From Conflict to Connection: Engaging With Your Teenager
by Karin Sasser

Let’s face it: having conversations with our tweens and teens looks a lot different than when they were younger. Gone are the days when they returned from school or an event and couldn’t wait to fill us in on the details. At times, it may feel like we are thankful when we get a short sentence as an answer to a question rather than a grunt or a curt “yes,” “no,” “nothing,” or “I dunno.” Yet, now more than ever, we want and need to engage with our middle and high school kids. We may no longer have as much control over their lives and their choices, but we need to contend to continue to have influence. 

Merriam-Webster defines contend as “to strive or vie in contest or rivalry or against difficulties.” I don’t know about you, but for me sometimes parenting does feel like a battle. During adolescence, our teens are going through the process of individuation in which they are working toward becoming independent and autonomous. They can become very self-focused and opinionated. It is not always easy to have calm and rational conversations with people with these traits. If I’m honest, there have been many times in which I have found myself just having to walk away and not engage in a conversation that is going south fast. While this tactic might be warranted at times, we can’t avoid all difficult conversations with our teens until they reach young adulthood.


So, what can we do to have healthy conversations with our teens? The first step is recognizing that, while at times maddening, this process of individuation is normal. We have to take a lot of deep breaths and try not to take what our child says to us and the tone in which they say it too personally. And honestly, we have to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to remain calm and patient so that we do not escalate any conflicts. It is difficult, but as a parent there are times when we have to reflect Christ’s character to our kids through humility. Sometimes, we have to let go of being right, even when we are right, to preserve the relationship. I am not saying we abdicate all of our authority or responsibilities to disciple our kids, but in order to diffuse difficult conversations, we may have to let some things go.


Another step to having healthy conversations with our teens is to remember timing is everything. Some conversations may have to happen at a particular moment. Others might be better off happening at the right time and right place. Finding a time when your child is not hungry or tired and is in a pretty good mood can help set the stage for smoother conversations.


Healthy conversations are ones in which both parties feel heard. That means we have to be willing to listen. James 1:19 tells us, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” Again, this is another one of those instances in which we need to rely on the Holy Spirit. We need to listen without preparing our response in our heads as our teen talks to us. As a matter of fact, there are times when we might need to have two separate conversations. The first in which we simply listen so that our child feels heard, and the second in which we can share our perspective on the topic. Is it possible to be open-minded and take into consideration our teen’s viewpoint while still being true to what we believe needs to be said or done?


If, or more likely when, things escalate, we need to remember we are the adults. We need to do what we can to diffuse the situation. If our teen is speaking to us in a disrespectful manner, it is appropriate to say something like, “I understand you are upset, but it is not ok for you to speak to me that way.” It’s also ok to delay the conversation until a time when cooler heads prevail. Sometimes, walking away from a conflict is the healthiest choice.


One phrase that is helpful for maintaining healthy conversations with our teenagers is connection over content. In order for us to have influence over our teens and for them to respect what we have to say, we have to have a healthy relationship with them. The condition of our relationship with our kids is key to having healthy conversations. If our kids feel connected to us, trust us, and believe we are for them, they are more likely to be open and accepting of what we have to say. I remember a mentor once telling me that we need to parent our teens in such a way that we will have a healthy relationship with them when they are in their twenties. It’s a good reminder that some of the struggles that we have in communicating with them during adolescence will pass. It’s not worth ruining our relationship with them just to assert our authority and insist on obedience at all costs. Having healthy conversations and rationally explaining our viewpoints while being open to hearing theirs will go a long way in preserving our relationships with our kids well into their adult years.