How to have an argument with a teenager

Arguing with a teenager can feel like arguing with a lawyer at times.  The factual information is laid out in black and white, the passion and perseverance are truly astonishing, and the dedication to winning the case admirable.  But often there is something about the argument that sparks our anger and we leap to the “no” with too much vigor. Or the teenager does such a good job of presenting their case, that we cave in to the logic and accept defeat, while in the pit of our gut, something feels wrong.  And our gut is usually right — something is missing.

There are two parts to the dance we do when in conflict with a teen — your dance steps and theirs.  Young people who have not fully matured think in black and white terms, don’t take into account long term consequences of decision-making, and often fail to consider the impact of their wants and needs on those around them.  This is a normal part of the maturation process that we, as parents, need to guide them through so that they develop the capacity for abstract thought, a future orientation, the ability to delay gratification, and a social ethic (from An Unchanged Mind, by John McKinnon).  But when teenagers argue from their immature perspective it is super-annoying.  Parents feel manipulated and our responses are often closely tied to our emotional reaction to this annoyance.  Our steps in the dance comes from this emotional reaction. Depending on our personal style of dealing with conflict we may placate, become extremely rigid, avoid, or become super-rational lawyers in return.  Our reaction and the response style is hard-wired in us, and is usually not that helpful. And our teenagers find it super-annoying too!

Most parents would like their child to change and mature.  Unfortunately, when we are stuck in a particularly non-productive dance with our child, the only way to get them to change is for us to change.  We need to de-program our default reaction to requests and figure something different out. In this article I will break down how to approach an argument in a manner that allows for a calculated response rather than an emotional reaction.

Step 1 and 2 belongs to the teenager.  This is what you will eventually train your child to do before asking for something.  Don’t expect them to get this part for awhile. For now, you can expect that their requests will be emotional and wanty/needy.

Teenager — Step 1.  Think about what you want to ask your parent for.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I asking for a “want” or a “need”?
  • What problem/need am I trying to solve/meet with this request?
  • Is this really the solution to my problem/need?
  • Are there some alternative solutions to my need?
  • Am I willing to let go if need be, and accept a no?
  • Have I earned this privilege by meeting other obligations within the home?
  • Have I demonstrated I can handle the responsibility?
  • What is the impact of this request on my parent(s)?
  • How will I take into account my parent(s)’ needs in relation to this request?

Teenager — Step 2.  State your request and the justifications for your request.  Let your parent know how you are also taking their needs into account.

Parent — Step 1 .  Do not answer your teenager’s request yet.  Gather more information first as follows.

  • Listen to the request in its entirety
  • Validate their need or want
  • Be curious and ask questions to get more details
  • Help your teenager determine the answers to the questions listed above

Parent — Step 2.  Do not answer your teenager’s request yet!  Take a step back and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this request align with my values, e.g do I believe that what they want is a good choice for a young person?
  • If I disagree with what my child wants am I okay with letting go, letting them make their own decisions about this, and possibly experience failure?
  • Is this a real safety issue where I need to set firm limits?
  • Does the request align with the (reasonable) limits that we already have in place?
  • Has my child earned this privilege by meeting his/her other obligations?
  • Has my child demonstrated (not just described) that he/she can handle the responsibility associated with the request?
  • Have I let my child know what the impact will be on me and asked them to take me into account too?
  • Am I willing and able to meet the request?
  • Am I giving a “gift” to my child or are there strings attached, and are these appropriate and fair strings?
  • Do I want to meet this request?
  • Is there an alternative to meeting my child’s needs/wants that fits better with what I believe in? (E.g. enrolling in an activity to build self-esteem instead of buying expensive shoes)

And finally, the biggest question of all:  Is my response being driven by fear, guilt, pity, or anger?  If the answer to this one is yes, go through the questions again with that in mind.  Be conscious of how your emotion is driving you.

Parent — Step 3 — Formulate your response to the request and check your gut to make sure you feel okay about it.  If not, go back to Step 2 and figure out what’s not working for you.

Parent — Step 4 — Communicate your decision and the reasons for it and hold your ground!  Help your child process the emotions they feel as follows:

  • Listen to their pain
  • Empathize with how they feel and validate those feelings (I can see how angry you are — it must be really hard for you to hear no)
  • Avoid justifying your decision.  You do not have to justify it provided it has integrity and is based on your values.
  • Help the teen develop another solution to their problem once they have calmed down.

Parent — Step 5 — After it is all over, maybe after a few days, have a more casual, discussion about your child’s perceived wants and needs.  Aim for a conversational style that might influence how they make choices in future. Remember to listen more than talk. Help them learn to ask themselves the questions above before asking for something next time.

But wait— you’ve missed a step!!

You probably think that I am forgetting the teenager’s emotional outburst step.  What happens when they break down and have a full-fledged tantrum in response to your “no”?  What happens when they stalk you throughout the house when you are trying to de-escalate the situation by leaving the room.  Yelling, screaming, and violence or threats of violence or self-harm are all common reactions when a parent decides that they are finally going to stick to their limit.  Unfortunately you are going to have to live through some of this and HOLD YOUR GROUND. When we have been doing a particular non-productive dance for awhile we set an expectation in the child’s mind — my parent will give in if I become violent, threaten to kill myself, beg, cry, etc.  And we have inadvertently trained the teen to persist until they wear us down. This pattern is difficult to shift and we really have to pay attention and resist the pull to respond from our emotions (fear, guilt, pity, anger). When you hold your ground, there will be more intensity for awhile, but then eventually each subsequent emotional response will be reduced in intensity as the teen discovers that it does not work.

Will your child actually harm themselves?  Possibly yes and hopefully no.  The damage that is being done by allowing things to carry on as is will grow every time we avoid the tantrum by giving in.  Eventually, the parent has to bite the bullet, set a limit, and withstand the outburst. No point in prolonging the agony.  It is critical to your child’s development to move forward.

Future blog posts will focus on how to avoid parenting from fear, guilt, pity or anger.

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