When was the last time you were at odds with your teen? Your child wanted to do something that you considered unacceptable. You both felt justified, producing an argument or struggle that had the potential to damage your relationship.

Most conflicts can be resolved in a way that allows both you and your child to get what you need. The key is for both of you to back off your initial demands, focus on the needs that are driving the demands, and then creatively search for ways to address both your needs at the same time.

The next time you’re nose-to-nose with your child, instead of giving in or relying on your parental authority to get your way, consider this classic win-win approach. It involves these four steps…

Step 1. Ask about your child’s need. Why does she want what she wants? What need does this fulfill? Listen carefully to what she says, and then check to make sure you understand.

Mom: “This rock concert is over a hundred miles from here! Why is this such a big deal? Can’t you guys do something else?”
Daughter: “Everybody’s been talking about the concert for months, and all my friends are going. I’ve got to go.”
Mom: “So it means a lot to you to share this experience with your friends.”
Daughter: “Yes!

Step 2. Explain your own need. Not your initial demand, but the need that it satisfies. Check to be sure you were understood.

Mom: “I hear you. But will you listen to why I have a problem with it?”
Daughter: “Okay…”
Mom: “I want you to have good times, and I know friends are important. But I need to keep you safe until you’re old enough to leave home and make all your own choices. The concert is in Pittsburg, a hundred miles away. At night. The car will be packed with excited teenagers, and whoever is driving will be distracted and tired driving home.”
Daughter: “We’ll be careful. You know my friends. They aren’t the wild and crazy type. We’ll be all right.”
Mom: “I know that’s the plan, but I’m not comfortable with all the risk factors.”
Daughter: “Oh, Mom, I’ll just die if I can’t go with them!”

Step 3. Brainstorm win-win solutions. Without further discussion, critique or justification, together create a list of new options that will satisfy both your need and your child’s need at the same time.

Mom: “Honey, I do want you to have fun with your friends, and this rock concert sounds like great fun. You don’t want to be left out when your friends are out having a wonderful time, right?”
Daughter: “Right!”
Mom: “And I need to know you’re going to be safe, not out in harm’s way.”
Daughter: “I’ll be safe.”
Mom: “That’s my need. So what I’d like to do is for both of us to step outside the box for a couple minutes and think of some ways that you can have a great time with your friends, and I can be assured it’s not a risky situation. A way to meet both our needs at the same time.”
Daughter: “I can’t think of anything.”
Mom: “Work with me a little bit. I’ll go first. There’s lots of cool stuff to do around here. How about you tell your friends about my concerns and suggest something local. We could spend a day at the lake. I’ll pay.”
Daughter: “I don’t like it. They’ll go without me”
Mom: “Okay, but now it’s your turn. What else would meet both our needs?”
Daughter: “I don’t want to do anything else, Mom. Sherry’s parents already bought the tickets.”
Mom: “Okay, I’ll suggest something else. How about I go with you and you let me drive?”
Daughter: “Oh, Mom! They’ll think you’re a chaperone or something!”
Mom: “Well think of something else. It’s your turn.”
Daughter: “What if you hire a limo? It would be expensive, but we’d be safe.”

Step 4. Jointly identify which options are acceptable to both of you. Discuss their pros and cons and select the one most acceptable to both of you.

Mom: “You know what? That’s an interesting suggestion. It does address my concerns. But yes, the expense. I tell you what. If it means this much to you, how about we split the cost of the limo? I’ll advance you your allowance to cover your half. What do you say?”
Daughter: Long pause. “Okay, mom, that works for me.”
Mom: “I think I can sell that to your dad.”

In this process, you don’t bargain or compromise. You don’t give up something to get something. Both parties get what they need.

Some tips… 

  • When you realize your child wants something you can’t live with, as the parent take responsibility for initiating the four-step conflict resolution process.
  • Use patience, consideration and tact while listening to your child and describing your own needs.
  • Encourage your child to listen effectively while resolving the conflict.

Does this approach really work? Yes, it does. It has worked every time I’ve used it. I once used the technique to help two executives who had held grudges against each other for years. They shook hands and hugged each other. It’s true that some conflicts don’t lend themselves to this method. These are rare cases in which there are only two alternatives.

The key: Have the presence of mind to consider this approach, rather than automatically getting involved in a power struggle.

More truth-telling about parent-teen communication.

My how-to instruction on conflict resolution is the topic of Chapter 13 of Connect with Your Kid: Mastering the Top 10 Parent-Child Communication Skills.

You can grow the bond with your child through better listening. Download the FREE ebook, Listening to Understand.