Teenage Conflict Resolution Skills

Fists of conflict collide

By Samurai Dad    

Conflict is the expression of differences between people. Disagreements are a fact of life, but often uncomfortable for both teens and adults. Unless we teach strategies to resolve emotionally intense situations, fear of facing conflicts or reacting to them inappropriately often creates bigger problems. The world is full of people trying to deal with the by-products of unresolved conflicts.  

How can you teach your teenager conflict resolution skills? Teach them to read clues from a situation to identify the real source of the conflict. Who is involved? Where is it coming from? Separate the conflict from other feelings that seem related, but are not. Teens can often resolve a disagreement by evaluating the needs of both sides and setting boundaries.

As a parent, we know that teens will benefit from accepting, embracing and resolving conflict. Learning to work out differences develops their courage and problem-solving skills. Sharing conflict resolution strategies with your teen is a gift that will pay dividends over their lifetime.  By internalizing this process, teenagers gain self-advocacy skills and strengthen respect for ideas of others. We need more of that in the world.

The Power of “Why?” in Conflict Resolution

If you’re a Parent Samurai reader, you know that I bring my project management background to this parenting gig. After all, people are people and we share common challenges at every age. Conflict is one of those core problems with which all humans struggle.

Take this approach I learned from Japanese business culture, for example. It emphasizes a technique called “genin wo mitsukeru“, which translates as a process of getting to the root of a problem or discovering the root cause. Sakichi Toyoda, Japan’s answer to Henry Ford, developed the “5 Whys” technique in the 1930s.

So how can a strategy developed to optimize Japanese manufacturing help your kid? It’s a fair question. Although the technique was created for industry, it’s also useful for working through problems in a teen’s daily life.  

Teens, like all humans, are skilled at camouflaging uncomfortable issues, even from themselves. The focus of the 5 Whys is on self-reflection to remove illusions, rationalizations and other human deflection techniques until the real issue is identified.

Start by identifying the problem – and try to keep it factual.  Then, ask the question, “Why did this happen?” Reflect on the original problem and propose an answer.  

Building on the answer to the first question, dig a little deeper. Question that answer with another “Why?” Repeat this inquiry until the root cause of the conflict is revealed. It’s deceptively simple, but it works.

truth puzzleWhen introducing this process to a teen, take it slow, and try to incorporate the technique into a casual conversation.

Here’s an example of the 5 Whys technique in action to help sort out a conflict between two teen friends.  One of them is looking to understand their differences and his friend’s motivations:

Hey, want to walk downtown?

Sure, remember last time? It was great (dank). The only part I didn’t like was going into Vaper’s Den.

Why? I go there all the time now. The owner and his friends let me hang out all afternoon.

Yeah, but, I don’t vape. I don’t want to stay there. Why don’t you run in, get what you need and then we can go to the Army & Navy store? Then we can go to Michael’s house.

You’re such a kid. Grow up. Did your Mom tell you-you can’t go to Vaper’s Den? She treats you like such a baby. I’m going. Come if you want. I don’t know why I’m friends with you. Later!

First, good for this teen! He assertively stood his ground and expressed his needs.

He likely feels betrayed in that exchange by someone he considers a close friend. That close friend just disregarded his request and dumped him to spend an afternoon in a giant juicy-fruit smelling cloud of vapor. This is a perfect time for this teen to learn something about this “friend” and about himself.

The journey down the path of the 5 Whys begins:

Why do I feel so mad at Colin?

I was really looking forward to walking downtown. We had so much fun last time. I could have gone to the movies with my Dad and brother to see Thor. He knows I don’t vape and really don’t want to hang out in a dark store all day.

When we talked about going on the bus and planned to meet up, why didn’t he tell me that’s what he wanted to do?

Colin knows I wouldn’t go if he told me his plan. He’s probably still nervous about going there. It’s kinda new.

Why did he tell ME to grow up? He’s the one that’s nervous.

I’m not going because I just don’t want to hang out in Vaper’s Den all day. Yeah, my mom would freak if she knew I went there. But that’s not why I didn’t want to go. He knows his parents wouldn’t like it either. That’s it. He’s afraid of getting caught there alone and his parents finding out he vapes.

Why does he act like my friend but when I’m not interested in what he wants to do, he abandons me?

I should tell Colin how that made me feel. How I’ll never want to go hang out at Vaper’s Den. How I feel like the only reason he wanted me to go was that if he got caught he would be able to share the blame. If we’re going to be friends, he needs to be honest with me.

This kid got to the truth in 4 whys, but you get the idea.

Keeping Cool in the Face of Conflict

Hammer and BoltThere are a variety of ways we can react to conflict, but by far, the most common responses are avoidance or anger. And neither are particularly helpful in trying to resolve a problem. When there are big emotions charging a situation, it only takes one “spark” to ignite an escalation in the conflict.

How can we expect our teen, whose executive planning ability has not developed fully,  to keep their self-control in the face of anger? The answer lies in the upfront preparation.

Barbara Markway, author of 20 Expert Tactics for Dealing with Difficult People shares these tips which can help your teen reflect and prepare some ready responses to inevitable conflict situations.

  • Recognize that anger by itself is a negative and empty emotionunless channeled into motivating productive action, it’s simply wasted energy.
  • Know your hot buttons – what makes you angry? This insight into your own incendiary triggers can give you more self-control when you need it most.
  • Change the focus away from the cause stimulating the anger – the “hot button”. Focus on breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Reframe the angry feeling – assume that the other person did not have hostile intent toward you.
  • Advocate for yourself. Express your feelings and needs positively using “I” statements in a non-blaming way
  • Set limits and boundaries – Respect goes both ways.  If another person involved in this conflict is being rude or disrespectful.  Calmly tell them “I feel you’re being disrespectful to me. Please don’t talk to me like that.”
  • Don’t return anger with anger. Wait until the person takes a breath and then speak. Raising your voice, pointing your finger, or speaking disrespectfully to the other person will add fuel to an already heated situation. Don’t try to talk over the person.

The idea here is to contain a conflict by refusing to feed off negativity and anger. This is the hardest part for the person who identifies so closely with being right all the time and becomes unyielding. Or, for a competitive person like myself, we need to make sure it’s not about winning the argument or conflict.

Self-advocacy for Teens

Self-advocacy in adolescence is a balancing act that needs repeated practice to get it right. Teens need to be careful in how they advocate for their needs so that they’re not being perceived as aggressive. They should always strive for assertive instead.

Supergirl of Conflict

 What an Assertive Teen Looks Like, Sounds Like and Acts Like

Assertive teens:

  • Are self-aware.
  • Speak up respectfully and don’t let others speak for them.
  • Use courtesy and clear communication.  
  • Carry themselves in a way that helps people see their self-respect.
  • Make their needs known and are willing to hear other perspectives.
  • Pick the right time and audience to sort out an issue.  
  • May need to stand their ground (respectfully) if the conflict is pushing in a direction contrary to their needs.
  • Strive for a win-win whenever possible.
  • Know when to defer a discussion until another, better time.
Finding Common Ground

Two boys in conflictReaching common ground is acknowledging the conflict, identifying the areas in common and differences.  To reach that point, here are some tips that will help your teen advance from conflict toward resolution:  

  • Don’t make assumptions about what the other person is feeling or thinking.   
  • Use active listening to understand the information and tone of the person’s message.  
  • Reflect your understanding of their and your positions by calmly stating them back to the other person.  
  • Talk about the areas of agreement.
  • Talk about the differences.
  • Propose some next steps or compromises that can bring the differences together.  This is also a time for listening to the other person’s ideas.
  • Sometimes, as a final position, you may agree to disagree – at the very least, you have reached an understanding with each other.

Your teen will always have conflict as long as he or she lives with people. And let’s face it: difficult people with competing agendas will always be around. That’s why equipping your teen to work through the inevitable conflicts of life is one of the best gifts that you can give.

Those powerful tools of conflict resolution (listening, understanding, reflection and critical thinking) are just the beginning.  Your teen will also grow through increased self-awareness (what they value), ability to read a situation or another person, and understanding of others’ needs/values. These skills will serve them well throughout their lifetime.

Related Questions

What are the Hidden Costs of  Avoiding Conflict?

The time to begin learning conflict resolution as a skill is when kids are little. The real test of self-advocacy comes in middle school and beyond when more autonomy puts teens in the direct path of friends like Colin who want to take them off-track.

A teen that’s unprepared or unwilling to face conflict may face hidden costs that impact future interactions and relationships, including:

  • Passive aggression – acting indirectly aggressive toward others as a defense by being uncooperative, stubborn, undermining.
  • Procrastination – putting off or delaying uncomfortable interactions.
  • Passivity – Inability to express or advocate for personal needs or diminishing your needs for someone else’s needs. Teens with a passive approach to self-advocacy often get swept along with a crowd of strong-willed peers.
  • Inability to express feelings – tamping down emotions until resentment builds to the point of an outburst.
  • Sadness – feeling unheard or like what you have to say is unimportant.
  • Increasing fear and avoidance of conflict.

Boy at lake alone

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