As parents, we watch our little babies grow to toddlers, then children. They walk, talk, feed themselves, giggle and show us the best of humanity.
And then they become teenagers. And the talking becomes talking back. And the walking becomes walking away.
And we’re left wondering what we did wrong, and how we can fix it.
So, what do you do when you ask your teen to clean their room and they just say no? Or even worse, add a “make me,” and flounce out the door or bury their face back in their phone.
“Sometimes arguments are unavoidable because it’s a parent’s job to monitor their kids, and it’s a kid’s job to become independent,” said Dr. David Palmiter, a professor of Psychology at Marywood University.
So how can parents avoid arguments with their teenagers while still shaping them into conscientious, responsible adults?
The first step is to tread lightly when it comes to advice.
“We’ve been burned, and we’ve become wise, and we want to take that wisdom, download it onto a flash drive and load it into our teen’s brain, out of love,” Palmiter said, “but it gets experienced as criticism, all the time. It seems like we don’t think they are strong enough or smart enough to handle it.”
Palmiter says it’s best to think of parenting styles as laid out on a quadrant. You can be warm and lenient, warm and strict, cold and lenient, or cold and strict. He says of these options, one works far better than the rest.
“The authoritative parent quadrant has to manifest warmth and strictness,” he said. “I hesitate to use the word discipline because it’s been conflated with butt-kicking in our culture, but that’s not what it is. It’s learning to do things when you don’t feel like it. No marker better predicts success in our culture than kids’ ability to do things that they don’t feel like doing.”
That’s where the cleaning-your-room argument fits in. Nobody feels like doing that, but most of us understand that it is a necessary step to feeling better in the future. But it’s not just about mundane chores. Parents and teenagers clash about bigger, more life-changing things all the time. Curfews, underage drinking, peer pressure, family and friend relationships, even politics and religion.
Three questions to ask yourself
“If your teen is inclined to do something, and you want to say no, ask three questions: Is there significant risk of physical harm, is there significant risk of psychological harm, is there a tax on your resources? If the answer is no, consider letting them do it,” Palmiter advised. “I encourage a lot of autonomy. Realize what is within and what is not within your control.”
Essentially, the fight is about what kind of person they are going to be, and Palmiter reminds parents that as much as it hurts, that decision eventually rests with the teen. The best thing a parent can do is be authentically supportive. There are several ways to achieve this, but here are some of the most effective.
Lay the groundwork early.
Many of us might feel it’s too late for this step, but the truth is that it’s never too late to set and maintain appropriate boundaries.
You may get into a fight at first if your teen is used to calling the shots in a particular arena, but if you are consistent in terms of consequences from the point of setting up those rules, you can begin to operate from that space as a framework inside which the kids live, according to Palmiter.
Spend “special time” with your teen.
But don’t actually say the words special time, or your teens will cringe hard.
Special time is more of an undefined event where a parent provides undivided attention to their teen, and offers specific, proportionate and authentic praise. Palmiter recommends at least an hour a week.
“Special time is a base for everything else. It stops the alienation. It’s a foundation for reasonable discussions,” he said.
It can be hard to see the benefits of this in real time for parents, but Palmiter says it works.
“I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve had a parent do special time, and I ask the parent, and they think the teen wasn’t into it. When I ask the teen, they love it, and the parents are surprised. They don’t realize that this kind of attention from them to their teens is extremely powerful.”
Don’t over praise, or praise too soon.
We want to buoy our children, shore them up, and, of course, we think they are the greatest. But during the teen years, they may not feel that way, and overblown praise will ring hollow and fake. Not to say you can’t praise them, but read the room. They’ll give you the signs, and authentic well-placed praise goes a lot farther than overused cliches and pat compliments.
“That desire to please is in there. Teens can be hesitant to show vulnerability, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t vulnerable.”
Ask questions instead of making demands.
“Sometimes you can make the best points with question marks rather than exclamation marks,” Palmiter said.
If you are looking to get to know your teen a little better, and feel they are shutting down whenever you try to talk with them, get used to asking questions with no expectation of an ansr.
“Ask them what they like about certain things, why they like them. Express empathy toward their interests, then it’s more likely they’ll come back for more conversation,” he said
Be empathetic, not prescriptive
Sometimes, arguments can center on self-esteem issues that hurt parents to hear about. If your child is feeling ugly, or stupid, or some other thing that is patently untrue, we want to jump in quickly and tell them they are not those things. That’s the wrong approach, Palmiter says.
“It’s grueling for us to sit there and offer empathy. We want to jump in and fix it, but premature reassurance reads as ‘you’re telling me I’m wrong’ to the teen, and it has the opposite effect.”
Now, not only do they feel ugly or stupid or whatever else, they also feel criticized and alone.
Palmiter advises that parents sit with those feelings alongside their teen, and acknowledge the pain they cause, as a team.
Above all, remember that arguing with teens is a natural progression of life, and the push-pull of the parent-child relationship. So long as there remains a mutual (if sometimes begrudging) respect and an inherent understanding that rules and parental decisions come from a place of unconditional love.