I have little doubt that a number of readers will feel that teenagers argue too much. However, I wish to put the case for the opposite! So let me begin by clarifying what I am talking about in this article when I refer to the ability to argue. I am not talking about those times when teenagers make unrealistic demands of their parents, or when a discussion passes boiling point and ends with the stomp of feet up the stairs and the slamming of a bedroom door. Nor am I talking about those times when parents pass the point of frustration with what seems like the innate ability of some teenagers to question absolutely any request, however small and reasonable it might seem to their parents. Rather, I am talking about the ability to present a point of view in a thoughtful way, whilst showing respect to those who hold a different opinion. I am talking about constructing an argument using a logical thought process, while taking account of the bigger picture that provides the context for whatever is under discussion. I am talking about the ability to listen to those with whom one disagrees, taking on board points made by others, but nevertheless holding firm to important principles. I am talking about developing negotiation skills and ultimately reaching a level of maturity that understands that arguments are often about clarifying and learning; not about winning.
The ability to argue effectively is an important skill for teenagers to develop as they approach adulthood. It is a skill that will make them more marketable to potential employers; it will help them build stable adult relationships; it will help them in situations where they need to be able to listen to, and negotiate with, others. But this is not a case of developing a life skill, all of whose benefits lie at some stage in an uncertain future. In the shorter term, those who have begun to learn the skills of arguing effectively in their early teenage years are better equipped for some aspects of their ongoing education as well as being armed with a powerful weapon to help them resist some of the negative peer pressures with which they might be faced in their later teenage years.
As indicated above, there are a number of aspects to arguing effectively. As with any complex skill, time and practice are essential to its successful development. One of the ways that human beings learn is through their mistakes, and learning to argue effectively is no exception. At times, teenagers get it wrong: their frustration may take over, they may shout and become disrespectful, but when these things happen, they rely on the significant adults in their lives to help them learn from their mistakes. The important question for parents, then, is not how to prevent teenagers arguing, but how to best help them develop their argumentative tendencies in a way that will equip them for the adult world to which they are headed.
Advice for Parents
Try to keep calm. Parents, of course, can bear the brunt of it when teenagers are going through the learning process, and especially when they get things wrong. However, responding with the same type of broken behaviour pattern that is being portrayed by the teenager is not helpful in moving the situation forward. Shouting over your teenager to stop them shouting, or becoming aggressive in response to perceived teenage aggression, both represent a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis situation that may bring some momentary emotional relief, but neither lays the groundwork for a constructive way forward. Similarly, trying to demonstrate that you can be even more stubborn and unreasonable than your teenager, may feel in the heat of the moment like a way to win an argument. However, it will likely also fuel longer-term bitterness and relationship breakdown. All these approaches really only end up with two people behaving badly. Consequently, the teenager learns nothing about arguing effectively. If a situation becomes heated, be ready to walk away until the temperature has cooled sufficiently for you both to be able to return and address the topic in a more rational way.
Distinguish between disrespect and argument. Even a cursory glance at websites on the subject of teenage behaviour will show that argument and disrespect are frequently linked. However, this is not a necessary link. Teenagers often ask questions by arguing. Parents who have developed the ability to understand what is happening even in the midst of a simmering situation, and who can answer arguments calmly, clearly and logically, do the most in such situations to foster learning. Teenagers benefit most from parents who can model appropriate ways to disagree and good argumentation skills, enabling them to learn more about the issue under discussion and also about the good use of argument as a learning tool.
Promote the ability to construct logical argument. Teenage brain development starts at the back of the brain and moves forward. This means that teenage responses are governed more by the amygdala, situated at the back of the brain and triggering strong emotions, than by the pre-frontal cortex, which is at the front, develops later, and governs logical thought. As most of us have observed, teenagers often respond to situations emotionally and need help if they are to develop the skills of making a considered and logical response. Teenagers are often told of the need for a well-constructed argument without anyone ever really explaining what that is or how it can be developed. Helping teenagers understand how to develop good argumentation skills and to put them to use is an important factor in their preparation for adult life.
Model respect and good argumentation skills. The best way to help your teenager understand the need for respect, even when they disagree with someone’s viewpoint, is to model it in your dealings with them. Good parents take time to listen to their teenager’s point of view and to consider their arguments. They ask questions and seek clarification when they do not understand. They value good points made during the course of an argument and remain polite even when provoked. They demonstrate empathy for their teenager and their situation, and explain their decisions carefully. Adopting such approaches as a parent both models respect and demonstrates some of the important skills for arguing effectively. The teenager who knows how it feels to be respected is far more likely to respect others, and the teenager who has experienced significant adults in their life arguing effectively is far more likely to seek to develop similar techniques.
Keep the bigger picture of parenting in mind. It is important for parents to keep in mind the overall goal in parenting a teenager – to help the teenager reach the point where they can enter the adult world successfully. For the parent, winning an argument with their teenager is not the ultimate goal. Sure, it may give a short-term feeling of satisfaction, but especially if the argument has been won through the use of bullying tactics, or by sacrificing truth for expediency, the overall goal will have been set back. This is not to say the parent should always give in, or should sacrifice their fundamental principles. However, wise parents will look for opportunities to give ground when their teenager argues effectively, admitting that the teenager has explained a perspective they (the parent) had not previously understood or appreciated. Through such comments, the teenager “feels” the value of arguing effectively and is more likely to press on with the development of this important life skill.
The tendency for teenagers to argue is, of course, part of their natural development. They test their boundaries by arguing as they strive for independence. Rather than something to be avoided, tolerated, or “squashed”, this natural element of human development contains considerable potential for personal empowerment in
Dr Steve Sims is author of the blog Regarding Teenagers and Director of the Basel Learning Hub in Switzerland.