. Plus he makes eye contact with Jeannie, listens thoughtfully, and truly considers what she says.

These actions – calm demeanour, eye contact, thoughtful listening – are the keys to sidestepping a conflict.

Have you ever been faced with an angry teenager in the morning like Jeannie? Here’s an example from my home:

ME (calling from the kitchen): Are you getting into the shower? I want the bathroom for 5 minutes.

THE BOY (still in bed): No response

ME: I’m going in there in one minute unless I hear otherwise from you.

THE BOY: Quit talking so much! I’m barely awake.

ME: No response; attempting to honour his need for a quiet wake-up. After a minute I go into the bathroom. Before I can finish The Boy is standing outside the door telling me he needs to get in the shower.

ME: Hold on! I’ll be another 2 minutes.

THE BOY: Why don’t you use the bathroom before I wake up?

ME: I got up late. Just give me a minute.

Ten minutes later we eat breakfast and The Boy is unusually silent.

When it’s time to leave for school/work:

THE BOY: Where are my keys?

ME: I haven’t seen them.

THE BOY: You must have! Where did you put them? I know I left them on the hook by the door.

ME: Maybe they’re in the pocket of your jeans you wore last night?

THE BOY: I checked there. Help me find them! I have to leave!

The Boy’s emotions are rising. There is stress and urgency in his tone and volume. This is the point of possible entry into a conflict.

Imagine that I’m also feeling urgent about leaving the house. Maybe I cooked us breakfast and he barely touched it. Perhaps I have to meet a colleague I don’t get along with as soon as I get to the office and I’m feeling anxious. How might these details affect this conversation with my son? Chances are it could go something like this:

ME: I didn’t touch your damn keys. They are your responsibility and clearly you aren’t very responsible. If you ever lose the car keys you’re going to be in big trouble!

Now I have sworn at him, insulted him, and threatened him, all in a few seconds. Do you think this is going to give us feelings of warm belonging to weather the challenges of the day ahead?

Do you think this will make it easier to find the keys?

At this point, the conversation is no longer about the lost keys. Instead, I’m making a (misguided and unskilled) bid at winning my son’s respect.

I’m telling myself a story at light speed, mostly unconsciously, that goes something like this:

I work hard for you! I stayed up late last night doing laundry and cooking soup for our lunches this week, you ungrateful kid. You didn’t even eat your eggs and I’ll have you know I didn’t touch your g-dang keys so grow up and learn how to take care of your things.

Can you see that I resent being implicated in the disappearance of the keys and I became angry about his demand that I help locate them?

  1. First I made up a story in my mind about how I was underappreciated.
  2. This story convinced me I had to fight for respect.
  3. Then I made the conflict about me and my feelings.

People do this All. The. Time. By becoming upset myself, I turned The Boy’s upset into a conflict about my need for appreciation.

Problems begin when we make our needs someone else’s responsibility and then believe we have the right to get angry about it.”

I didn’t have to derail The Boy’s mission to find his keys and get to school on time. Instead, I could have been a non-judgemental observer to his upset the way Sheen’s character was for Jeannie Bueller.

What kind of story was Jeannie telling herself earlier in the movie?

“Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe Ferris isn’t such a bad guy. After all, I got a car. He got a computer. Still, why should he get to do whatever he wants? Why should everything work out for him? What makes him so goddamn special? Screw him.”

Jeannie wonders if her parents think she is as important as her brother. She doesn’t feel like she has as much power or control over her life as Ferris does.

When you look at it like that, it’s easier to have empathy for Jeannie and not judge her stuck-up attitude and first world problems.

In my personal scenario, maybe I should have more empathy for my son and his teenage struggles. Because guess what likely comes next? The Boy will pull back from me and my emotional toxicity. The keys would be silently found and we would leave the apartment feeling guarded and disconnected. There would be a cold, awkward atmosphere between us and residual hurt feelings.

This emotional residue erodes trust if left unaddressed. These little skirmishes can add up. Distance builds.

How many times have you experienced this with your teenager or in another relationship?

It’s heart breaking.

Thankfully, this is what actually happened that morning the keys were missing:

ME (glancing at our tiny living room): They aren’t on the coffee table or by the computer. I’ll check this backpack you took to work last night. Keep looking in your bedroom.

Less than a minute later…

THE BOY: I found them!

ME: Where were they?

THE BOY: In the pocket of the hoodie I was wearing yesterday.

ME: Well look at that!

Then he was out the door with a wave and a smile.

Want to know the real story in my head that morning?

He’s a good kid. He deals with a de-humanizing school system and a world that tells him teens are either shallow or criminal. He worked last night and he’s groggy this morning. He is a growing teenager with a mind and body in transition and he’s doing the best he can. He’s not always skilled at keeping track of his things or communicating when he is tired and stressed but that’s okay; these can be difficult for anyone to master. I will give him a break because I love him.

Sometimes this story plays like background music and there isn’t anything I need to do to access it. But other times I have to reach for this story. It depends how good I feel about myself and how much emotional slack I have at that moment.

Cultivating our own emotional slack, the kind Charlie Sheen’s character appeared to have, needs to be a priority task for parents.

How do you cultivate emotional slack for yourself?