This article was written by the former chair of our Youth Advisory Board, Sarah Hinstorff, with contributions by Youth Advisory Board members Talia Ginsburg and Justin Robinson.

Improve Communication and Resolve Conflict: Focus on the Issue at Hand

Ever feel like you’re rehashing the same argument with your parents…over and over again? When we talk with our parents, it’s important that we voice concerns about present issues without bringing up past arguments. By bringing up the past, we may  distract from the current conversation. Why? Because bringing up the past often puts people on the defensive. It makes assumptions about how someone will react without giving them the chance to think, process, or make a decision. It makes it really hard to move forward.

The past can also cause us to feel stressed or anxious. It can cloud our minds. It can make it harder to focus. It can even make us feel on edge. When we let go of the past and learn from our mistakes, we open up new possibilities and opportunities for growth.

Give voice to your feelings. They are real and legitimate and deserve to be heard. But they will only be heard when you communicate them effectively.

Before beginning an important conversation with your parents or a caring adult in your life, consider these tips to keep your conversations moving forward.

Learn from Mistakes

Use past experiences to inform present behaviors. These are helpful practices for improving relationships and growing as an individual. While we can learn a lot from mistakes, there is a danger in rehashing the past when it gets in the way of fully embracing the present. Find the balance in your own life by acknowledging that the past and future are independent situations.

Be Present

It’s impossible to change the past. So why should we continue to focus on it? When you have tough conversations with your parents or other adults, be present with them by concentrating on the current issue.

Think about How You Communicate

It’s easy to feel frustration, disappointment, or anger when it comes to tough conversations. While it’s ok to feel this way, strategically, it’s not productive to let these emotions lead. Give voice to your feelings. They are real and legitimate and deserve to be heard. But they will only be heard when you communicate them effectively. Try to stay calm. Avoid yelling. Ask for time to cool down and collect your thoughts. Once you’ve calmed down, remind your parent/guardian of your feelings.

Keep an Open Mind

Approach conversations ready to listen rather than react. If you think you already know what the other person is going to say, you may not hear (or be able to most effectively respond to) what they actually do say! Be prepared to accept constructive criticism and be willing to give feedback yourself. Relationships are partnerships. There has to be give and take. Listen, be patient, and be open to hearing what your parents have to say. Try not to assume they’ll react one way or another — assumptions can backfire.

Don’t Wait to Have a Conversation

Address issues as they arise, instead of letting them get out of hand. Avoiding issues for too long can create unnecessary anxiety. It may appear as though you have something to hide or as if you aren’t being truthful. It’s important to have hard discussions when the issue is still relevant. Just be sure to avoid reacting in the heat of the moment. If you need time to collect your thoughts, take it.

Prepare for Tough Conversations Ahead of Time

Approach conversations calmly so you’re ready to both listen and express how you’re feeling. Consider making a bulleted list to organize your thoughts ahead of time so that you can communicate clearly. Create a plan for how and where you want to address your concerns. Will you approach your conversation casually or formally? Do you want to discuss your concerns with one parent/guardian or hold a full family meeting? Do you want to text them ahead of time to give a heads up that you’ve got something you want to discuss? Planning ahead can make tough conversations go smoother. For more tips on how to prepare to talk to parents about important topics, read “How to Talk to Parents About Something Important”.

Focus on the Future

Rehashing past events or actions puts people on the defensive. How do you feel when your parents bring up a past mistake you made? This feeling is the same for parents and teens alike. When someone focuses repeatedly on a single behavior, event, or past reaction, it can feel like your efforts to move forward aren’t being noticed. If you focus on the future and what you can do to improve, you show a willingness to adapt, learn, and grow.

Share That You Care

Let your parents know that you want to improve your relationship. This may be the surest way to get your parents to really listen to you. Communication is most effective when there are two-way discussions. Be respectful, avoid raising your voice, and be open to listening. When you give respect and show you care, you are more likely to get respect in return.

Some conversations with parents will be hard. Focusing on the current issue and not dwelling on the past may make things easier for everyone involved. By using some of these suggestions, you’ll set a clearer path moving forward.

Thoughts from Members of the Youth Advisory Board

Talia, 22

“Tackle matters as they occur, rather than allowing events or actions to become a pattern – polite reminders are useful! When behaviors take on the form of a pattern, they may be more habitual and harder to change. This does not mean it is impossible, but it does require you to have patience with your parent or guardian, as no one is perfect at modifying his or her conduct immediately.  Polite reminders are helpful tools in this process. Do not connect a past mistake with a current event, but do share your feelings about how you feel now.”

Justin, 16

“Whenever I start to dwell on the past, I become stressed out to the point where it stays on my mind. It clouds my mind, making it harder to focus on tasks and activities, and it also makes me on edge. When we forget about the past and learn from our mistakes, we open up new possibilities and opportunities for growth.”

About Center for Parent and Teen Communication

CPTC is fortunate to receive editorial contributions from a range of multi-disciplinary experts, journalists, youth, and more.

Read more articles by this author

Get our weekly newsletter for practical tips to strengthen family connections.