This is the fourth article in a five-part series on communicating with teens.
Read part one here: Tips for communicating with teens: Your responsibility to communicate well 
Read part two here: Tips for communicating with teens: Modelling respect, humility and forgiveness
Read part three here: Tips for communicating with teens: Helping your teen think clearly
Read part five here: Tips for communicating with teens: Teaching teens how to think, not what to think

Section 9: The right way to communicate during conflict

Disagreements aren’t the same as fights. And it’s possible to maintain a strong relationship even during disagreements. Here are some tips for talking your way through conflict with your teen:

Let your teen speak

Don’t try to control your teen’s side of the confrontation, and don’t interrupt. This goes back to understanding the shared power of parenting. Rather, give your teen the chance to speak their mind. And if either you or your teen tend to talk nonstop, set a timer and take turns.

Give weight to your teen’s feelings and opinions

Of course, teens shouldn’t get a pass for disrespect or rudeness. And we must teach them that emotions don’t carry valid weight when it comes to logic and conflict resolution.

Still, we can sincerely communicate to our teen that we understand their point of view even if we don’t agree with it. And we can explain why we might not think the way they do.

One teen commented, “My mom and I had effective communication because I was treated as an equal. Not in terms of who was in charge (that was clear) but in that I had a voice.”

Be fair

Don’t name-call, don’t belittle and don’t continually withdraw. Take a break if you need to and come back to the disagreement later.

Be clear about your reasons for requests or rules; explain what you want and why. At the same time, don’t be inflexible just because it might be easier to say, “Because I said so!” Instead, agree with your teen whenever you honestly can. Or emphasize what evidence you’d need before you could potentially agree with them.

Watch your tone and body language

“When parents yell or use sarcasm or point fingers,” says Bob Waliszewski, “kids figure it’s OK for them to do the same. They also put on their protective gear and get into ‘fight’ position.”

So do your best to stay calm. When you keep your composure during a tense situation with your teen, you send a nonverbal message that you’re not scared and are still the parent in charge of the situation.

If you start to lose control or get off track during an argument – or if it feels like you’re trying to win instead of connect – take a deep breath. Remind yourself that you want to communicate with your teen and explore their perspective.

Try to keep things light

For a fun take on handling conflict, check out Gary Smalley and Greg Smalley’s suggestion about how to use drive-thru talking. It boils down to one person being the “employee” (listener) and one person being the “customer” (speaker).

  • “Drive-thru talking is successful because it helps your teenager feel safe to express his or her needs and feelings. Safety develops when your child trusts that your goal is to listen and understand, not to defend and challenge. That’s why, in the employee role, we do not evaluate, edit or defend ourselves. Instead, we simply listen and repeat. (It’s better if you repeat using your own words.)”

Write a letter instead

Writing gives you time to sort through your thoughts and express yourself carefully,” notes Waliszewski. “It gives your teen time to respond instead of reacting defensively. A notebook passed back and forth can work, too; so does email.” 

Keep the issue in perspective

Yes, it’s important to guide your children in God’s truth. But “most arguments don’t qualify as ‘teachable moments,’ ” says Waliszewski. Choose your battles wisely. “Stand up for the values that are most important to you and to your teen’s welfare –  but consider flexibility on lesser matters.”

Section 10: How to pick your battles

“When you understand where to focus your time and energy,” writes author Shelby Hall, “you really can create an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.” She suggests three categories to consider as you decide how to pick your parenting battles:

Battles worth picking

These can include behaviour contrary to Scripture (sexual immorality and breaking the law), disrespect and legitimate threats of danger.

Battles to avoid

Don’t pick battles rooted in your past insecurities or mistakes. And if an issue wouldn’t negatively affect your teen, let it go.

Jonathan McKee agrees that there are some teen battles worth ignoring. He’s learned not to get “pulled into the drama.”

  • A parent might say, Grab your coat and let’s go.

    The teen might respond, ‘I don’t need a coat. It’s not even cold outside.’

    Don’t argue. Teens do whatever they can to win these little battles. They’ll do a Google search in an attempt to prove that the outside temperature is actually not cold at all – a compared to Antarctica. In addition, they’ll tell you it would be unfair to animals for you to wear outer garments while they have to fend off the frigid temperature on their own.

    Just let it go. Save your energy for the fights that matter. After all, in most situations, natural consequences teach far more than any of our lectures. Let the kid freeze for a day. He’ll remember his coat tomorrow without you having to say a word.”

Battles to defer

If multiple topics of disagreement come up during what was supposed to be a one-issue conversation, save off-topic points for another time. And if your teen asks for an immediate decision about something, it’s OK to tell them you and your spouse need time to talk, pray and agree about the issue first.

Next up: Part Five Tips for communicating with teens: Teaching teens how to think, not what to think

© 2023 Focus on the Family. Used with permission.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox