How to avoid arguing with your teenager!

Parent-teenager conflicts are common. I have lost count of the number of times a parent has come to me at their wit's end wondering what to do with a teenager who wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t shut up, or was uncontrollably defiant. Regardless of the specifics of the conflict, all of the conflicts share a common theme. The teenager and the parent disagree about the teen’s behavior and attitudes. The parents want change and the teen sees no need or has no desire to change. A careful review of each of these conflicts has taught me that they are almost always predictable and preventable.

I say predictable because of what we know to be true about human nature. At the core of each person is a desire for self-determination, the need to be in charge of one’s own destiny. No one I have ever met wants to spend their entire life being told by someone else how they should live. This natural tendency begins to blossom at puberty, quickly peaking by the high school years. We all went through it and we all experienced the feelings of frustration when our parents told us to do things we didn’t want to do, so we should not be surprised when our kids have the same feelings.

I say preventable because if we are aware of the above tendency and prepare ourselves and our children for it we can avoid many of these confrontations. In a surprising fit of wisdom many years ago I had preparatory conversations with my children about this that resulted in remarkably conflict-free high school years.

I sat down with each child (in a moment of peace and harmony, NOT right after a blow up!) and told them what the future would bring, sharing each of the points below-

  1. It is natural for ALL children to desire independence and to do things their own way.

  2. It is natural to want to push back against the rules and wishes of your parents.

  3. Natural does not necessarily mean good and right. (In fact, as Christians we believe that our nature is to be selfish and do wrong much of the time)

  4. One of a parent’s key jobs during adolescence is to help their child recognize when their natural desires are leading them astray.

  5. If the desire to push back and challenge authority is not controlled it will be very hard to succeed in life. (I shared with them that if a future boss asked them to do a task and was met with rolling eyes, a sigh and a “Why, me?” they would soon be out of a job!)

  6. To help them succeed in life I was going to make sure that we dealt with this problem as soon as it appeared. In order to help them learn how to deal with these situations, whenever this natural tendency showed up I would remind them of this conversation. Instead of saying, “Don’t talk to me like that!” I would say, “Remember how we talked that it was natural to challenge but not right and good? This is one of these times. I want you to take a break and step back and think of a better way to handle this.”

  7. If they didn't take that step back and find a way to better handle it their emotions I would make sure there was a consequence, because this was a very important lesson.

  8. Finally- I promised them that there would be a number of times when, just like a future boss, my position would possibly be wrong or stupid and, also just like their future boss, they would have to do it anyway!

This worked amazingly well over the years. I think what made it most effective was my children understood that it was about them being the type of person they wanted to be (successful and with good relationships) and not about them being under my thumb. It may not work for everyone, but I have been told by many parents that this approach has helped them!

- Bart

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