What to Do When Your Teenager Is Better at Arguing Than You

What to Do When Your Teenager Is Better at Arguing Than You

I was talking with Julie, the mother of a 13-year-old teen the other day.

We had been working together to help their family end a Control Battle, a battle that was starting to have serious implications for their son Ryan’s development.

He was increasingly irresponsible both at home and at school and his teachers were reporting that he was doing a lot of back-talking and was getting sloppy and inconsistent with his work.

Julie was lamenting the challenge she had setting limits with Ryan. It seems her son is a really fast talker and a good arguer.

Julie — on the other hand — is a thoughtful, sincere person who wants to consider her son’s points of view, but she is not good at verbal warfare.

To put it bluntly, she simply can’t argue as well as her son can, so she gives in a lot.

She knows she’s not really helping Ryan when she does give in, but since she can’t think of a good comeback to his arguments, and she doesn’t want to resort to because I said so, she felt stuck and in need of some advice.

Take the Steps to Starve the Beast

Here is the situation Julie presented to me:

Ryan had lost computer privileges due to falling behind in schoolwork.

Julie promised Ryan that he could have some computer time back when he got caught up on his school assignments, which, after a few days and with Julie’s support, he did.

And when things were caught up, Julie went ahead and let him get on the computer.

After he had been on for quite a while, Julie told him he needed to turn it off, get his things straightened up, and start his homework.

Ryan was quick to anger and started in on Julie,

“You said I could use my computer if I got caught up and I did. You promised and now you’re taking back your promise. It’s not fair! You lied to me.”

Julie tried to be reasonable and explain that other things still needed to be done, but Ryan just kept coming at her. She didn’t know what the right thing to do was since she didn’t want Ryan to lose trust in her.

Maybe he really just doesn’t understand and the last thing Julie wants is for Ryan to think she lied.

This is a situation that I’ve dealt with fairly commonly over the years… how to respond to a kid who is arguing, without just shutting them down and not getting drawn into an argument.

After all, arguing with your kid is a great way to slip into or maintain a Control Battle.

Arguing with your kid is a great way to slip into or maintain a Control Battle.Click To Tweet

This is particularly challenging for parents who care about their youngster’s feelings and are reasonable, when they have a kid who is often argumentative and unreasonable.

Here is the advice I gave Julie:

First of all, Julie, you’re asking a great question because you are absolutely right — you don’t want to just shut Ryan down. That would just build resentment and not teach him anything.

And you don’t want to get drawn into an argument, because even if you were better at it, winning wouldn’t lead you out of the Control Battle anyway.

Here are some principles to apply:

We want to respond to each negative behavior from our kids with a teaching opportunity. In your situation with Ryan, we also want to respond in a way that will “starve the beast” or end your Control Battle.

There are several things that Ryan needs to learn here:

  • First of all, of course, is how to communicate his feelings to you respectfully.
  • Second, to listen and learn from what you tell him.
  • Third, all privileges come with conditions and contingencies.

Let’s put these three ideas together into a conversation that we might have with Ryan.

Arguments happen at a fast pace, so we’ll need to slow things down to get out of argument mode. A good way to do that is to simply listen without responding until he finishes. It shouldn’t take long, 30 seconds or so. If he’s going on and on, simply ask if he’s done.

Then validate his thoughts and feelings. I’m not saying agree with his point of view, validation is different from that. It is simply acknowledging his thoughts and feelings in a caring way.

Next, ask if he is ready to listen before you explain things to him.

Finally, let him know what he needs to learn in this instance.

In this case, you might say, “I understand that you are upset that I’m telling you to stop playing your video games and you think I’m reneging on a promise that you could play. I can see how you might feel that way.”

Next you will want to make sure you have his attention before you go on:

“If you are ready to listen, I’ll explain a few things to you.”

If Ryan starts to argue again, stay calm, be patient, and repeat what you just said. Do not respond to his interruption. When he’s ready you can go on:

“First of all, it’s fine for you to tell me when you think things are unfair or any other thoughts or feelings you have. When you do, you must be respectful. Raising your voice, making accusations, badgering or trying to bully me and not listening are all unacceptable behaviors. If I’m telling you something, whether it’s something you like or not, there is a reason for it, and you need to respect that.

Second, you are a 13-year-old young man, and you are going to want more and more independence as you get deeper into your teen years; independence that your Dad and I want you to have. We love you and want to support you in getting what you want. But to earn those things, you need to understand how things work and how you get them. So you need to listen to us and learn from us. That’s where you’ll get the information you need to earn the privileges and independence you want both now and for later.

Finally, Ryan, when I said you could have some computer time, it did not mean unlimited computer time and that you no longer needed to take care of your responsibilities. All privileges come with contingencies. They are based on demonstrating a good attitude and being respectful, and on managing your responsibilities. Also, other things that are not under your control could change as well, and you’ll need to maintain a good attitude when that happens.”

Always Be Prepared…

After Julie and I discussed this, she said:

Neil, I wish I had your words in my head. I just can’t think that fast on my feet.

I had to admit to Julie that I had the luxury of thinking and composing a response in a reasonably paced conversation with a reasonable person. I wasn’t dealing with an argumentative 13-year-old.

Unprepared, I might not do much better she did.

Here's how to avoid an argument without shutting your teenager down:Click To Tweet

So let’s get prepared.

  1. Don’t argue or give in.
  2. Slooooow things down.
  3. Validate.
  4. Have their attention before you explain anything.
  5. Remind them that you love them and want to support them.
  6. Give them the information they need to earn the things they want.

Armed with these basic principles, you can:

  • Avoid an argument without shutting your teenager down.
  • Turn a struggle into a learning opportunity.
  • End your Control Battle and “starve the beast.”

Do you have a teenager who loves to argue? Leave your story in the comments below.

Thinking your family might be in an unhealthy Control Battle? Download my free self-assessment checklist just below the comment section.

4 thoughts on “What to Do When Your Teenager Is Better at Arguing Than You

  1. It’s great to know that I’m not the only one who sometimes needs time when caught in a verbal battle. I appreciate that by slowing down I can shift the whole terrain. I see plenty of opportunity to use these strategies – and I don’t have teenagers at home anymore!

    • You’re so right, Robin. These strategies have plenty of uses aside from speaking with our teens. Taking a step back from any conversation — slowing it down — gives us a chance to think things though. In fact, it’s a great way to prevent a conversation from descending into a “verbal battle” altogether.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      Neil

  2. Wow, just even slowing down and listening to them complain disrespectfully without getting defensive is hard! Also, sometimes when I try to empathize or validate, my daughter attacks those types of words!

    • Yes Sarah, some kids can be extremely argumentative and disrespectful. And parents can feel like they are out of ideas for doing anything productive about it.

      When they reject your validating words you can simply say, “I see that you are not ready to take that in” or words to that effect. The idea is that you simply acknowledge what they are doing, without personalizing it or judging it. That keeps you out of the Control Battle.

      — Neil

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