Therapists often encounter people who are labeled “high conflict.” The terms used by their family members and friends to define their personalities are more often “narcissistic,” “selfish,” and “toxic.” The bottom line is that these are people who reinforce conflict rather than reducing conflict or resolving it peacefully.
People who are identified as “high conflict” often exhibit the following traits:
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Emotional outbursts
- Extreme behaviors
- Blaming others
Anyone who has parented a child through adolescence will agree that these are par for the course during the tween and teen years. In fact, it would be surprising to meet a teenager who does not exhibit these traits on a daily basis. This does not mean that your child is a narcissist or toxic, however. It is often just a sign of the natural development that occurs during maturation.
If you have a child who has an eating disorder during adolescence, you will likely see these traits even more often. You will also likely find yourself gritting your teeth because you know that you need to create a loving environment in which your child can heal even while your child treats you poorly. This conundrum of being driven absolutely crazy and needing to nurture more than ever is frustrating and can easily drive us up the wall.
Here are three lessons from therapists about how to manage a high conflict personality (AKA: difficult teenagers).
1. Let go of the past
When our children undergo challenging periods, it’s natural for us to look backward and wish for the days when they were younger and easier to handle. This is normal, and you have every right to grieve the past. In fact, it’s best if you actively grieve the child you thought you had. Part of the healing process for someone who has an eating disorder is to build self-identity and self-worth, and that can’t happen if a parent is hanging onto a past version of their child. So grieve. Grieve the sweet little child who did nothing but bring you joy. And let that child go. This will allow you to honor the person your child is becoming.
2. Learn your lessons
Parents are never to be blamed for a child’s troubles – our children are their own people, and we are not solely responsible for how they turn out. However, we can honestly assess our parenting skills and dive in deeper into the areas in which we are weak.
Very few of us receive direct instruction on how to manage our children as they grow. We most likely groan with fellow parents when things are difficult, but very few parents seek active instruction on how to handle a difficult tween or teen.
But remember when our children were young, we didn’t hesitate to reach out if our child wasn’t meeting developmental milestones or if we felt we could use some help with getting our child to sleep through the night.
There are actually a lot of resources available to parents of tweens and teens, but we have to seek them out and actively search for help so that we can improve our parenting techniques during this difficult phase of development. We don’t need to learn new things because we suck at parenting; we need to learn new things because we are human beings and this is freaking hard.
3. Care for yourself
Living with a high-conflict personality is very difficult. No matter how well you parent, no matter how much you learn, it will still be hard to live with someone who is exhibiting these traits. Learn how to take active care of your own needs, even as you provide the care your child needs to heal. Here are some key skills you can work on to help yourself through this:
- Gratitude journal: it may feel a little hokey to you, but try writing down one thing for which you are grateful for each day, and take a little bit of time to reflect on that and ask for more of it.
- Mindfulness: if you like to meditate, great! Do more! If you don’t, just try to check in a few times each day to notice that you are here, right now. You are a tiny speck on a planet spinning around the sun. Take a deep breath, and remember that worrying about the past or the future will not change either one. Just be here now.
- Connections: seek deeper connections with people who are not your child. It could be your partner, a friend, or a group of like-minded parents who get together to provide support to each other. Build connections with people who see you as a fully-functioning, wonderful adult person to offset the anger your child is throwing your way right now.
- Therapy or coaching: seek someone who can guide you in a non-judgemental way. Find a professional who you connect with, and who can help you process your painful feelings while you live in your current situation.
No matter how hard it is to be in your shoes right now, remember that it is almost never the case that our situations stay the same forever. We are constantly changing, as are the people around us. Remind yourself that you’re doing the very best you can, and then let go of everything that does not support you in doing this important work of parenting a child who is having a tremendously difficult time.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.