How to Stop Arguing With Your Teen (or Spouse, or Partner...)

Listening can be your best defense.

Posted Apr 09, 2012

She gives you that look. He starts to go ballistic when you tell him that he has to help around the house on Saturday. Suddenly everyone's buttons are pushed and WWIII begins. Within minutes, home-based civilization as we know it is breaking down, the stomping and yelling and "when you are 18 you can..." is out of control.

You don't want this and on a good day (or a couple of hours later) you know you shouldn't let it get so out of hand. Here's how a typical meltdown argument with a teen goes:

• Your teen is already in a bad mood.
• You make a request ("Clean your room," "Take out the trash") or, something more deadly: "You're grounded for the next week."
• Your teen is upset: She starts to pick a fight
• You try to remain calm but invariably she says something that pushes your buttons.
• She gets more upset, you get more upset.
• You get tunnel vision, and you want her to understand what you are saying.
• She keeps arguing and WWIII commences.

Obviously this is not working. The problem is not only that you both have tunnel vision, but also that you are speaking different languages. Yours is content: getting her to understand what you are saying; hers is to control the process: to jerk your chain and get you upset.

When it gets out of hand, there is a danger of real emotional damage. You need to cut it off at the pass.

How do you do this? Here's what to do:

Realize that your teen is struggling. The argument is her way of dealing with something that is bothering her. Think of this as though she were a 3-year-old who is tired and melting down in Wal-Mart about checkout candy. You wouldn't go ballistic; you'd know that it is about her—she is tired. So when she ramps up, tell yourself this is not about me but her. She is struggling. Be compassionate.

Realize that she can't win. This where parents have trouble. They feel that by not pushing back when their teen gets upset, the teen is winning. She can't. After all is said and done, you still have the power and the larger community will back you up (about going to school, not staying out late, etc.).

Stop and listen. As soon as you can tell that this is turning into a power struggle, that you are getting too out-of-control, that the conversation is going off-course, shut up. The problem is no longer what you are talking about but rather the emotion in the room. You need to put out the emotional fire, and you can do that by being quiet and listening.

Your teen will ramp up. This is to be expected. If you suddenly start arguing and get quiet, nod your head, say, "It seems you're upset," you are changing the pattern and your teen will invariably do something to pull you back in the fight: get more angry, say something disrespectful, bring up something from the past. Resist the challenge.

Continue to actively listen. I know, you are upset. This is not the time for lectures, ultimatums, attempts to solve the problem—the rational brain has shut down and it's all about emotion. Stick to putting out the fire. If you don't feed the fire, your teen will begin to settle down.

Mop up. Problem solved. Once your teen is emotionally flat-lined, go back and talk. "Let's try this again: What are you so upset about? I know you're upset that you can't go out Saturday night." Stay calm. Solve the problem, restate your request and your intention behind it. If it ramps up again go back to listening.

Talk about talking. At some point, within a few hours or days, try to have a conversation about the conversation. "What did I say that got you so upset? How can we avoid these arguments in the future?" Problem solve about that.

Finally, realize that this can be a challenge for you. Decide what support you need to change these patterns: have your spouse stand next to you without saying anything, breathe when you start to get upset, hold tightly to the arm of the chair and tell yourself that you are the adult and she is struggling.

What you are ultimately trying to do is break the pattern, help your teen learn to calm herself down, and most of all, perhaps, be a role model for handling differences.

And while we're talking here about teens, the same basic approach works with spouses, partners, irrational neighbors, staff, whoever is out of their right mind. The key is staying sane when those around you are not. Don't think of it as hand-to-hand combat, but emotional fire-fighting, with listening being the water that can put it all out.

So give it a try. Sometimes the best offense is none at all.