Helping Students and their Families Resolve Tension

Chris Schaffner
September 23rd, 2020

Over the years, I have sat through countless meetings with students and their families. Often when a family is sitting in my office it is due to a conflict or tension that has come to a head.

Early in my career, I was easily confused by the complex dynamics represented by the family and at best could only offer vague advice or I would dole out shallow offerings of scripture and a prayer offering.

Managing a tense family meeting takes skill and awareness that isn’t usually taught in traditional youth ministry trainings.

We typically learn on the fly and by experience.

The following is a set of guidelines harvested from years of collective youth ministry experience from veterans in the trenches.

Preventing Problems in the First Place

It does no good to sit in front of a reluctant teenager and try to get them to open up and discuss their difficulties. This can actually make things worse because it sets up your time with the student as one where the youth worker repeated appeals to the teenager for his/her involvement. This is like pulling teeth.

Because there is a disconnect in perspective from both parties it is best to start with both parties present. If the student is resistant then you can still work with the parents. If the parents meet with you beforehand this can limit the next meeting when they come together. You will have already heard all the issues, so the meeting will start off on the wrong foot as the student will likely assume that there is an alliance between the youth worker and the parents.

This happens because the youth worker will have to either:

  • relay what he/she has heard from the parents, which can come off a paternalistic
  • the parents tell it again for the kid’s benefit, but both he/she and the youth worker have already heard it all, so it’s old news; or
  • the parents and the youth worker asks the student what they think the problem is and if they already feel like the odds are stacked against them they may become defensive or dismissive.

Exceptions to the Rule

As with all rules, sometimes there are circumstances in which parents and student should not meet together. These can include:

  • The situation is too volatile
  • The parents are psychologically unavailable (neglectful or abusive)
  • The older student (16-18) feels empowered to address the concern on his/her own

Cautions to be Aware of

  • Do not immediately assume that one party or the other is right/wrong
  • Teens usually understand more than they are given credit for

Setting Ground Rules and Identifying Goals for a Meeting Meeting

From the beginning, some “rules of engagement” should be stated and referred back to as the discussion progresses. I always make clear my expectations when helping a family resolve conflict. I start by telling them that the goal is to help each understand one another and find a resolve that is equally satisfying to both parties, therefore, anything that does not move us towards that goal is not useful or necessary. Here are my ground rules for engagement:

  • No interrupting
  • No personal attacks
  • Stay in the present
  • Do not use the past as a bludgeoning tool
  • Listen to gain understanding

As the conversation progresses the objective youth worker will want to practice listening. Be slow to speak except to help maintain focus and control emotions. Emotions can be counterproductive when trying to find a resolve and stimulate subjectiveness and self-preservation in each party.

Here are some suggestions of things to listen for and they are largely defined by their absence: boundaries, respect, compassion, clarity, assertiveness, self-respect, humor, affection, listening to each other, genuineness, and empathy.

REMINDER: Remain neutral. Align yourself with all parties involved. As youth workers, we may have a tendency to align ourselves with the student. If we do this we risk alienating the parents and possibly their alliance in their child’s spiritual development.

Potential Problems

  • Parents expect you to “fix” their kid while they watch.
  • Parents may indulge their child’s dismissive or defensive attitude.
  • The adolescent won’t talk.

Move forward regardless. As you converse with the parents the student will likely become involved, even if it is to refute their parent’s claims.

Take the pressure off the student. Let them know they don’t have to share if they don’t want to. Many times the “silent treatment” is an attempt to gain a sense of control over the experience. By taking the pressure off of them it reduces anxiety and takes away their weapon of control.

Allow the student to just listen. They may act disengaged but they are hearing everything being said.

Observe the parent’s response to the silent child (are they shameful towards the student or dismissive?). Both of these send messages to the student.

Using the above strategies and information will not guarantee a better outcome for any meetings but it will increase the likelihood of finding a resolve between both parties.

Be slow to give advice.

9 times out of 10 both parties just want to be heard and taken seriously.

They simply want to know that the other party understands them and that they were important enough to devote the time necessary to reach that understanding.

The youth worker can often help facilitate the family in reaching that goal and strengthen the spiritual alliance of all those involved.

Chris Schaffner

Chris Schaffner is a veteran youth worker and certified counselor. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.