Arguing: Why Teenagers Like to Argue
by Greg Smalley, Psy.D.
In point of fact, we are all born rude. No infant has ever appeared yet with the grace to understand how inconsiderate it is to disturb others in the middle of the night.
- Judith Martin, Common Courtesy, 1985
Most of us dislike and try to avoid conflict, especially with our children. For peace lovers, however, the bad news is that we're always going to have conflict. Our valued individuality and need for control make them inevitable. If you have a teenager, you've probably already discovered that adolescence provides new challenges as you face family conflicts. One mother knew to expect conflict with her teenage son. When she arrived home from work, she met her son at the door. "We're invited to the Stevens' for dinner," she said, "You've got thirty minutes to clean up and argue about it."
Does it ever feel like your teenage son or daughter actually enjoys arguing with you? My parents still tease me that when we "argued," it seemed to last for hours. My dad jokingly compares my slow wearing him down during an argument to that of a lion patiently stalking its pray. However, if he had only admitted from the beginning that I was right, the argument never would have lasted that long. Humorous as it is to look back on the arguments that accompanied my adolescent years, this is also a very serious matter. Many parents struggle to deal with their teenagers during this confusing time. If you have a teenager, or will have one in the future, one of the most helpful things you can do for them is to understand why teens actually do enjoy arguing.
As your child hits the teenage years, a very important developmental change occurs involving their intellectual abilities. Before your son or daughter hits adolescence, can you remember a time when they thought you knew everything? They were amazed at the seemingly endless amount of knowledge you possessed. This is because younger children have difficulty looking at the bigger picture; instead, they focus on literal or concrete ideas. They also find it difficult to judge logical consistency. When adolescence hits, however, the days of literal meaning and difficulty with logic are over!
Does it ever feel like your teenage son or daughter thinks he or she knows everything? It's not like in the past when just because you said something that it made it so. A father discovered how frustrating this new mental change can be. Lecturing about the problems of staying out late and sleeping away the morning, he began to reprimand his teenage son. "You will never amount to anything unless you turn over a new leaf," he said. "Remember that the early bird gets the worm."
"But, Dad," argued the son, "wasn't the worm stupid for getting up so early?"
Stunned by his son's logical question, the father stumbled for his reply. "Um...ah...hum...well...ah-ha!" he finally shouted with confidence. "The worm hadn't been to bed...he was on his way home!"
As this father found out, it can be very frustrating in trying to argue logically with your teenager. According to development expert, Jean Piaget, the changes that take place are called formal operations. Formal operations appears between the ages of eleven and fifteen. It basically means that your child moves beyond the world of actual, concrete experiences and starts to think in abstract and more logical terms. In lay-language, this basically means that a teenager's thoughts become more idealistic. They start thinking about the future, and the endless possibilities. Some teens cannot deal with all these new choices and lose hope. This is one reason why suicide is one of the leading causes of death in adolescence. In addition to the idealistic thinking, teens now have the mental capacity for problem solving and they can detect the logical consistency or inconsistency in a set of statements. Especially the ones you make!
The reason that it's extremely important to understand your teenager's mental changes is because of how it can affect the conflict with your teen. If it seems like every time you mention something, that your teen wants to argue back, this can be a direct result of these developmental changes. It doesn't necessarily mean that you teen loves terrorizing you, or that you have a terrible relationship because you argue. Instead, try thinking of your adolescent's new mental abilities as a Christmas present. There is always great excitement and excessive usage whenever you first unwrap a present. Right now, teenagers have a need to try out or experiment with their new-found abilities. There probably isn't a better "practice field" to experiment with arguing than at home with you. Teenagers need to be able to utilize their new idealistic and logical abilities. But it also needs to be done in a healthy and constructive manner. One of the greatest methods I've found that can help parents and teenagers argue in an honoring way is found in James 1:19. "...But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger." In other words, begin the argument with your teenager with an agreement to listen and understand one another.
This type of communication involves several things:
1. Take turns talking, because nothing can be accomplished when someone is interrupting or shouting to be heard. Allow one person to completely share his viewpoint or position before the other gets her chance to respond.
2. Repeat back what you heard the other say in an attempt to clarify the meaning. This helps to keep the message from being misinterpreted. It is also not the time to interject your own viewpoint; instead, the goal is to understand the other's perspective without defending your own position.
3. When your son feels that you understand (not necessarily agree with) his position then you get an opportunity to share your needs or feelings.
These three steps can help you slow down the process and allow each person to feel heard and understood. The best part is that you will be permitting your teenager to practice his or her new-found intellectual abilities in an honoring and healthy manner.
Greg Smalley, Psy.D. is director of Marriage Ministries for the Center for Relationship Enrichment on the campus of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Greg is the author or co-author of eight books concerning marriages and families. Visit Greg at www.liferelationships.com.
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