As coaches who work with college students and other young adults, we get plenty of opportunity to observe conflict dynamics in families. Sometimes family members are skillful at resolving conflicts. However, young adults or parents often act in ways that make things much worse!
Let’s examine a couple of real life college student/parent conflict situations:
- A 19-year-old college student with ADHD whom I coached was struggling in college. He needed at least a 2.5 Grade Point Average (GPA) this particular semester to get off academic probation. He called me and told me that he overslept and completely missed a mid-term exam. The exam counted for 30% of his grade and his teacher told him he could not make it up. His request of me was, “Please don’t tell my parents. What’s done is done and they will go ballistic. They may even pull me out of school!”
- A 20-year-old college student that I coached had been missing his morning English class. He had also failed to hand in several homework assignments. Yet, he had not told either me or his parents about these situations. His English professor had not been posting grades on Blackboard (the college’s electronic dashboard). I asked about grades several times before the last day to withdraw from English with a letter grade of “W” (Withdraw). The student told me that everything was fine and the teacher had just not posted grades yet.
Analyzing Young Adult-Parent Conflict Dynamics
While these two situations are somewhat similar, they represent slightly different conflict dynamics.
In the first situation, the young adult actually told me what happened. Yet he asked me to provide insulating cover to avoid his parents’ anticipated reaction. The student expected that I would be more understanding than his parents. He knew that his parents would find out sooner or later about his sleeping through the exam because his final grade would be a D or F.
In the second situation, the student hid information from both his parents and me. In many ways, this situation was worse because there were potential remedies we could have explored if I had known the truth all along. Yet, there were fewer options because the student withheld bad news from both his parents and me.
In both situations, the students were fearful that their parents would be disappointed and angry with them. Both young adults had disappointed their parents in the past and each wanted to avoid negative reactions. Often, young adults’ fears of their parents’ reactions are exaggerated. Yet, fear that either of these parents might actually pull the student out of school was realistic.
Three Approaches to Conflict Dynamics
Dan Dana, a conflict author and founder of the Mediation Training Institute, has identified three distinct strategies for resolving conflicts or disagreements:
- Power Contests – This strategy often creates winners and losers. For example, if parents provide financial support, they often threaten to withhold resources if their young adult child fails to meet expectations or demands. College students often attempt to counter the parent’s power by cutting off communication or failing to volunteer information about how things are going.
- Rights Contests – Rights strategies often come up when at least one of the parties believes that they have been “wronged” or have not been treated “fairly.” Dan Dana observes that participants in a “rights” struggle often seek out third party support (e.g., a mediator or arbitrator) to recommend a “fair” solution in a conflict. Yet, very often one party “wins” and another “loses,” even when a third party gets involved.
- Mutual Interests Exploration – Pursuing mutual interests moves away from which person is more powerful or whose “rights” are violated. Instead, it focuses on “What solution or path forward is in the mutual interest of all parties?” The emphasis in this approach is to find a strategy in which “both parties gain” and no one feels like they were the loser!
Dealing With Young Adult-Parent Conflicts
The two students I have described appear to be trying to avoid a “power contest” with their parents. Parents usually do have the power to withhold financial support. They can also sometimes make a unilateral decision to pull their son or daughter out of school.
In the case of the young man on academic probation, his parents had actually threatened to pull their son out of school if he “messed up” and failed to get off of probation.
In the case of the student who was missing classes and homework assignments, he was using the “power of deception” to keep both his parents and me (his coach) in the dark. This strategy had some short-term benefits for the student. Yet, it took away my ability to help the student recover from a poor behavior pattern before it affected his transcript and academic status.
As a coach, I don’t take it personally when the students I coach deceive their parents or me. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed! I’ve just learned that a lot of young people have difficulty telling anyone the truth when they fail to accomplish something that they promised to do. In particular, college students with ADHD and other disabilities often have a long history of being ashamed about letting other people down. Sometimes deception becomes their default strategy!
Don’t Parents Have Power and Rights?
Of course parents have the power to withhold financial support. You could also argue that they also have the right to withhold financial support. This is especially applicable when the young adult has misled or lied to his parents. Sometimes withholding support is exactly what is needed to get the message across to a young adult!
Yet, as coaches, we often see parents who repeatedly threaten to withhold support, but do nothing. In the meantime, their young adult child “calls their bluff” and keeps them in the dark.
Here are some questions that can help parents of young adults with conflict dynamics:
- Who are the winners and the losers if we exercise our power and pull our young adult child out of college?
- Is allowing my young adult daughter to live at home a right or a privilege?
- By allowing my young adult child to continue in this situation, am I helping or enabling him (or her)?
- How can we address this situation so that both our needs and our young adult child’s needs are met?
- Do I keep my emotions regulated when my son or daughter delivers bad news?
- Do I express anger and disappointment in a way that discourages my young adult child from keeping me informed?
- Should I change the way I respond when my young adult child tells me something I do not want to hear?
Additional Conflict Dynamics Resources
All families experience conflict. Yet, many parents of young adults do not have resources to work through family conflict dynamics and to learn how to deal with conflict in healthier ways. We’ve written some other articles that might help if you have a young adult in college:
We also believe in the value of personality and conflict assessments in helping parents and their young adult children learn how to communicate more effectively. For a free 30-minute consultation to learn more about our assessments and if conflict coaching can help you and your family, please contact us. And, as always, we would love to hear your comments on this article!