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Arguing With Your Adolescent

Arguments and adolescence go hand in hand.

Adolescence is a disputatious age. Dispute about what? For the adolescent, any issue will often do when the point of the dispute is argument itself.

The young person is testing his or her power of disagreement with parents by contesting their power of authority. Argument takes assertiveness, something adolescents need more of to handle the more aggressive push and shove with teenage peers.

Parents are like sparing partners in this way. A good argument with parents sharpens your skills and keeps you in condition. So after a few rounds of intense debate, although parents are exhausted, the young person is hardly winded, talking on the phone with a friend as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, exhausted parents are lying out, taking much-needed time to recover.

Arguments and adolescence go hand in hand. As I describe more fully in my book about parent/teenager conflict, Stop the Screaming, you can't have one without the other.

Stop and think about it. A healthy adolescent is supposed to push for all the freedom to grow she can get as soon as she can get it, and healthy parents are supposed to restrain that push within the limits of safety and responsibility.

It is this conflict of interest, most commonly expressed as an argument, that unfolds over the course of adolescence, hopefully winding down after the young person, somewhere in the mid-twenties, demonstrates functional independence and retires parents from the active parenting business.

In frustration, particularly during early and mid-adolescence, parents will often hold the teenager responsible for this increase in arguments, but such blame is misplaced. Arguing, like all conflict, is a cooperative activity. It takes two to start and maintain an argument, but only one to stop it.

If parents want to stop an argument with their teenager, the solution is not to get him to stop acting argumentative. The solution is simply for them to stop arguing back.

"But he's so insistent and provocative," they complain. Even so, he can't provoke an argument with them without their permission and collaboration. If they believe he can, then they are giving him control over their behavior, and they should never do that.

If parents choose to cooperate in an argument with their adolescent, then there are two provisos worth observing. First, treat the argument seriously. I say this because some parents who are uncomfortable in conflict will display that discomfort in a nervous smile or laugh.

This is a mistake, because when a young adolescent has gathered the courage and resolve to confront the most powerful adults in his world and now feels like he is being ridiculed, humiliation and resentment will follow. So, if you have decided to cooperate in an argument with your teenager, treat it seriously, and show him or her proper respect.

Second, if the matter of disagreement is one about which you are already resolved, do not argue. Simply state your position again, explain it if you haven't already, and declare that your decision is not subject to change by further discussion.

To agree to argue about what you have already decided is to encourage the teenager with the false hope that he can change your thinking. Then, when he finds out you had no flexibility from the outset, he will get very angry about being led on. Any time you agree to argue, you open up the possibility for your teenager that he or she might change your mind.

Definitely remember that conflict creates resemblance. That is, in a conflict, each party tends to imitate the other's influential tactics. So the child may explain the exchange of blows with a sibling by saying, "I hit him back because he hit me." Or the parent will say, "I yelled at my teenager to stop her yelling at me."

Imitating counterproductive conduct in conflict only makes the conflict worse. Now two are behaving badly instead of one. So, when you're in an argument with your teenager, model constructive behavior so she has a chance to learn good conflict habits from imitating you.

It is important for parents to remember that conflict is not something they have with their teenager; it is something they do with their teenager.

It is a performance act. Every time they argue with their adolescent, by their example they are showing that young person how to argue. These are the skills the young person will take out into other significant relationships later on.

So they must model behavior in argument they want their teenager to imitate and follow — like sticking to specifics, staying on topic, making accurate statements, listening to understand, not interrupting, remaining rational, acting empathetic, and talking in a calm voice. How parents argue can be positively instructive.

How you refuse to argue with your teenager can also be inflammatory when you choose to offer no rational defense for your decision. This is when the teenager accuses parents of being "unreasonable," of taking a stand without having adequate (or even any) logic to back it up.

And the young person is often correct because many demands and limits they make have very little to do with reason, which is only one basis for parental decision-making. There are others.

There is authority: "Because I say so, that's why!"

There is fatigue: "Because I'm tired, that's why!"

There are values: "Because it's important, that's why!"

There are beliefs: "Because I know what I'm talking about, that's why!"

There are tolerances: "Because I can't stand it, that's why!"

There is self-interest: "Because I want it this way, that's why!"

Teenagers partly argue with their parents out the belief that all parental rules and requests and restraints should have reasons, and in many cases, they simply don't.

One of the problems in arguments between parents and teenagers is the inequity of impact. What is wearing for the parents is often stimulating for the adolescent. Even if she hasn't prevailed, she has stood up for herself, dared to challenge their authority, improved her argumentation skills, held her own, and generally acquitted herself well.

In general, adolescents derive more benefit from arguing with parents than parents do with them. For this reason, parents need to have adequate conflict avoidance skills so they can keep the frequency of argument within their tolerances. If they cannot, they will suffer stress from more conflict than they have the energy to afford.

There are many ways to stay out of arguments when your teenager is up for one and you are not.

  • You can declare what you want without having to justify it. "This is what I need to have you do."
  • You can explain your stand or request without having to defend it. "I need the clean up done before our friends arrive."
  • You can discuss to understand a difference without arguing over which of you is right. "I'm not trying to change your mind, I'm just giving you my point of view."
  • You can listen to disagreements without having to rebut them. "I hear what you say, and I am glad to know what you think."
  • You can respectfully refuse an invitation into argument. "This isn't something I have the energy to debate."

The point is, when it comes to arguing with their teenager, parents always have a choice. One problem is never that the teenager argues too much with parents; the other problem is that parents too frequently agree to argue back.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence.

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