I never like to encourage arguing, but it is a natural part of the teen parent relationship. In fact, many teens actually find arguing a productive way of communicating. Parents, on the other hand find it overwhelming, stressful and hard on the relationship. I think that there is a huge difference between healthy arguing and damaging arguing. ‘Healthy’ arguments are productive, leave both parties feeling good and encourage more communication not less.
Here is how to have ‘healthy’ arguments with your teens:
1. Avoid permission fatigue.
Teens have this wonderful technique they use when they fight where they will ask and ask until you just are tired of saying no. I call this permission fatigue. This can be avoided by not only saying no (or yes) to certain arguments, but then making a point to make it the last time. This goes something like this:
“I’m sorry you cannot have more allowance for the concert ticket. You can earn it by washing the cars, but we will not give it to you. This is the last I have to say about this, so please do not wait a few days and try again or think of other ideas and keep approaching me. If you have any other pleas or ideas you can say them now, but this will be the last of it.” [If this has not worked in the past you can add “and if you do, then I am giving you no allowance this month.” And then, of course, following through with it.]
2. Know when to stop.
There is usually a moment when either a teen’s or parent’s voice reaches a new octave. This is when I typically call for a break. Healthy arguments can often turn toxic if they go on too long or are continued when one party enters aggravation mode. You can stop by saying:
“I know we are not done discussing this. But lets calm down, regroup and talk about this after dinner. That way we will not be hungry and maybe Dad will be home to talk too.”
3. Acknowledge past wins—on both sides.
It is always good to remind yourself and your child that you are on the same side AND you have worked it out before. This can also have a calming effect. You can try:
“I know we can find a way to work this out, just like we did with the concert tickets and your allowance last month. I think we both felt good about that. How can we do that again?”
4. Put it in writing.
I think many arguments can turn toxic when parents and teens are arguing ‘he said, she said.’ By putting previous compromises, stipulations and deals in writing, you can easily refer back to what was and wasn’t said.
5. Know afraid can look angry.
Sometimes parents tell me they cannot believe how angry their child gets at a drop of a hat, or over things that should not provoke anger. This is often because afraid from a teen can just look like anger. Many teens display anger—yelling, door slamming or mean comments to cover up a fear. If parents address the fear, often the anger dissipates.
6. Address the emotional intent, not necessarily the issue at hand.
Emotional intent is the feelings behind words, actions or a problem. Sometimes they are not the issue at hand. For example, if a child is overly angry about having to finish dinner. Instead of forcing the food or enacting a punishment, a parent should stop and think about the emotional intent. This example actually happened to a family I was working with recently and we figured out that the daughter was more upset that she had told her mom she did not like this particular meal and felt her mom was punishing her by making it. The mom explained that it was the only quick meal she could put together and had not had a chance to use up all the boxes after they had that conversation. The daughter realized it was not personal and agreed to help out if she wanted a meal she liked on a busy night.
The line between healthy and harmful arguing is a slim one, but it can be balanced. Practice these techniques and add your own. Most importantly, you want your child to feel heard and accounted for and then make sure you keep your boundaries.