Why You Should Argue with Your Teenager

Many parents come to counseling with the goal of having a peaceful, calm household.  They feel like their teenager argues with every request, treats all demands as unreasonable, and believes they know best about everything in their life.  They worry that their relationship seems to center only on conflict and seems to be lacking the closeness that was there when their teenager was still a child.  These parents want help understanding how to make their child stop arguing and how to find that magical conflict-free place they are dreaming about.  But new research shows that a conflict-free household with teenagers that never challenge their parents may not be the nirvana parents are looking for and that some conflict between parents and teens may actually be a good thing.

Researchers at the University of Virginia recently published the findings from a new study in the Journal Child Development.  The goal of the study was to look for key factors or traits that made some adolescents more susceptible to peer pressure, especially peer pressure related to the use of drugs and alcohol.  The research team found that one of the key factors that made some teens more able to stand up to their peers was being able to argue effectively.  Those adolescents who were able to use this skill to combat peer pressure learned it by practicing with their parents.

The study was based on two separate sets of interviews with 157 teens.  The participants were first interviewed when they were 13 and each interview was videotaped and then played back for both the teen and the parent.  The most common things the teens argued about with their parents were chores, money, grades, and friends.   The researchers observed how the parents reacted to viewing the video tape and any subsequent interaction between the parent and the child.

Upon viewing the initial videotape of their teen’s interview, parents in the study had a variety of reactions.  Some parents seemed uncomfortable; others seemed annoyed at their child or defensive about their parenting skills.  But there was one group of parents who used the video as a launching point to delve into the issues raised by the teen and began a discussion immediately to try and resolve the conflict or work through the problem.

The second round of interviews was conducted when the teens were 15 or 16.  The results of these interviews showed that those teenagers whose parents modeled calm conflict resolution and encouraged their teens to argue appropriately, were 40% more likely to stand up to peer pressure effectively.   In essence, learning to argue in a constructive way with their parents provided these teens with skills they then used when interacting with the world outside their family, including their peers.

In order for parents to help their teens acquire these all important skills, they need to create space for teens to argue in a constructive and appropriate way, model the behaviors they want to promote, and listen.  All arguing isn’t going to give teens what they need which is why this modeling is so critical.  Teens need to learn how to argue their point persuasively and calmly without resorting to anger, yelling, whining, throwing insults, or making threats.  The goal is to help teenagers become confident in their ability to express their opinion and stand up for that opinion even when others disagree.

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