If I had to name one unexpected thing for which I am grateful to my mother, it would be her willingness to argue with me throughout my teenage years. (Or perhaps it would be more honest to say her willingness to let me argue with her!) Arguing with a teenager is something that many parents avoid when they can. But I’m going to argue (ha!) that those moments that try your patience can be the moments of your best parenting.Our society is obsessed with teenagers. Just think of the profusion of products marketed towards the adolescent age group…from colored hair extensions to smartphones. Materialism itself is enough to spark tension between youth who want to fit in and parents who want to set boundaries. Along with being inundated with information, teenagers are trying to discover themselves. The task set before them is almost contradictory – branching out while narrowing in. This explains why teens who hold it together at school and with friends frequently fall apart at home. Congratulations, parents, you get the privilege of dealing with the disaster!
When I gave a talk for young girls and their moms a year and a half ago, one thing that I pointed out was that parenting is aspirational, i.e. you are raising your children to be adults. By no means is this ground-breaking information. What I want to demonstrate is how arguing is a vital element of aspirational parenting. So, here goes:
Teens usually start an argument by pointing out inconsistency, sometimes specifically related to their parents’ behavior. It is important (albeit uncomfortable) to see if they have a legitimate point. When they do, work through it with them and respond with common sense. Apologizing or owning up is one of the most adult things you can do and teach. When they don’t, set them straight, but keep the discussion as a dialogue rather than a lecture. And remind them that accountability is a two-way street. If they are going to point out your flaws, it’s fair game for you to do the same with them.
2) Fear and Frustration
Sometimes you might not have the time or energy to deal with your disgruntled teen. But keep in mind that your children learn primarily through your attitude and actions, so hostility is not the best strategy. If it’s really not the time and place (e.g. at the mall) let them know that you are more than willing to have a conversation later…and mean it! This teaches them that you do value what they have to say, but that not every place is a decent debate space.
When you feel you’ve hit a roadblock, do your research and encourage your teen to do the same. You might find their biggest weakness is wanting to speak their minds without having any resources to back them up. My mum strategically left articles and books around the house to make sure that I was consuming a full diet of perspectives on issues, and I trusted her because I knew she was doing the same. (Thanks, mommy!)
Sometimes a young person just wants to feel like they can win. Regardless of who comes out on top by the end of the argument, prioritize the content and process of debate rather than the result. Acknowledge good points even when the conclusion isn’t quite right. Don’t feel insecure at times when their argument is more thoughtful than yours. That is simply a reflection of their growing skill, which is the desired result, after all.
4) Quality Time
Finally, arguing should be true quality time, not something that you dread or disregard. Use your arguing practice as a way to ensure that your teens are actually aware of what’s going on in the world – beyond the latest One Direction rumour. Ask for their opinions around the dinner table, and expect grown-up (or at least growing-up) input. Appreciate how debate can actually bring out the best of both of you. Above all, be an example of how to treat others with whom you disagree.