Counseling Today, Cover Stories

De-escalating conflict between parents and teens

By Bethany Bray October 26, 2022

It’s natural for adolescent development and parent-child conflict to go hand in hand.

Le’Ann Solmonson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who owns a private practice in Nacogdoches, Texas, has worked with children and adolescents in school and clinical settings throughout her career. Time and time again, she’s seen families fall into a pattern as children reach adolescence: The youth wants more autonomy — a normal aspect of adolescent development — and begins to push against their parent’s rules and boundaries. In response, the parents tighten their control or inflict punishment, only to have the adolescent push back harder, break more rules and chafe against their parents’ preferences. Thus begins a repeating spiral of friction, frustration and misunderstanding — on the part of both the teenager and the parents.

“Conflict is very much a product of adolescent development,” says Solmonson, the immediate past president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association. “Adolescents’ whole goal is to figure out ‘Who am I? Where do I fit in?’ and begin that separation from their parents and become more independent. … Some of that development leads to trying out new things, thinking a little differently [than their parents] and not having the cognitive development to think through something that looks fun but might be dangerous. These are natural things that can fuel conflict and disagreements.”

Parents vs. teen

Hayle Fisher, a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) and director of adolescent services at a behavioral mental health provider in Mentor, Ohio, runs her practice’s intensive outpatient program for adolescents as well as a counseling group for parents focused on navigating family challenges with teens. In her experience, a teen’s risk-taking behaviors are often what the family names as the presenting problem. And while problems such as reckless driving, disordered eating, skipping school, risky sexual behaviors, substance use and self-harm or suicidal ideation do need attention in therapy, there is often conflict in the home that is exacerbating the teen’s behavior. Even if a family is not having traditional “blowout” style arguments, conflict is often present in the form of unhealthy patterns and instability, says Fisher, the president of the Ohio Association for Specialists in Group Work. Examples include invalidating behaviors and dialectical dilemmas (e.g., forcing independence vs. fostering dependence, normalizing pathological behavior vs. pathologizing normal developmental behavior, extremes in excessive leniency vs. authoritarian control).

Because of this, Fisher feels that a systems approach works best for counseling teenage clients who are in conflict with their parents. The intensive outpatient program at Fisher’s practice provides individual and group counseling for adolescents as well as group counseling for the parents.

While it’s vital for the teen to focus on decision-making, emotion regulation and other skills in counseling, sometimes it’s even more important for the parents to work on similar issues in counseling themselves, she adds. Not only are parents often unequipped with the tools they need to navigate conflict, but they sometimes carry bad experiences and patterns they picked up from their own parents and upbringing.

When working with teenage clients who are at odds with their parents, counselors are often given the difficult task of fostering growth in the adolescent while knowing they have little control over their home environment and their parents’ willingness — or lack of willingness — to work on their own unhealthy patterns and behaviors. Counselors must also strike a balance between fostering trust with the teen and maintaining client confidentially and accommodating parents who want to be kept in the loop about their child’s progress, perhaps even to the point of wanting to control or influence the process, notes Marcy Adams Sznewajs, an LPC who co-owns a group therapy practice in Beverly Hills, Michigan.

(For more on maintaining client confidentiality while managing parents’ requests to be kept in the loop about their teen’s progress in counseling, see the online exclusive article “Confidentiality comes first: Navigating parent involvement with minor clients.”)

“It’s very challenging to work with teenagers because of parents,” says Sznewajs, who often works with older teens (15+) and emerging adults. “It’s a dance between involving the parents, helping the parents parent better and maintaining the trust of the teenager, and there’s no formula that always works.”

Getting started

The counselors interviewed for this article agree that when counseling adolescents who are in conflict with their parents, an important first step is for the practitioner to offer an honest yet firm explanation on the limits of client confidentiality to both parties. This includes explaining that what is said in counseling sessions is confidential — even when the client is a minor — except in situations that necessitate protecting the client or others “from serious and foreseeable harm,” such as suicidal intent. (For more on this, see Standard B.2.a. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics at counseling.org/ethics).

This conversation is often not what the parents want to hear, Sznewajs admits, but it is important because it spells out the boundaries of what the counselor is obligated to tell the parents and reassures the adolescent that their privacy will be respected.

In addition to conversations about confidentiality and the counseling process, clinicians should conduct a thorough assessment, including screening for mental illnesses that can surface during adolescence, notes Martina Moore, an LPCC and counselor supervisor who is president and CEO of an outpatient treatment center for co-occurring disorders in Euclid, Ohio.

It’s not uncommon for family conflict to crescendo with the onset of a mental illness in a teenage child, says Moore, a faculty member in the clinical mental health counseling program at John Carroll University.

Challenges with concentration, irritability, sleep problems, and mood spikes and swings can be a normal part of adolescence, but they can also be symptoms of a developing mental illness, Moore says. In counseling, completing a thorough assessment before creating a treatment plan with teenage clients is important to gather more information and parse out symptoms that may be part of adolescent development and/or signs of mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders can be a particularly helpful resource in this process, she adds.

When counseling teens who are in conflict with their parents, getting the full picture during the assessment process often involves speaking with the parent(s) to learn what they see as the teen’s symptoms and challenges. However, there is no hard-and-fast method to do this, and the counselors interviewed for this article say that they vary their approach depending on the family dynamics and the client’s needs.

Moore and Solmonson say they often meet with the parents alone to hear their perspective as the teen begins counseling. It’s simply not helpful to have the client (the teen) in the room while the parents “rant” about the family’s situation, notes Moore, president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA.

“If there’s so much anger between them, it may be better to see them separately for a while to diffuse and process their anger and prepare them for a better way to come back into dialogue,” Solmonson says. “If I’m just playing referee, then everyone being in the same room is not effective.”

At the same time, having everyone in the room together — either at intake or later in therapy — can tell a counselor volumes about the family’s dynamics and issues that need addressing, adds Solmonson, an ACA member. “Sometimes it’s needed to get the whole picture of what’s going on,” she says.

Talking with the parents also creates an opportunity to ask them about their upbringing and things they have learned or internalized from their parents, Solmonson says. She asks parents what they did and didn’t like about the way their parents brought them up and what they want to emulate or keep from repeating.

This information is so valuable that Solmonson says she makes a point to have this conversation with the parent(s) of every teen she counsels.

Building better communication skills

When there is friction between parents and teenagers, communication is often the primary and most important skill they all need to build in counseling, Sznewajs notes. The relationship often naturally improves, she says, when a family begins to communicate better, truly listen and empathize with each other’s perspectives.

The counselors interviewed for this article suggest using the following techniques with parents and adolescents to strengthen their communication skills — and, in turn, their ability to tolerate and navigate disagreements.

Active listening: Sznewajs begins communication skill building with teens and parents by seeking the client’s permission to involve all of them in a session together. Once together, she thanks them for agreeing to work as a group and asks the family to name a minor conflict that they struggle with, such as squabbles over expecting the teen to drive a younger sibling to school. Because it’s a learning exercise, it’s best if they stay away from larger, high-stakes conflict, Sznewajs explains.

When she prompts the family to explain the disagreement, usually “everyone starts talking at once,” Sznewajs says. If this happens, she asks them to slow down and take turns so she can fully understand the situation and invites the teenager to start by explaining their perspective. Then, she prompts the parents to speak and give their perspective as well as reiterate what their child said.

Usually, the parents immediately jump to why the teen’s take is wrong rather than summarizing the teen’s experience. If this happens, Sznewajs will gently remind them that she wants to hear what they think their child’s perspective is, not whether it’s right or wrong, and explains that this response is common among families she works with. She also gives the adolescent the same assignment: Paraphrase your parents’ position without giving an opinion on what was said.

Sznewajs then continues the discussion by asking the teen and the parents to talk about how it felt when the other party paraphrased their experience. The aim, she explains, is to foster active listening skills and empathy toward the other party’s point of view.

“I emphasize that the important thing isn’t to agree but to feel heard,” Sznewajs adds.

Responding to “mistakes”: Parents often need to work on how they respond to their teen when what they see as a failure or mistake occurs. Sznewajs says she does this work either with the parents alone or with the family together, depending on what is appropriate and preferred by the client.

When a teenager or young adult makes a poor decision or has a slip-up such as failing a class, parents often default to anger, blame or “I told you so” lectures, Sznewajs says.

However, a better approach — and one that quells patterns of conflict — is to consider the full context of what happened and support the child so they can solve the problem on their own. Sznewajs says she often offers psychoeducation to parents on how becoming angry or interfering in the situation to circumvent conflict — such as paying for the child to retake a college class they failed — may not be helpful in the long run. Collaborating with the teen to find out what led to the situation and what they need to resolve it will keep them from feeling misunderstood and fueling further conflict, she stresses.

Instead of responding in anger, she coaches parents to use supportive statements such as “That must have been so stressful. How can we keep that from happening again?”

Sznewajs takes a truthful, direct approach with parents. She explains that their child “is trying to figure out life” and reminds them that mistakes happen. She may tell parents, for example, “Sometimes kids do dumb stuff, and they learn through trial and error, just like you did.” It’s often teaching parents to “be empathetic about the disaster that just occurred instead of angry,” Sznewajs says, “One of the most important pieces of work I do with families is helping them collaborate with their kids when they make a mistake rather than getting angry at them.”

It can be hard for parents to resist the urge to become involved in their child’s challenges, Sznewajs acknowledges, but allowing them to fail — within a supportive setting — furthers them on the path to becoming an autonomous adult. Teens who aren’t “allowed” to make mistakes because their parents respond with anger and blame often struggle to problem-solve and navigate challenges later in life, she says.

“The overarching goal [of counseling] with teenagers is to help them become autonomous, self-sufficient, confident adults,” Sznewajs notes. “And the best way to do that is to help them communicate effectively and support them as they learn to solve their own problems.”

Modeling respect: Counselors may need to work on self-awareness and patience with both teenage clients and their parents to bridge communication gaps. When parents and teenagers are at odds, both parties often come to counseling feeling disrespected, Sznewajs says. “Parents who demand respect [from children] but don’t give it back make for a pretty high-conflict home,” she adds.

Solmonson often stresses to parents that if they want respect during disagreements with their child, they’ll need to model that. For example, if a teen replies to a question in a sarcastic or disrespectful way, Solmonson coaches parents to respond by saying, “I’m going to give you a do-over. Do you need a minute to think about how to say that?” rather than blowing up in anger and furthering the conflict.

“If you [parents] raise your voice [at a child], you’re giving them permission to raise their voice back. If when they escalate, you escalate with them, you’re just fueling the fire,” Solmonson says. “Parents need to know how to handle things when feelings are big, and sometimes that means [saying,] ‘We’re going to take a minute apart’ and recognizing that ‘I don’t want to speak to you from the [emotionally escalated] place I’m at right now.’”

Taking a break: In moments of friction, parents often overcompensate and repeat themselves because they feel a child is not listening, Solmonson notes. It can be helpful to validate this experience for parents, she says, and explain that it’s a natural reflex to repeat yourself when you don’t get acknowledgment or a response from the person you’re talking to. But it doesn’t mean they’re not listening.

Solmonson also finds it can be helpful to establish a signal — such as making the timeout “T” signal used in sports with your hands — that either party can use when they need to take a break from a conversation or indicate that a topic is exhausted.

Fisher sometimes encourages families to use a signal or ring a bell she has available during in-person sessions to indicate that a member of the family is feeling invalidated or steamrolled during family conversations and disagreements.

The use of a “timeout” signal proved helpful  when Solmonson once worked with a family that had three adolescent sons. The mother “was very willing to work on becoming a better parent, but she would just talk and talk and talk” during disagreements, Solomon recalls. So the sons needed a tool to let their mom know, “OK, we’ve heard you. You’ve explained it enough. We understand.” 

It’s also important to emphasize to parents and teens that taking a break means walking away for a minute to calm yourself before returning to the conversation, Solmonson says. It doesn’t mean storming off to fume and feed your anger or leave the house entirely. A counselor can also equip both teens and parents with calming techniques and self-talk affirmations that focus on needing to hear what the other party has to say, she adds.

Part of this work , Solmonson notes, includes psychoeducation on the importance of “picking your battles.” She says she often tells parents and adolescents, “If you wait until something is really important to you and engage in a discussion on why it is important to you, you’re more likely to be listened to. But if you argue [about] every little point, the other person is going to stop listening.”

Reading nonverbals: Moore finds that she often needs to explain to parents that it can be a developmentally appropriate response for an adolescent to shut down when they become overwhelmed. During conflict, the reflex to stop talking and disengage can be one of a teen’s strongest tools, she says. Sometimes, they simply don’t have any more words.

Parents often need coaching on ways to respond to this behavior without losing their cool, says Moore, an ACA member. They may need to learn to gently ask their teen “Do you understand what I’m asking?” without expecting anything more than a nod. Moore sometimes serves as the moderator when families practice this technique in counseling.

“Children and adolescents have a built-in process to shut down and stop communicating [when overwhelmed], but their body language and their lack of words are telling us a lot,” Moore says. She has noticed that parents’ reaction is often to escalate, yell and become agitated. Instead, Moore teaches parents to notice their child’s body language and nonverbal cues and ask what it is telling them. 

“It tells you that what you’re doing is not working and you’ve hit a roadblock,” she says. “I have to teach parents that it’s not defiance. It’s gotten to a point when they [the adolescent] can’t go any further. They don’t have the capacity.”

Returning to the wise mind: Fisher works at a practice that uses dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and finds the method particularly helpful and appropriate for adolescent clients because of its focus on differentiating between human’s emotional and rational states of mind. DBT guides clients to identify and use their “wise mind,” which draws upon a middle ground of both emotional and rational thinking.

A person who activates their wise mind is able to acknowledge and respect the emotions they are feeling while viewing a situation logically, Fisher explains, which is really useful during conflict.

Emotion regulation and distress tolerance are core treatment targets in DBT, which can also help both teens and parents during times of stress and disagreement, Fisher notes. She says she often talks with parents and teens about the need to ride strong emotions like a wave, rather than reacting with impulsivity, and offers psychoeducation on how humans’ emotional reactions usually tend to recede within 30 minutes.

DBT also fosters skills that can help teens to rationally think through the urge to turn to negative coping mechanisms such as self-harm, Fisher adds. She equips teen clients with numerous age-appropriate mechanisms that they can use to take their minds off distress and invite calm, such as reciting Taylor Swift song lyrics or playing solitaire on their phone.

Observing family dynamics: Moore is trained in Gestalt therapy and pulls from that method to focus on communication with parents and teenage children who are in conflict. One exercise that Moore finds helpful involves inviting the entire family to a counseling session and having them sit in a circle facing each other. She gives them a discussion prompt and then sits outside of the circle as an observer. While the family discusses the prompt, Moore listens, observes the family’s dynamics and pauses the conversation to occasionally offer comments on some of the interactions and patterns she is noticing. The power in this technique, Moore says, is that it prompts the family to communicate naturally.

The goal, she continues, is to bring awareness to sticking points that the family may not be cognizant of and give them techniques and assignments to improve communication, which they first try in session and then later at home.

Moore used this method with a family she once worked with that had three adolescent children (one son and two daughters). While discussing the prompt, a disagreement arose, and the mother began to raise her voice. When that happened, the three children slumped down in their chairs and stopped talking, and the father started looking around the room, avoiding his family’s gaze, Moore recalls.

Moore paused the conversation and said, “I’m noticing that when conversations get a little heated, mom’s voice escalates and all three children slump down in their chairs, and dad is disconnected too.” Then she asked the group whether this is a usual pattern of communication in their home. The children immediately said “yes” and reported that when their mother starts to escalate, “there’s nothing we can say” to placate her.

This conversation helped the mother realize that she felt a need to “project dominance” and speak louder when she assumed her children were not listening to her. As a result, she was shutting down communication, Moore notes.

Moore had the family work on rerouting this pattern in session with her and as a homework assignment to try later at home. She asked the mother to work on being more aware of her body language, voice volume and the needs of her children during arguments. The children were challenged to try and empathize with why their mother felt she wasn’t being heard and find gentle ways to signal to their mother that she was becoming escalated during disagreements while remaining engaged.

Using humor: Counseling sessions may be the last place an adolescent wants to be, Fisher acknowledges. This can especially be the case if their parents told them they were going to counseling five minutes before the appointment to minimize complaints and disagreement from the teen.

She finds humor to be a great way to break the ice, build rapport with adolescent clients and make counseling “easier to digest,” as long as it’s appropriate and a good fit for the client. 

Recently, Fisher had an intake session with a family, and it soon became clear that the teen was completely turned off and “wasn’t having it.” She diffused the situation by naming what she was observing in a humorous way: “It seems like you don’t want to be here, and I’m just this weird person asking a bunch of questions today!” This statement validated what the teen was feeling and helped make the session seem less adversary, she recalls.

Fisher cautions counselors to be careful when using humor and know how to use it appropriately. “Don’t use it to minimize emotions that a client is feeling,” she says, “but humor can normalize discomfort and helps the counselor come across as nonthreatening.”

Coping with unhealthy dynamics 

When working with parents and teens who are at odds, counselors can be put in a difficult situation if the parents expect the practitioner to “fix” their child without doing their own work to change unhealthy dynamics in the home environment. The counselors interviewed for this article say this is a common scenario, so during intake (as well as whenever this issue becomes a challenge later in therapy), they make a point to talk with parents of teen clients about the need to be open to change themselves.

“It doesn’t matter how hard a kid is trying to make changes in their own life [via counseling] if change is not supported in their [home] environment. … I can do fabulous work with a child but sending them back into an unhealthy environment that hasn’t changed will be detrimental and they won’t make progress,” Solmonson says. “Unless you [the counselor] can make some changes to the child’s environment, you’re not going to be as successful as you can possibly be.”

It’s vital for practitioners who work with teens to tailor their counseling approach to be sensitive to this lack of autonomy, Sznewajs stresses. Even older teens who work, attend college or live away from home often remain financially dependent on their parents, she adds.

It can be a challenge when a client’s home environment remains problematic, Sznewajs says, but “it informs my therapy so much. I can see what the problems are at home and what my client needs to cope because change likely won’t happen.”

When a teenage client’s parents are resistant, unsuccessful or unable to make changes in family dynamics, Sznewajs often helps the client shift their focus from feeling frustrated and complaining about toxic patterns at home to finding ways to cope and build small pieces of autonomy within their situation. She guides the client to explore and identify aspects of their home life that they have to tolerate while finding ways to manage and be true to themselves without stoking conflict and increasing turmoil.

She uses acceptance and commitment therapy to prompt them to identify what they can and cannot control. Techniques that help teenage clients identify and explore their values, Sznewajs says, can also be helpful and give them things to focus on that are within their control.

Fisher uses DBT to help adolescent clients identify their core values. It can be helpful to have the client explore what they want in their life and what is missing as well as how their values might conflict with or be similar to ones their parents hold, she explains.

“A lot of this work is managing situations that aren’t ideal, which is good training for real [adult] life,” Sznewajs adds. “We are not always in situations that are what you want them to be.”

 

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Read an online companion piece to this article, “Curfew is when?! Helping parents and teens see eye to eye on boundaries and rules.” And search for articles with the tag “teenager” at ct.counseling.org for more on the nuances of counseling adolescent clients.

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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