Adolescence is the season where teens first begin to find a balance between autonomy and attachment. It’s a time when teens often begin to crave more independence. This crucial time is difficult to navigate and families may notice themselves stumbling into increased conflict with their adolescent children.
The good news is that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a vital part of the maturing process; it’s how your children learn to navigate the differences that are guaranteed with growing up. Although most families wouldn’t encourage conflict, there is a normal, healthy level of tension that arises when individuals’ values clash. But how do you address conflict when it’s uncharacteristically frequent, unmanageable, and detrimental to your family?
It takes two to tango
Imagine two professional dance partners. Dancing together requires participation from both Partner A and Partner B. What happens if Partner A suddenly stops? Partner B cannot finish the dance alone. What if Partner B abruptly walks off of the dance floor? Their other half is not able to complete the routine by themself. It takes two to tango- yet it only takes one person to interrupt the dance.
Likewise, family conflicts involve at least two people. While both parties can intensify a disagreement, only one person has to decide to stop the argument, much like a dance partner stopping their routine. Perhaps you’ve heard about parents “picking their battles.” That’s when a parent has discerned whether to engage in conflict or let it dissipate.
What causes conflict between teens and parents?
Numerous arguments can occur within a family. Whether it’s about a messy bedroom or truancy in school, bullying siblings or ignoring chores, all families experience disagreements and bouts of conflict. Perhaps your teen is so much like you, or maybe they incessantly push the boundaries. Here are some of the core motivations that stimulate conflict between teens and parents:
Authority: During childhood, the parent has authority. This means they can command their child to obey. But adolescence involves consent; the teen can decide whether or not he will obey the parent. When he resists, conflict happens. He challenges parental control to establish independence and fights for his freedom.
In this situation, parents have a unique opportunity to model healthy patterns of conflict such as listening, respectfully demonstrating curiosity about choices made, healthy negotiating, and eventually coming to an agreement. Even parental decisions to hold firm rules in certain arenas while being flexible in other arenas can be a positive, adaptive way to deal with adolescent-parental conflict.
Competition: Although the conflict in your home may feel like a trigger to World War III, sibling rivalry has existed since the beginning of time. Sibling clashes are typical as kids begin to test-drive their power, express their emotions, establish dominance, and even challenge each other because they’re bored.
Let your kids fight, but be sure to monitor them. Since this may expand into teen-parent conflict, it is your job to hold each of your kids accountable for their words and actions, support the activities where they all get along, and encourage their individual personalities and talents. They may not be young and clingy, but teenagers still value one-on-one time with parents.
Cooperation: It’s tough for two-year-olds to share their toys, and it’s often a challenge for teenagers to share their things as well. Who gets to pick what to watch on television? Why are my siblings’ chores easier than my (teenage) tasks? Why isn’t this divided fairly? As a parent, you’ve probably split up your kids to avoid these mishaps before they even have a chance to occur. But, in the end, your adolescent can turn the tables on you (even though the conflict originated with a sibling). “You always let little brother decide what to watch on TV” or “give sister easier chores than me” or “treat me unfairly.”
In this situation, it can be helpful to discern whether your child is trying to manipulate you; perhaps they are demanding justification, or attempting to send you on a guilt trip. This is a great opportunity to offer your teen feedback about how you perceive their communication while gently reminding them that you will not participate until everybody can be assertive. Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness aims to provide all clients with content addressing these barriers to communication, and offer opportunities for individuals and families to learn about communication styles.
Emotions: Hurt, loneliness, sadness, anger, fear, shame, guilt, and gladness are the core eight emotions. Conflict with parents can incite certain emotions or provide children an opening where they may express emotions. For example, if you ask your teen to complete her chores and she responds by yelling, you can ask her what’s really causing her anger. Likely, it’s rooted in a previous experience at school, or emotions that she doesn’t know how to adequately express in the moment.
Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness provides all students and their families with skills and tools that lead to stronger communication. These methods are a way to help families practice emotional immediacy while simultaneously slowing down communication. They are practiced repeatedly while your child is in the program, and we encourage all families to continue using the tools as they move forward in their journey together, even after leaving BRTW.
Similarity: Have you ever looked at your kid and seen yourself? Although these similarities form a mutual bond and deep understanding of one another, they can also spark a head-on collision. When you and your teen are psychologically similar, power struggles and conflict abound. Outside of a disagreement, express how you are going to work on your parent-teen relationships, and ask your teen to hold you accountable.
Values: Teenagers heavily value their beliefs. They don’t want their parents to infringe upon their independent values. This is an integral part of their individual identity formation. This could be a season where bad boys, outlaws, rebellious peers, and negative icons of popular culture can influence your child.
Although you disagree, remind your adolescent that you cannot change their mind or shift their beliefs. However, you are responsible for their behaviors and work ethic, so it’s fair to offer more supervision and intentional support during this season.
The impact of family conflict on adolescents
Family conflict is inevitable. Allow it to foster maturity, social skills, empathy, and strengthen family bonds. What’s not included inside the norms of family conflict, however, are unnecessary disagreements, extreme rage, crumb-like triggers, and unmanageable arguments.
If your family is experiencing an unhealthy level of family conflict, the impacts could be detrimental on your teenager.
Adolescents who have low levels of empathy tend to experience more family conflict.
Family conflict directly increases a teen’s depressive symptoms or disorders.
When a teen girl age 11-13 experiences extensive family conflict, she is more likely to abuse alcohol as an adolescent.
Young adolescents who are more aggressive and less compromising during conflicts have poor parent-teen relationships characterized by low intimacy.
When parents and teens are in conflict, the adolescent is more likely to be aggressive toward peers and engage in delinquent behaviors.
If an adolescent faces conflict with both parents and best friends, then the teen often experiences poor social functioning.
An increase in family conflict decreases a teens levels of physical activity.
However, scientific research also indicates a few protective factors and encouraging results of intentional family relationships and cohesive leisure time:
Having an emotionally intimate relationship with the parent of the opposite gender in early adolescence (around age 11) protects against adolescent alcohol abuse.
When parents learn how to handle parent-adolescent conflicts well, the teen is less likely to be antisocial, abuse alcohol, or hang out with rebellious peers.
Teens who experience bipolar disorder are more likely to reduce their symptoms in a low-conflict family.
Families who negotiate restrictions intentionally interact together and spend chunks of quality time as a family experience higher levels of satisfactory family leisure time.
How Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness can help your teen navigate family conflict.
Teenagers are dancing by themselves, ignorant to the fact that they need a parent to be their partner during this season. The back-and-forth conflicts, the constant give-and-take disagreements, the waning similarities, and the growing differences can be tough to accept. That’s where Blue Ridge Wilderness Therapy steps in.
Our therapists challenge each student to explore and identify their family’s unique strengths, values, and spiritual foundations. Although your teen is enrolled in our program, parents are participants too!
Families learn to work through anger and hurt, using new communication skills to process old wounds and establish a healthy foundation for changed relationships. Our extensive toolshed of skills to help address family issues include family sculptures, family systems work, reading assignments, webinars on the family, family therapy over the phone and in the field during family visits, and coordination of the therapist with the home family therapist to ensure an excellent continuum of care.
Family Programs at Blue Ridge
Kayla Davenport is one of our Family Therapists at Blue Ridge. She explains the role of our Family Therapists, the benefits and necessity of involving the family in the treatment process, and how parents can invest in their students’ treatment process:
Often, I’m asked, “So, what is your role again?” or “You don’t have direct contact with my child? Do we need to speak to you every week?”
Whether you are willing to jump into family therapy head first or you have some hesitation, there is a reason it is part of what we provide at BRTW.
Family therapy is offered for your benefit.
How does it benefit you when it takes another hour out of your week, adds “homework,” and can be, at times, uncomfortable?
First, you get more return on your investment with wilderness therapy when you engage in the process. Research suggests that families who engage in the process see longer lasting positive change with their child and family.
Second, as you learn what your child is learning, parents often feel more connected to their child and what he/she is experiencing by knowing the same theories, how to apply them, and even the general wilderness lexicon.
Although there are many more reasons, the third I’ll mention here is that parents can regain that sense of happiness and hope which is often lost in the chaos of a family in crisis.
The family is a system
Murray Bowen, developer of the Family System Theory, says the family system has 6 key elements:
Family systems are an organized whole, and the elements within it are interdependent;
Patterns in a family are circular rather than linear;
Family systems maintain stability in their patterns of interactions (homeostasis);
Family patterns change over time;
Individuals in families are simultaneously members of many subsystems; and
Boundaries reflect the implicit rules that govern family subsystem interactions.
These elements are quite simple if you think of your family as a team or orchestra whose members all rely on each other to perform effectively and efficiently. If one member of that team is working on self-improvement, it does benefit the entire team… but if two or more members work on self-improvement, imagine how much more the team could achieve!
Wilderness therapy is a time of transition for your family.
I tell each family I work with to use the time their child is in the wilderness as a time of transition. Transition comes from the Latin word transire, which means “go across”.
Imagine standing on a shoreline and your child is on an island that you can see just along the horizon. You desperately want your family to be whole again.
Do you allow your child to build a bridge alone while the family stands, waits, and watches?
Or do you pick up the materials you’ve been given and work to build a bridge that allows you to show your child your investment in reaching them, and then meet on solid middle ground?
I would like to believe that most would select the second option and meet on that sacred middle ground.
Use this time of transition to meet your child in the middle and show your investment in their life, health, and healing. In this process, you will display to them that they are not the only one doing the work.
Maybe for you, that transition looks like implementing a daily self-care routine now that your child is in a safe place. Maybe your transition is to reconnect – whether with yourself, your spouse, your other children, or even work. Your transition could look like gaining control and parental power back in your home and family system.
Whatever your transition is, your BRTW family therapist is here to help. Many families do not know how to start or what they need. It is easy to see where your child needs to improve, but often very difficult to turn the microscope onto ourselves, our homes, our communication, and our behavior.
Opening your mind to a family systems approach can aid in finding empathy and understanding, implementing assertive communication in your home, redefining your family culture, and interrupting any circular family patterns that are not beneficial.
How to invest in my child’s treatment process
So, how can you invest in this process? Here are some tips:
Diligently schedule calls with your family therapist each week.
Attend the family workshop and schedule a time to visit your child when therapeutically appropriate.
Trust in “the process.” This does not mean not to question the process and why recommendations are made for edits on your letters, homework assignments, aftercare, etc. Instead, be curious, ask questions, and then trust the team who is working diligently for your family.
Learn what your child is practicing in the woods and then implement it in your home. This could be with your other children, your spouse or child’s other parent, or with your friends, coworkers, and extended family.
Reach out to other families when you need it and return the favor after you settle in.
Truly process your child’s letters and feedback. Ask questions, process with your family therapist and your child’s primary therapist, and put yourself in your child’s place to gain perspective.