Arguing with your teen can teach them 'a highly valuable life skill,' experts say. Here's how to fight fairly.
Why. it's OK to argue with your teen — and how to do it productively.
Adolescence can be a "rough and bumpy time" for parents and teenagers, according to Dr. Lateefah Watford, a child and adolescent and adult psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta. Teenagers test boundaries and push limits. Parents, who may have thought they had things figured out, must adjust to this new developmental stage and, as Watford notes, "time-out in the corner is no longer a viable consequence."
Sometimes, disagreements escalate, and parents and teens wind up arguing, which can lead to everyone feeling frustrated and upset. But according to Watford, “conflicts and disagreements are an inevitable and necessary part of life" that teach teens valuable communication and social skills they can carry into adulthood. Here's why.
Why do parents and teens fight?
According to psychologist Arianna Boddy, there are three primary reasons teens and their parents argue. Some arguments are rooted in conflicting needs. Others arise because one person’s needs, wants or desires go unmet. Finally, someone may have crossed a physical or emotional boundary, such as sneaking out at night.
Teens also crave independence and want to make their own decisions, adds Watford. They usually believe they are right and that they can change their parents’ minds. However, “although they think they are fully capable of making their own decisions” most teens “lack the maturity and life experience to make good, well-thought-out decisions consistently."
Meanwhile, because parents are better able to consider “consequences and potential outcomes” they often try “to provide guidance and boundaries for their teens,” Watford says. Instead of listening to their parents with an open mind, teens often think their parents don’t trust them or are just interfering in their lives, which leads to arguments, she explains.
Additionally, because teens still need attention from their parents, they may start arguments when they do not feel they are being seen or heard, Watford tells Yahoo Life.
Why it's OK to argue
Arguing with teens is “absolutely” OK, says Watford. She adds that it’s “not only necessary but unavoidable," noting that parents who discourage teens from expressing themselves can indirectly “teach them poor communication skills and can lead to resentment as well as further acting out.”
Boddy, meanwhile, says that a lack of arguments between teens and their parents can be a red flag. “If there isn’t any conflict or disagreements, then someone in the family system doesn’t feel safe to address conflict and will suppress their needs or … there are no boundaries,” she explains.
Arguments also present opportunities for teens to work on handling disagreements in a safe place, says Watford. These arguments also help teach teens that just because they disagree with someone, it does not mean the relationship is over. Arguments can also teach them to compromise and “accept outcomes that they did not necessarily want." Moreover, “encouraging your teens to experience and express their feelings appropriately … helps them learn to better manage their emotions while validating their feelings,” she adds.
Although arguing with teens can be unpleasant, Watford says that “these skills will serve them well as they mature into productive adults.” Boddy adds that this "is a highly valuable life skill they can take with them when they have ‘fights’ with friends, other adults, co-workers, partners and eventually their children.”
Kathy Larson is a mom of three who says she was not allowed to argue with her parents growing up. Any attempt to do so was considered “talking back.” As a result, she stopped sharing as much with her parents. As an adult, Larson “struggled with how to fight with [her] husband in a healthy way,” and avoided conflicts at work. Now that she has a 14-year-old, she's trying to break that pattern.
"Don't you expect any humans living in an intimate relationship would sometimes argue?" Larson says. "Having disagreements and working through them is a healthy thing in any relationship and not something to feel bad about.”
What are the rules of engagement when arguing with a teen?
Chaunie Brusie says that she doesn’t try to avoid arguments with her 15-year-old daughter but finds that “learning the right way to communicate with her is an ongoing process.”
Watford says that there are some rules parents can follow when they inevitably find themselves in an argument with their teen. Firstly, she recommends that parents and teens be prepared to argue fairly. “During times when there is not an active argument, it is important to discuss what is considered appropriate and inappropriate,” she says. That way, when arguments get heated, parents and teens can refer to the ground rules they set earlier. The specific rules will vary by family but may include “instant closers,” or a list of behaviors that will immediately end the discussion, such as cursing. Parents can also tell their teens “hard stop” topics in advance. These are topics that are not up for debate, such as a curfew or when a teen has to turn over electronics for the night.
Watford says that parents should “be an example" of how arguments should be handled. One way parents can do that is by being respectful. Although arguments can get heated, Watford says parents should not resort to name-calling or belittling. They should also remain truthful, refrain from comparing their teen to anyone else, avoid threats and continue to build their teen up by reminding them that they are loved unconditionally and that they have the tools they need to handle the conflict.
Parents and teens should also stay on topic and stay solution-oriented, Watford says. “Active arguments are not the time or space to repeat all perceived wrongs that your teen has done. Keep the argument on the specific topic at hand,” she advises. Watford also suggests that parents stay focused on reaching a solution. Ideally, parents and teens will agree on the solution, but at a minimum, the solution should be “clearly stated and accepted by all parties,” Watford says.
I’s also important to stay flexible. Even though parents may initially not accept their teen’s suggestions about how to solve a problem, they should stay open to hearing what they have to say.
And it's important to know when and how to end an argument. Watford says that parents and teens should have a plan to pause difficult or heated discussions. Some families develop “safe words” they can use to end an argument immediately if someone feels overwhelmed. Boddy adds that there may be times when arguing is inappropriate, such as in public or in front of friends. In those cases, she recommends telling teens, “I hear you. What you have to say and what you are feeling matters, however, this is not the time or place. We can talk about this in the car or at home.” She stresses that parents should be specific about when they will reengage because leaving the issue open can produce anxiety for the teen.
When does arguing go too far?
If parents and teens do not follow respectful rules of engagement, arguments can escalate. “Fighting can also mean aggressive and inappropriate communication … such as yelling, screaming, manipulating, belittling, criticizing, ridiculing or name-calling,” Boddy says. When this happens, a parent or teen might be arguing to maintain power and control, rather than trying to reach a healthy resolution. “This is not OK, healthy, normal or natural. This takes the form of some type of physical, sexual, digital, psychological, financial or verbal abuse,” Boddy says. When that happens, professional help may be warranted.
Bruise says that when she argues with her teenager she “never, ever let[s] a fight or argument that I feel has ended poorly on my account go on without addressing it. … I follow up to express my love and talk about what we can do. That's something I never had growing up and I do believe it makes a difference.”
Larson says she also follows up with her teen after an argument. “We talk about it, process it afterward,” she says, adding that if she “screwed up” during an argument and lost her temper she always apologizes.
“Arguments can be handled in a manner that those involved are able to safely express their concerns or address the issue as well as reach a resolution. With some preparation, even emotionally charged situations can end in a positive manner,” Watford says.
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