Managing Emotionally Intense Interactions for Parents of Teens

For many parents, it can feel as if they are required to do their best parenting in situations where they feel least equipped to exercise the skills they need to make good parenting choices. 

This article will help you learn techniques for making healthy parenting choices when you are in conflict with your teen and emotions and tempers are running high. 

Remain aware, not reactive. 

Parents often feel like they have a responsibility to solve whatever problem their teen is having. That attitude can make parents feel obligated to react right away to a crisis with their teen and coming up with a solution before parents have even had the chance to consider the situation fully. 

However, solving problems for your teen or immediately reacting to a crisis situation might not be the best solution. 

A question that is important to ask yourself is if there is an immediate safety concern. If there is no immediate threat to life or safety, then the situation generally does not require a reaction; it requires a response. 

The difference between a reaction and response is essential. 

When you respond to situations, you pay attention to the context of the situation and its various nuances. That makes you better able to understand the problem and think of solutions. 

However, when you are reacting, you only consider the immediate problems with little context and tend to focus on whatever aspect of the situation provokes the most significant emotional response. 

When reacting instead of responding, you lose your ability to do your best critical thinking and problem-solving skills in situations where you need them the most. 

Being in an emotionally intense situation with your teen may make you feel like you need to fix all of the problems right away. However, if there are no safety concerns, it is probably a good idea to just take a moment and pause.

Give yourself time and space to regain your calm. Then, you will be better able to take in enough information so that you can respond appropriately. 

Keep the responsibility where it belongs. 

When conflicts happen, it is a natural reaction to want to assign blame. However, most conflicts are not 100% the fault of one single individual. 

It is important to hold yourself accountable and metaphorically clean up your side of the street first. Cleaning up your side of the street means acknowledging whatever portion of the conflict you are accountable for. 

Even if you are accountable for less of the conflict than the other person, it is vital to take responsibility for your part before expecting the other party to be accountable. 

If you are like most people, you can see when other people need to be held accountable for their actions. It might not be as easy for you to acknowledge when you need to hold yourself accountable. 

Holding yourself accountable may be the key to finding a solution to the most difficult situations. 

By holding yourself accountable first, you are inviting your teen to take responsibility for their part instead of doing the work of assigning responsibility to them. 

So, when you are in a conflict, look at parts of the problem that you may be accountable for and model adult behavior by taking responsibility. Address your responsibility before asking other people to take accountability. 

Keep in mind that teens tend to deal with high amounts of shame that makes them less capable of taking responsibility for their actions. That does not mean that you need to take any responsibility for their actions onto yourself. 

However, it suggests that you may extend them some grace and patience as they learn how to take responsibility. 

Being an Active Listener 

When people think about effective communication, a lot of significance is put on finding the right words. However, being an active listener is no less critical to successful communication. If you practice active listening, you are demonstrating to the speaker that you hear them. 

One of the things most people need is to be validated. Everyone wants to feel heard. Everyone wants to feel understood. 

You can be sure that your teen feels the same way, especially in emotionally intense situations.

Active listening gives you the skills that you need to help your teen feel heard and understood in situations where they need that most. 

If you are a distractible person, it is essential to ask yourself, “What can I do to keep focused on this conversation, so my brain isn’t just thinking about how to respond?”

Active listening is hearing the person first, not merely calculating what your response is. It can help slow conversations down and help everyone involved become more mindful about how they are communicating. 

For distractible people, it can be necessary to find anchor points to help stay connected to the conversation. An anchor point is anything that aids your focus improves your attention. 

An example of an anchor point could be acknowledging what your teen seems to be feeling. It could also be something as simple as noticing what your teen is wearing. 

Anchor points help you to keep your focus and attention on the immediate conversation where it belongs. 

When you practice active listening, you show your teen that you are present, connected, and care. That can go a long way in making any emotionally intense situation more manageable.

Ineffective Listening Styles

Just as active listening can help resolve emotionally intense situations, there are many ways to sabotage a conversation by failing to listen. Here are some common pitfalls. 

Pseudo-listening is a term for giving the appearance of actively listening when in reality, you are only performing the gestures of listening, such as nodding your head in acknowledgment to the speaker. 

Selective listening refers to only listening to the parts of the conversation that you want to hear. 

Self-centered listening is listening and thinking about how a topic relates to us, not how a topic relates to the other person. 

Stage hogging means listening for things you can relate to so that you can talk about yourself. 

Insulated listening is when someone is listening but still attempting to avoid a particular topic. Even when the speaker brings up the topic directly, an insulated listener still avoids or ignores it. 

Defensive listening means that you are only listening so that you can prepare a defensive response.

You can combat each of these negative listening habits by developing your active listening skills. 

Active listening is listening not for yourself but for the other person. Your focus is on what they want to be talking about, not what you want to talk about. 

Active listening prepares you to take in the information you need to be able to problem-solve complex situations. 


Validation means affirming what the person is saying and the feelings and experiences that come from that. 

You do not necessarily have to agree with what the other person is saying. Simply acknowledging and affirming the other person’s experience is part of validation. 

This simple action can make a significant difference in any intense interaction.

Because teens often escalate their problem behavior to be seen and heard, validating what can be validated can be a good way to manage emotionally intense situations.

Labeling Emotions

In conversations, it’s natural to focus on the words people say. However, sometimes the emotions behind the words can be an equally important part of the conversation. 

Therefore it can be useful for listeners to not only focus on the story’s details but the emotional impact the details had on the person telling the story. 

Something as simple as acknowledging what someone is feeling and putting a label on it can be a decisive step toward finding a solution to a challenging situation. 

Acknowledging and labeling emotions can also provide people in conflict with more clarity and insight into the cause of the conflict. 

By helping your teen label feelings, you may be helping to provide them the understanding that they need to find a resolution. 

Setting Limits

Creating boundaries around conflict is best done before the conflict ever starts. That means sitting down when emotions are calm and talking about what expectations are when people conflict. 

These boundaries help everyone understand what behaviors are and are not acceptable. 

For example, one of the limits could be that if someone yells, then the conversation ends. Another helpful boundary could be that the conversation will end if anyone makes threats. 

Boundaries can also be a helpful guide and reminder for you when situations become challenging or emotional.

Many people feel a need to get to a place of resolution when there is a conflict. While trying to get to the point of resolution, they may cross emotional boundaries and get further from resolution. 

Setting limits and boundaries before conflict can lead to a collective understanding of why the limits exist in the first place. This can result in buy-in to shared values. 

Trying to set boundaries at the height of conflict will not be as effective. 

However, maintaining boundaries is still a good idea if you find yourself in a conflict situation and have not set limits ahead of time. 

For example, a good practice is that any type of aggression will not be tolerated, whether directed at a person or an object. If aggressive behavior happens then, conversations need to stop. 

Similarly, threats to safety, whether self-directed or directed at others, will not be tolerated. 

In these situations, working toward emotional regulation should be the priority and focus. 

While maintaining boundaries may seem like a challenging task, it is worthwhile. These limits will make it more likely that you can reach a resolution. 

Attempting to have a logical conversation with someone aggressive or threatening is not likely to be effective. That is why it is vital to have everyone emotionally regulated before even trying to come to a solution.

Time to Teach

Whenever there is a conflict, the primary objective should be working toward individual emotional regulation or co-regulation. Being emotionally regulated means finding enough calm that you can think clearly. 

The thinking brain, when online, can learn new information and be taught. However, when people conflict, that can mean that their thinking brain has stopped working and their lizard brain has taken over. 

The lizard brain is not capable of thinking. Its instincts are flight, flight, freeze, or appease. When people are functioning like this, it is almost impossible to learn. 

Parents naturally want to teach their children, including teaching them about consequences. However, trying to teach children during a period of dysregulation is ineffective and likely a waste of time. 

Don’t try to teach your teen or anyone else when their lizard brain is in control. Instead, help them get to a place of calm so that their thinking brain can take control.

After your teen has regained a sense of calm, then you can try to teach. 

Have Your Own Emotional Regulation Skills

Having your own emotional regulation skills is important. You will be able to be more effective in conflict if you are emotionally regulated. You will be able to model emotional regulation to your teen.  

Emotional regulation skills look different for different people. A common and helpful emotional regulation technique is to pause and breathe. 

Unhealthy Emotional Interaction

An unhealthy emotional encounter is when damage occurs on the path to resolution. 

Signs of an unhealthy encounter can include name-calling, shaming, keeping score in relationships, or people using emotionally intense interaction to get their needs met. 

Teens may use high-conflict situations to try to manipulate their families into getting things that they want. Giving in to these manipulations is not a good idea.

Unhealthy responses can also include being aggressive, putting people down, interrupting when they are trying to share, or simply not listening. These responses do more damage to relationships than they help. 

The difference between a healthy emotionally intense interaction and an unhealthy one largely depends on how people cope.

Finding Healing

Emotionally intense interactions and conflict are not inherently bad. They can be healthy or even healing if they are handled correctly. 

These intense interactions can even help people gain insight. The things that provoke strong emotions tend to be things you care a lot about.

The key, of course, is to find a healthy way to manage these interactions. Part of being a healthy adult is building a metaphorical toolbox with a set of skills that will allow us to cope with stressful experiences that are a normal part of the human experience. 

Discovery Ranch Teaches Teens Teens the Skills They Need to Thrive

Discovery Ranch helps teens learn the skills they need to be healthy, functional adults. 

Self-soothing The idea is to have ways of calming yourself when you feel depressed, anxious, or in distress. 

Delaying Gratification Teens learn that it is okay not to gratify impulses immediately.

Learning How to Manage Frustration Teens have the time and resources to work through their feelings. And they are not working through those feelings alone.