Don't Get Stopped By Your Arguing Teen

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:

Don’t Get Stopped by Your Arguing Teen

Episode 020 · Duration: 00:17:38


Don’t Get Stopped by Your Arguing Teen

Are you struggling to get past your teenager’s arguments and protests? I was recently giving a talk to parents at Longfellow Middle School in Virginia, and many of the parents understood what I was explaining in theory, but were struggling dealing with their own kid’s arguments and protests when they attempted to enforce limits. Today, we’ll talk about productive ways to deal with your kid when they argue and protest your limits.

In order to address any challenging behavior from your son or daughter we need to take a step back and look at what’s our goal, what we are trying to accomplish. That way when your son or daughter fights and argues we can respond in a way that supports our goal and avoid feeling stopped in our tracks.

Picture an arched footbridge that your teenager is traveling over. Let’s imagine that they are starting in the land of childhood, at about the age of 12 or 13, and are traveling over this footbridge and arriving in the land of young adulthood at about age 18. When they arrive in the land of young adulthood we want them to be ready to deal with the many responsibilities that will confront them.

Helping our kids take this journey is not easy. Young teenagers 12, 13 and 14-years-old are taking their first steps in pushing away from parents and prioritizing their relationships with their peers and learning to make decisions, as well as do things independently from their families, and us, their parents. Older teenagers 16, 17 and 18-years-old have learned more independent skills and are hopefully motivated by getting ready for their young adult years. They’re not as focused on pushing away from parents as they are by getting ready for what’s next in life. 15 year-old teenagers are a little bit of both. This is a profound period of human development where kids are learning and growing, leaving their childhoods behind and preparing for adulthood.  

Kids are learning and growing, leaving their childhoods behind and preparing for adulthood. Click To Tweet

All this is a very dynamic and difficult thing to do. It requires a constant renegotiation of the relationship between parents and teens. As kids demonstrate their ability to manage responsibilities and make healthy decisions to their parents, parents support increased independence and offer more privileges. This process is often messy with kids having plenty of ups and downs, and of course they can easily take their parents along for the ride. It is not at all uncommon for kids to think they’ve earned privileges and the right to independence when in fact they have not met their parent’s standards. Also kids often want privileges and independence that are appropriate for older teens when they are simply still too young. It’s quite common that kids will fight and argue with their parents in an effort to get the independence and the privileges they want but haven’t yet earned.

You and I know that fighting and arguing is the wrong way to get what we want, and it’s the wrong way for your teenager to get what they want.  We want to teach them the right way to get what they want. That means kids being patient, accepting parental limits and addressing parental and school expectations. In order to do that, our kids need to learn to deal with their feelings of frustration and disappointment and have faith that as they grow and mature, that the privileges and independence will come. That we’re on their side, we want them to be happy and have plenty of privileges. We just want them to get there, the right way.

Fighting and arguing is the wrong way to get what we want. Click To Tweet

Now let’s look at some of the ways that kids fight, argue and protest, and some ways we can respond to these behaviors so they don’t become chronic control battles. Instead, let’s turn these behaviors into learning experiences for our kids so that our response helps them take their next steps over the footbridge towards young adulthood.  

Today we are going to look at 4 common forms of teen resistance. I’m calling them: The arguer, the badger, the hostile sulkier, and the debater.

The arguer:  The arguer gets emotional, loud, gives lots of reasons why the limit or consequence is unfair. They might make promises about how they’ll be able to handle the privilege they’re fighting for, or how they’ll manage the currently undone responsibilities that are keeping them from the privilege. Their emotion and the attitude they portray is that you are betraying them, and that their suffering is enormous. Some kids, in the face of not getting what they want, will claim that nothing here-after will ever matter to them, that what they want right now is the only thing they care about. At extreme levels, kids will threaten to punish their parents for punishing them. If you take my phone away, I’m really not going to do my homework then, or if I can’t go to the party, I’m going to hate you forever and I’ll really not cooperate then.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’ve told your 15-year-old son that he’s lost his computer gaming privileges because he hasn’t been doing his homework and hasn’t been cooperative when you’ve asked him to take care of his home responsibilities. He starts yelling, “That’s ridiculous. You’re way over-reacting. I do most of my work and I’m going to catch up. Am I supposed to be perfect? I hate school anyway. Why would you take away the one thing I enjoy in life.”  

Sound familiar?

Step one: Don’t react to their emotion. Look directly at your son and listen to what he’s saying and do not respond while he is still talking and heated. Ask if he is done and if he never finishes, let him know that you’re happy to discuss the situation when he is ready to listen.

When you get his attention and he is listening, summarize what you hear him say. In this case, you might say: Thank you for telling me your thoughts. Now I want to talk without being interrupted. I hear that you believe I’m overreacting, and that you do most of your work, and you think I expect you to be perfect. I do hear that you hate school and that I’m taking away the one thing you enjoy in life.  Those are very important thoughts and I see you feel very strongly about all this. What I want you to hear is that, you have not been doing your best or even close to your best.  You do not need to be perfect. You need to be cooperative, respectful, and to do your best.  As soon as I see you are doing those things and are ready to keep doing those things, computer gaming will come back. I’m not in control of your behavior, only you are and as soon as you take control of your attitude and your responsibilities, the privileges you enjoy will be back.

Three wonderful things happened here:

  1.  You didn’t get overwhelmed, caught up in a fight, and build or enter a control battle, so you’re not going to get burned out.
  2. You helped your son feel listened to and understood, and you modeled listening and understanding.
  3.  You showed him the right way forward, the right way to cross over the bridge towards his eventual young adulthood.

Now let’s look at how to accomplish this with the other three forms of protesting behavior.

The Badger: Badgering is an extreme form of the Arguer. The Badgerer will argue till his parent walks away, and then follow and keep arguing. Some parents have had to lock themselves in the bathroom or get in the car and drive away to get away and make the interaction stop.  A badgerer might sound like this:

You can’t take my computer privileges away. You never took Jimmy’s computer privileges away! How come you’re like that with me? I do most of my homework it’s not my fault if the teacher wasn’t clear about the deadline. It’s not a big deal anyway. Why is everything so important and such a big deal when it comes to me. Am I only one in this family that makes messes? How come I have to take blame for everything. Dad said he didn’t always do his homework either when he was a kid. How come I’m the one expected to be perfect around here. How would you like it if I took your computer privileges away?

And this can go on and on. This is obviously an extreme situation, but it exists and more often than you’d believe. The more extreme a situation is, the harder it is to turn around. But here’s a first step that will be a great start:

  1. Stop running away, turn around and face your child. Look them in the eye.
  2. Have a notepad and a pen and start writing down everything they say. Inevitably they will say, what are you doing? When they do simply say I want to make sure that I understand what you’re saying. You were saying so many things I need to write them down.  
  3. When they are done talking or demand a reply from you, ask them if they are ready to listen without interrupting. Then do the same thing that we did with the arguer. Tell them that you understand their thoughts and feelings by repeating them back and then let them know what they are going to need to do to earn their privileges. if they continue to badger and won’t let you get a word in, let them know this is called badgering and verbal abuse. They absolutely will not get privileges when they are badgering and verbally abusing you or anyone else. You just name what they are doing, and let them know that that’s the first thing they are going to need to change.

The Hostile Sulker: In this form of protest the kid will usually get very very angry and argue and if they don’t get what they want will make a threat and go to their room and isolate. Often the parent feels guilty and think they have to explain things more to get their kid to understand. They may even be tempted to back off and make some concessions.

In this case, give your kid some space. Go on with business as usual. If they continue their isolation and, for instance, won’t come to dinner or participate in something important, such as the family going out someplace together, simply go to their room and let them know that they are responsible for and completely capable of earning their privileges. That sulking and being uncooperative will make it that much harder for them to earn their privileges. You know they are completely capable of mature behavior and taking responsibility for their actions in dealing with this situation and making it better. But, it is entirely up to them. The privileges will be there for them when they take positive action, and not until. So if they need more time for themselves and need to sulk a bit longer that’s fine with you but it will just be dragging things out for them.

The Debater: The debater is reasonable, logical and strong in their presentation of arguments. They could be captain of the debate club at school. They have a very adult like presentation. In fact they sound so mature that it’s enticing for a parent to change their position. But don’t! Once again acknowledge their point of view and the reasonableness of it, and then do something that is often done in industry.

It’s called a gap analysis. It works like this: you look at where you are and where you need to be and the difference between those two things is called a gap. What you can do with your very reasonable teenager is explain that they’ve done an excellent job getting to where they are – and then let them know the next steps they need to take to close the gap and get where they need to be. If they continue their debating, simply nod your head indicating that you understand. When they stop, clarify the points that still need to be addressed, tell them you appreciate their reasonableness and to be ready to review this with them at some designated point in the future, say Sunday evening.

In each of these cases you’re helping your kids feel understood and validated. You are offering a healthy way to move forward in the crossing of their developmental bridge. If you’ve done that, you’ve done them a wealth of good while saving yourself a lot of grief, struggle, arguing and fighting, which only leads to control battles and burnout. Your teenager won’t benefit from that and neither will you.

We just reviewed four forms of protest and four ways to deal with them. You are not alone in the struggle, it’s hard for all parents of teens. If we can keep in mind that our kids will present plenty of inappropriate behaviors, they’re learning and it’s our job is to teach them. What we’re doing is helping our kids cross the developmental bridge and build skills for their inevitable young adulthood. It’s never smooth and it’s never easy, it isn’t for any of us. Just have faith in yourself and faith in your teen, and you’ll do great.

Have faith in yourself and faith in your teen, and you’ll do great. Click To Tweet

Thanks to the parents at Longfellow Middle School for their great questions! And for those experiencing parental burnout, get your free control battle assessment below to see where your relationship with your teenager stands and what you can do about it right now.

Is It A Control Battle?


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