Varieties of Family Conflict in Adolescence

Parents should be prepared for more family conflict during adolescence

Posted Aug 19, 2013

It’s time to revisit conflict again.

As the adolescent pushes for more individuality and independence, there is usually more conflict from increased differences within the family system. There is more conflict with parents (differences over freedom and responsibilities, for example), and with siblings (differences over competition or dominance, for example.)

This is not a bad thing; it is a necessary thing. Conflict is, after the all, the process through which people confront and resolve inevitable human differences between them. So conflict should not come as a surprise; it should be expected. It should not be punished; it is should be understood.

In particular, it can help to understand that although family conflicts in adolescence can arise from various causes, they are similar in this. All conflicts are collaborative. That means that any conflict is the outcome of a mutual agreement between opposing parties to jointly contest some point of disagreement between them.

It takes two to create a conflict, but only one to stop it. As in an argument, each side shares some responsibility for the debate. If a parent, for example, wants to stop the endless arguments with his adolescent, he can simply withdraw his collaboration and refuse to argue back. So any conflict parents get into with an adolescent is partly their choice. Consequently, most parents become selective. For example, while they tend not to dispute differences in musical tastes, they often choose to contest whether a messy teenage room needs to be picked up or not. Parents learn to choose their battles based on what issues at disagreement matter to them most.

Now consider just a few common causes for family conflict during adolescence.

CONFLICTS ABOUT COOPERATION. Conflicts from cooperation arise when adolescents share something in common, and the management of that sharing is in disagreement. For example, with two teenagers sharing one TV, who gets to decide what they both will watch? Or, with both assigned to clean up the home, which tasks fall to which sibling when some tasks are perceived as easier than others? Cooperation creates the opportunity for a whole series of conflicts: Who gets to do what? Who gets to get what? Who goes first? How to divide things out? How is this division to be fairly decided?

Put siblings into a cooperative situation with each other and a lot of conflict can result. For this reason, sometimes to avoid these conflicts, the parent can dictate how the cooperation is to be decided – how turns will be taken when deciding what TV program to watch, how the different housekeeping tasks will be assigned. Notice, however, that although conflicts between siblings around these matters of cooperation may have been reduced in this case, teenager conflicts with the parent may have increased over issues of perceived unfairness by the deciding adult: “You always give my brother the easy jobs!”

CONFLICTS ABOUT EMOTION. Not only can family conflict become an emotionally arousing experience when frustration with opposition leads to anger at being denied, but conflict can also be sought as an opening to express hurt or anger from experience elsewhere. For example, there is the adolescent who is feeling hurt from being teased at school who comes home itching to pick a fight with a younger sibling to get her hurt feelings out. When she succeeds in feeling better by getting her younger brother feeling worse, she is confronted by the parent to whom she uses feeling upset as her excuse. Now the parent restates the fundamental rule of family conflict: Safety. Conflict, and anger in conflict, must never be used as an excuse to do another family member verbal, emotional, or physical harm. “Well I only said that because I was angry!” explains the teenager. “Then we need to talk about finding another way to manage your anger,” replies the parent.

CONFLICTS ABOUT AUTHORITY. When a young person separates from childhood and enters adolescence they leave the age of command (when they believed parents could make them obey) and enter the age of consent (when they now know that compliance with parental rules is entirely up to them.) By passive resistance (delay) and active resistance (argument) teenagers increasingly push against parental control to live more on their own terms until by the end of adolescence, they have supplanted parents as their own authority and established independence. Along the way, contesting parental authority is partly how they fight for freedom to become their own authority, leading their own lives at the end when they have succeeded in putting parents out of the active parenting business. In this process of continual challenge, parents must model the tools of constructive conflict they want the young person to learn (speaking up, listening, debating, negotiating, reaching agreement, and always observing the rule of safety) that the young person, through formative practice, will bring to later relationships. Acknowledging their authority, parents might explain: “We will be firm where we believe we have to, we will be flexible where we can, and we will try our best to know the difference.”

CONFLICTS ABOUT COMPETITION. The closer in age, and if they are the same sex, the more conflict from competition there is likely to be between siblings (unless they are identical twins who value their intimate sense of shared personhood.) Normal sibling rivalry serves their growth needs for testing power, establishing differences, ventilating emotion, and relieving boredom (when they can find nothing better to do.) Conflict doesn’t mean they can’t get along; it is a normal part of how they get along. This said, parents not only need to accept this conflict, they need to monitor it too. Holding both parties responsible for the conflict, parents hold them separately accountable for their conduct in the conflict to ensure that the rule of safety is observed. When it is not, that party now has some business with parents to discuss. To reduce the need for competition and attendant conflict between rival siblings, parents need to support compatibility where they can (ways the siblings can enjoy being together), they need to encourage differentiation where they can (ways each sibling can develop independent interests, associations, and identities from each other), and they need to create separate special times for each sibling with each parent (ways that both can have uncontested, non-comparative, individual contact time with each parent.)

CONFLICTS ABOUT SIMILARITY. It is very common for parents to notice psychological similarities between themselves and each child. Oftentimes these similarities will be beneficial, creating a kind of mutual understanding, compatibility, even a bond between them like when they both are highly athletic, or very socially outgoing, or love the outdoors, or are of a quiet and studious nature. Sometimes, however, these similarities can put parent and child, and particularly parent and adolescent, on a collision course in conflict like when both are short-tempered, or strong willed, or extremely stubborn, or must have the last word. Now the severity of any conflict between them is intensified by the psychological similarity they share and the power struggles that result.

In this situation, the parent must take the lead and use that similarity connection to corrective effect. At a peaceful time, not when in conflict, the parent needs to describe how they go head to head in disagreement because they are so alike. Then the parent can declare how he or she is going to work on changing the behaviors these controlling traits dictate in order to open up more effective avenues of working differences out and getting along. “For openers, instead of interrupting to insist on what I want or arguing to defend my position, I’m going to listen to what you have to say.” Now maybe a new pattern of similarity in conflict can be established.

CONFLICTS ABOUT VALUES. Personal values are pretty intractable. They are historically embedded beliefs that, after running out of reasons to defend them, a person still fervently supports. In general, the child tends to incorporate parental values as a way of remaining to close to them, committing to their views about what matters, about what is right and wrong. Come adolescence, however, as the young person sheds her childhood past to create room for independent and individual growth, identification can shift to embrace a more counter cultural definition, for example modeled by rebellious peers and outlaw icons of the popular culture. Now a new set of influences can take hold, some of which can be antithetical to values that parents still hold. For example, the child who like her parents believed that achieving high grades was very important can decide in early adolescence to resist the adult system, care less about school performance, and just work enough to get by.

This is no time for parents to get into a value conflict with their bright daughter about the importance or lack of importance of maintaining effort at school. The more they argue values, the more firmly wed to her new value position their daughter will likely become. So instead, they just stick to the behaviors that their values dictate and say something like this. “From what you have said, it sounds like you don’t see much point in school right now, and we are not in the business of changing your mind or beliefs. We are, however, responsible for supervising your behavior and we expect you to continue working hard enough to make the A’s and B’s that you have shown yourself capable of earning before and that will benefit you in the future. To this end, we will be giving your more supervisory support to help make sure you get all your homework done.”

Witnessing the back and forth, give-and-take exchange of verbal conflict in families with adolescents is like watching steps in a dance of disagreement around continuing differences in wants, beliefs, and understandings. Parent and adolescent partners follow and lead each other by talking and listening, by discussing and debating, by persuading and bargaining, sometimes reaching resolution, sometimes not.

And the dance goes on.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) In addition, see my book about family conflict, “Stop the Screaming.” Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescents and Managing the Growing Complexity of Life