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Parenting Teens: What to do when conflict has spiraled out of control in your home.

Updated on March 8, 2013

If conflict in your family has become unbearable, or your teen/s are getting out of hand then it is important to take corrective steps immediately.

The first thing you need to do is to analyse, what could be causing your teen/s to act out. Reasons could be:

Past traumas that have not been fully dealt with. When children enter their teen years, their insecurity and self-doubt can make them feel more vulnerable than ever before. Because of this, if there are past traumas like a divorce, a death in the family, a crime-related experience, or separation from a loved one, it does have the possibility of resurfacing making your teen feel unbalanced and unsure of how to handle things. The thing with teens is that even if they are aware of where their behaviour is coming from, they will find it difficult, if not impossible to verbalise. The likelihood that they will ask for help is also minimal. In most cases though, not even the teen knows why they are out of control. If you think that their behaviour stems from a past experience, then it is important to get counseling. Dealing with embedded issues is best left to the professionals. Call a helpline and ask them to give you the best way forward.

Too tight or loose boundaries. When a teen’s boundaries are too restrictive they will begin to act out against you. By setting boundaries that are too strict, you are fighting against the laws of nature. Remember that during the teen years, your teen is instinctively driven to discover, and explore the world around them. If you inhibit that instinctual behaviour, you will be met with resistance. When boundaries are too loose, more often than not, it will make your teen feel insecure and lacking the support they desperately need. I know that there is a theory that if you let your teen do what they want, then they will not have anything to rebel against and this will naturally sort out any rebellious behaviour. This only works for a small minority of teens, who are born mature – those old souls, so to speak. Most teens crave set boundaries and only thrive when they are aware of what those boundaries are.

Unhealthy conflict cycles. If the family has always resolved conflicts by screaming and fighting, then these are the skills that your teen is going to have modeled. Teens (as all children do) learn by means of role modeling. If this has happened, it will take some time, but as the parent you will have to start remodeling this behaviour, and instituting new methods for conflict control.

Unresolved issues within the family. If past conflicts have not been dealt with properly it can fester and cause your teen to act out. Teens often find it difficult to verbalise what is really hurting them, and so they show us that they are in turmoil by acting out.

Looking for attention. Children crave the attention of their parents, even teens. If they don’t get positive attention then they will act out until they get any type of attention. Children would rather have negative attention than no attention at all.

Problems outside of the family. There are times when your teen may feel like school, friends, boy/girlfriends, and other issues are getting too complicated or too difficult to cope with. When these outside issues start affecting your child’s behaviour at home it is a cry for help.

Inconsistent boundaries and consequences. If you have set boundaries but allowed your teen to transgress these boundaries, without consequences, then they will realise that your boundaries are ineffective. Teens will always test and push boundaries to see what they can get away with. As soon as you give in, once, they will continue to push and if you give in again, they will begin to behave as they please.

Determine your conflict style:


Repairing the damage:

Once you have analysed your teen’s behaviour and think that you may know why they are acting out, it is time to have a family meeting. Use the conflict management steps discussed in the SLAP Conflict Resolution article. If you and/or your teen are very volatile, you may want to invite a third party to the meeting. Choose someone that is close to your family and someone who will ensure that everyone remains respectful, and calm throughout the resolution.

Start the meeting by telling everyone why you are holding the meeting. It is a good idea to start the meeting by letting your children know that you love them, and that you are holding this meeting because you are concerned, and want the best for your family. Then you can explain the rules of the conflict resolution (please click here for relevant rules and steps).

Next, explain how the conflict in the family is making you feel. Be honest and open but do not lay blame or be judgmental. Allow your children to voice their opinions. Make sure that no matter what they say, you do not react negatively to them. As soon as you react with, “Where did you get that from?” or “Well, that is just a stupid thing to say.” The whole conflict resolution will fall apart. No matter how ridiculous you think their thoughts are you must acknowledge them and explore them.

Be aware that you may be confronted with silence. Sometimes when teens are hurting, angry or experiencing deep, difficult emotions they clam up. It is used for protection, when the problem is too hurtful to face. If this happens, reassure your teen of your intentions and love for him/her. Speak to them about how you feel and what your standpoint is. If they remain silent or get up and leave the room don't lose your temper. Leaving a room is a sign that they cannot cope with the emotions going on around them. Leave them for a moment, and then try to approach them. If they are still resistant, then let them know that they can write their thoughts and feelings down; if they would find that an easier vessel to express what is going on inside them. If your teen continually refuses to open up and speak to you, then you may need to enlist help through family or individual counseling.

If your teen responds violently or aggressively, do not respond in anger. As difficult as it is to keep your cool under these circumstances, it is vitally important to do so. The parent in you is going to feel, "How dare you speak/act like that towards me!" but you have to see the bigger picture here. If you respond in anger the whole conflict resolution will fall apart causing more damage that you will have to repair later. If necessary, let all parties take some time out, in their own space, before carrying on. Re-explain to your teen that anger and violence have no place in conflict resolution, and if they hope to solve the problems within the family they will have to practice some self-control and get their message across, without losing their temper. If your teen is unable to control their temper and continues to act out in an aggressive manner then you may need to look at enlisting external help.

Once everyone has aired their views, it is important that apologies are swapped and pledges for better behaviour, in the future, are made. Now, as the parent you need to lay the path forward, by telling your teens what you expect in the future. As a family, set the house rules and boundaries that everyone has to abide to. Also discuss consequences for infringements. Whatever consequences and boundaries have been set, make sure that they are realistic, and that you are consistent with ensuring that consequences are dealt out when necessary. If you are NOT going to be consistent with your rules, and implementing consequences for transgressing them, then you may as well not have them. Do not lull yourself into believing that just because you have sorted out the present problems, new problems will not surface. By making sure that your boundaries are being adhered to, you will ensure that your teen will be less likely to transgress them.

Until things settle, you can have regular family meetings (every week or two weeks) just to ensure that the air is kept clear, and that everyone is towing the line. These can be phased out, when the parents are satisfied with their teens behaviour.

Hint: Teens quite often find it difficult to verbalise their problems. If this is the case encourage your teen to write their concerns down. They could either email it to you, or post it in a ‘Problem Box’ at home.


If things have spiraled so out of control in your house that your teen has become physically aggressive with you, is using drugs or alcohol, is having serious problems at school, or is participating in risky behavior, it is time to seek outside help before things get worse. Do not believe that an out-of-control teen's behaviour is normal. Yes, teens can play up. Yes, they can be difficult and moody, and yes, they can be cheeky and downright insolent, but when their actions are out of control, it means that their emotions are out of control. When a teen has reached this point, it means that they need help to get their emotions and behaviour back in check.

If you find yourself blowing up at your teenager or hitting him/her, family counseling will help you get your relationship back on track.

Please contact:

To get help in South Africa:

LifeLine: 0861 322

ChildLine: 0800 055 555

FAMSA: (011) 975 -7106/7

To get help in the USA and Canada call:

Childhelp National Line: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

To get help in the UK:

NSPCC Childline: 0800 1111

To get help in Australia:

Child Abuse Prevention Service: 1800 688 009

To get help in New Zealand:

Kidsline: 0800-543-754


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