How to Argue with a Teenager
By Candice Russell / August, 2011
You may have seen the widely broadcast TV commercial about a compliant softie of a father, who at every age of his young daughter's life, says "yes" to her every request. Then, in her mid-teens, the child asks dad if she can borrow the car to go out with her friends and he, surprisingly, says very calmly, "No." The girl stomps out of the room and screams, "You never let me do anything!"
Ah, the troubled teenage years, which can be as nettlesome for parents as kids navigating the world of pimples, sexual changes in their bodies, relationships with the opposite (or same) sex, and adult responsibilities like jobs and driving. Getting along with your teen sons and daughters can be difficult even when you have a well-established and long-standing trust between you. It is in the nature of the relationship for children to be pulling away from parents at this point and it is part of the parents' job to learn to let go a bit.
All of these factors, plus other stressors, can put a burden on parents and teens trying to get along under the same roof.
No matter if a father's parenting style is akin to laissez-faire rocker Ozzy Osbourne or a mother's style is strict as a platoon sergeant at army boot camp, there are bound to be some un-smooth waters between parents and teens.
Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D., of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, knows about this subject from a personal and a clinical perspective as founder and director of the Children's Center for OCD and Anxiety. She is the mother of an eighteen-year-old daughter and also a respected professional who works with young people in her practice. Also an author, Dr. Chansky published the book Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking in 2008, a primer for encouraging optimism at any age.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Chansky addressed the parental ground rules in arguing constructively with a teenager, "The basic idea is to fight fair and remember that you are in a collaboration. You both want to work together, which is really the truth. Neither side wants a fight. It's a challenge with teenagers, especially because they can push parental buttons. While parents may take a non-ideal way of expressing themselves, kids may react explosively. They are not trying to insult parents but to assert themselves.
"When a teen reacts with a statement like, 'That's a stupid idea,' let the force of that response pass you by. As soon as the force hits you, you feel injured as a parent. If you let it go, you function well in that situation. Try to empathize with what your teen is expressing. This doesn't mean you are agreeing to what is being said, but accepting it. Give yourself a chance to present your ideas and hear the responses as respectfully as possible. Don't call names, which parents can do by calling a teen irresponsible, and using the terms 'never' and 'always.' Avoid generalizations. Focus on the issue at hand, which is the most constructive approach."
Having her own child in the midst of those potentially perilous teen years, Dr. Chansky says their arguments are typical, revolving around curfews, computer time, and attitudes about responsibilities. "A lot of times teens feel put upon by the things that are asked of them, which prompt a response of a big sigh and eye-rolling," she says.
"This is a default response on the part of teens to things that are not fun, but it kind of gets old for parents, which they can deflect with humor. Parents could say in response, 'I know it wasn't the news flash you wanted, but this still needs to be done.' In the same way that you wouldn't get frustrated with a toddler taking her time to get dressed, we can get that same sense of appreciation in regard to our teenagers. It's not about us personally most of the time. By keeping our equanimity and not slamming doors, we will model what we want from our children. And since we're human, we will mess up as parents. It's important to apologize to our children in those cases."
If your teen doesn't like to have to telephone mom or dad during a night out with friends, have a conversation beforehand that creates a scenario for him or her to understand that need on your part. The challenge for both parents and teens is to deal with what Dr. Chansky calls "this stage of increasing autonomy. Teens are doing things that are more scary like driving and going to parties where you don't know the people or what is going on. The stakes feel and are higher."
What is important to maintain between parents and teens, no matter what the outcome of the argument? "Trust issues are established over time," says Dr. Chansky. "But things can become really heated if your teenager cheated, borrowed the car without permission, broke curfew, or whatever it is. In those cases, it may not be best to have a discussion immediately. You know what happens when people are really worked up -- your body is in a total adrenaline wash. It's much more constructive to have a conversation about the problem later.
"When it comes to sex, drugs, and lying, those conversations should happen beyond the heat of the moment. It's better to talk along the way with your teen about how he or she feels about a subject, what happens in their peer group, and how they would handle a situation if it came up. As a therapist, I work with teens and I ask them to figure out and practice what they are going to say in conversation with other kids when, let's say, the subject of drugs comes up. I role-play with them. Once they say the words they want to say, it sort of marks the spot for them and they're prepared."
Extreme situations of violence and threatened personal safety between a teen and parents mandate a telephone call to the emergency number 911. But most arguments don't escalate to this point. House rules determine behavior. If door-slamming isn't done in your house, it shouldn't be tolerated by an angry teenager. Parents should practice what they preach. If and when they don't, they should apologize.
Picking your battles as a parent will forestall the response on the part of some teens to ignore everything that a parent says. "Worry about the big ticket items," says Dr. Chansky. "Stylistically, how a teen keeps a room or spreads out homework all over the living room may not matter much. Within a family, it's important to decide what matters most."
Both parents and teens need to be mindful of the other's position. "Parents need to remember that emotion and logic often work at odds for teens," says Dr. Chansky. "It's important for parents not to personalize the first reaction from their teens. And teens need to remember that parents really do care and love them and want them to grow up to be independent people. But they also want them to be prepared."
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