Parents-Teens Arguing

From NPR:

Who has a story to tell us about how to help your teens in the midst of debates? what’s the best thing you ever did to help?

If you’re the parent of a teenager, you likely find yourself routinely embroiled in disputes with your child. Those disputes are the symbol of teen developmental separation from parents.

It’s a vital part of growing up, but it can be extraordinarily wearing on parents. Now researchers suggest that those spats can be tamed and, in the process, provide a lifelong benefit to children….

“We tell parents to think of those arguments not as nuisance but as a critical training ground,” he says. Such arguments, he says, are actually mini life lessons in how to disagree — a necessary skill later on in life with partners, friends and colleagues on the job.

Teens should be rewarded when arguing calmly and persuasively and not when they indulge in yelling, whining, threats or insults, he says.

In Allen’s study, 157 13-year-olds were videotaped describing their biggest disagreement with their parents. The most common arguments were over grades, chores, money and friends. The tape was then played for both parent and teen.

“Parents reacted in a whole variety of ways. Some of them laughed uncomfortably; some rolled their eyes; and a number of them dove right in and said, ‘OK, let’s talk about this,'” he says.

It was the parents who said wanted to talk who were on the right track, says Allen. “We found that what a teen learned in handling these kinds of disagreements with their parents was exactly what they took into their peer world,” with all its pressures to conform to risky behavior like drugs and alcohol….

Bottom line: Effective arguing acted as something of an inoculation against negativepeer pressure. Kids who felt confident to express themselves to their parents also felt confident being honest with their friends.

So, ironically the best thing parents can do is help their teenager argue more effectively. For this, Allen offers one word: listen.

In the study, when parents listened to their kids, their kids listened back. They didn’t necessarily always agree, he says. But if one or the other made a good point, they would acknowledge that point. “They weren’t just trying to fight each other at every step and wear each other down. They were really trying to persuade the other person.”…

So the next time your teenager huffs and puffs and starts to argue, you might just step back for a minute, take a breath yourself, and try to listen. It may be one of the best lessons you teach your child.

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  • We’re not perfect at it, but this is exactly what my husband and I attempt to do with our girls,(10 and 15). While the seemingly constant conflict, especially with the 15 year old, does become wearing, I’ve found that it actually comes in cycles and so am learning to roll with it. I try to be as logical as possible in our little debates and we laugh when she is losing the argument and claims that logic is overrated. I think humor can go a long way in these matters.

    When it comes to matters of opinion or taste, we try also to be open-minded. We allow changes in appearance as long as it is not permanent, such as hair color, (The eldest is now sporting a vibrant shade of red on her head!), nor immodest, which is a feat if you’ve ever tried to go clothes shopping with a teen. Both my husband and I, while acknowledging her style and tastes, also try to get her to expand her horizons. It’s so funny how the drive for independence leads to a weird sort of conformity. When she claims we are weird and out of date, we embrace it and let her know that one day, she will be also.

    In the end, it really comes down to treating our children as Jesus would. They are created in the image of God and are growing into what God would have them to be. On our bad days we forget this, but on our better ones, we really delight in the kind of people our daughters are becoming.

  • Fish

    My divorce was just finalized (it was not something I wanted; I am a lifetime guy). My ex-wife thought that our 15-year-old would want to split time between she and I.

    She was wrong. My daughter doesn’t want to live with her mother or even see her. And a key reason is that my wife always had to win every argument with my daughter, simply because she was the parent, regardless of the merits on either side. She didn’t care about listening, only being “right” and having my kid obey.

    It turns out that all those times my wife won the battle she was losing the war. My daughter was up in her room with a ton of repressed anger that no one knew about.

    It is very sad and I feel sorry for my ex. I encourage my daughter to see her mother and stay in contact, but I will not force her to do it. She is very angry with her mother, to the point that when I took her to her first therapy appointment and the therapist asked why she was there, one of the first things she said was “I don’t want to turn out like my mom.”

    It really opened the eyes of another parent I know. They started thinking about what the “I am your father/mother and as long as you are under my roof I will tell you what to do, period, so shut up and go to your room” attitude might be doing to their long-term relationship.

    It is tragic.

  • Fish, I am afraid your wife’s way of relating with your daughter is often how Christian authors and teachers instruct. There is a big movement that expects complete complete cheerful obedience in the tiniest of matters. It is no wonder that we are losing our children to the world, when the world treats them better.

    I commend you for being the refuge for your daughter, for getting her counseling and for encouraging a relationship with her mother. She will need to forgive her if she is to heal, and it sounds as if you are helping her along that way.

  • DRT

    My best stories are about me with my parents. Two different stories.

    First, when I was about 16 I had given up on my parents. They were authoritarian and insisted that I do what they say. So once I was old enough I simply stopped listening to them at all and would just walk away from them. Fighting was definitely not going to happen. Eventually they reached an agreement with me that I would talk to them, and I would hear them out, but I was not obligated to do what they said. I found that to be fair with the time limit of 30 minutes for them to make their point.

    Second, that truce lasted about a year, then they started to get heavy handed again. So I simply left for a few days. When I came home they never mentioned that I left, and they were much better about things. So you know, I would not have had a problem simply leaving for good and they knew that.

    That relationship has impacted me throughout my life since I get defensive whenever someone is acting accusatory toward me I immediately want to interrupt and stop them. I wish I would have had a more interactive relationship.

    What a bad kid, huh?

    My kids go the other route. We have shown that they can pretty much say whatever they want to us as long as it is grounded and they are not screaming and we will listen to it. So when they get really mad they go away and plan a logical argument as to why we are wrong and then come back and dump it on me (come to think of it, it sounds like my kids are treating me the same way my parents treated me). There has only been one fight that I can remember where we were not able to reach resolution….and i can’t even remember the subject of it though I am positive my youngest would.

  • Susan N.

    I saw this article a few days ago. Gina, I have a 15yo daughter as well. I was nodding my head, uh-huh, as I read your comment!

    The findings of this article made sense to me, based on experience. Ultimately, I want my daughter to be empowered to know what she values and how to communicate that…to have dignity and integrity in her relationships. It takes practice learning how to be assertive in a respectful way. I’m her main “guinea pig” 🙂 Lucky me — yes, I am thankful that my daughter trusts me enough to test her wings with me every now and then. I’m so proud of her!

    Relationships are hard work, no two ways about it!

  • zee

    Whenever I argued with my mom…I can’t really remember each and every one.

    But I remember I was angry. Maybe angry that I realized my mom wasn’t perfect. Or maybe angry when I could see that she and I were alot alike.

    But I agree about the listening part. Alot of the anger came from her not listening to me.

    So maybe Mr. Allen has a point, at least about the listening part.

  • Susan N.

    This discussion reminded me of a creative writing assignment that my daughter did based on her reading of ‘The Odyssey’ earlier this school year…

    I was (pleasantly) surprised and impressed by my daughter’s understanding of feminine strength as well as the need to be respectful of one’s parents and what are reasonable boundaries. Plus, the humor is delicious! My daughter gave me permission to share the assignment here; I thought other parents of teens would get a kick out of it:

    Dearest Penelope,
    It must be very difficult being in the position that you are currently. You are basically powerless over your life and can only defend yourself with your wits. The weaving idea was brilliant, but you shouldn’t have let the maids know. Some of them don’t even want Odysseus to come back.
    I think that the first step to solving the problem of your many suitors is to make up your mind! If you want to marry one of those evil, gluttonous, murdering pigs, go ahead. If you want to still wait on Odysseus, then do that. It’s been 20 years though; the chances of him returning are very slim. I’m sure he’d try at least to come home, but isn’t it odd that none of his friends that he left with even know where he went? If you want to wait for Odysseus, then spend the rest of your time rejoicing in singleness! Don’t hide in your room, get a backbone and an army and evict the suitors!
    Finally, don’t let Telemachus scold you. He is twenty years old, and you’re his mother. It should still be your house. If he’s too cowardly to scold the suitors for wasting his fortune, then don’t let him take his frustration out on you. You should not have to put up with his insolent behavior and at least 10 rude suitors.
    I can’t even imagine the misery you must be going through.
    Your faithful friend,

    My 11yo son just finished Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Wanderings of Odysseus’ and he also commented on Telemachus’s disrespect of his mother. My son has no trouble asserting and maneuvering for his way, so I was kind of (again, pleasantly) surprised that he saw the wrong in Telemachus’s behavior toward his mother!

  • Yes, listen. Also? Keep the disagreements brief when anger is flaring. Say what you need to say, but disengage and cut off the argumentativeness at the pass. Revisit the issue later when you both have cooled down and are rational. In other words, don’t escalate the issue if you don’t have to. Take a deep breath, step back, calm down, revisit it when you can talk calmly. Above all? Keep a sense of humor and remember that you love this person.

    I have four teenagers. (19, 17, 16, and 13.) So far – so good, but I wouldn’t want to remain at this stage forever. 🙂

  • Susan N.

    Holly, on the invaluable advice to “listen”, I have learned that keeping a dialogue going about what my daughter is thinking and feeling — often by interacting with literature (see #7 above!), movies and TV (LOST, Harry Potter, The Help, etc.) — helps me, many times, to “read between the lines” when suddenly she seems upset out of proportion by something. Encouraging her to write it out/journal about a problem. Use of humor — being able to lighten up about a situation; and humility — self-explanatory 😉

  • I have 5 children, the youngest is 12. Many days I have asked myself ‘who did you think you were to think you could be a parent?’ From the time my kids could understand I told them ‘Mom is not perfect. I make mistakes.’ I have found it’s really important to admit when we are wrong, to say ‘I’m sorry’ without following it up with a ‘but…’. And even when they withhold forgiveness, we still have to love restoration more than we love being right. I don’t usually promote my blog like this but when I saw your question I thought about this

  • Susan N.

    Patricia — I have read your blog! Once when you posted a very thoughtful comment here on JC a while back, I followed the link and read a few of your wonderful posts. My favorite, favorite funny (but seriously, though) line that has stuck with me, ‘Excuse me, but you have a Voldemort sticking out the back of your head!’ You are a treasure. God bless you and your family. Thanks for posting this comment (#10) here.