Arguments are no fun. They disrupt the household for hours or days. They make everyone upset. Everyone hates them. Yet, for some reason or another, everyone keeps arguing. Why? The only reason is that everyone hasn’t yet learned how to not argue.
Parents and teens can both learn how to not argue, but it’s not very easy. It takes a great deal of self-control and practice and many people choose not to learn because it’s hard to do. Instead, they choose to keep on arguing and wait for something to change on it’s own. Right now you are taking control of your own life and saying that you want to learn something different. Brace yourself because it’s going to be very difficult.
STEP ONE FOR PARENTS
Yep, it can be that simple. When your teen comes in “looking for a fight,” just pause for a moment. When they present with an ornery mood, chances are that something really troubling is going on and the chances are even good that they actually want to talk to you about it. However, the issue is so bothersome that it’s got them so wound up they can’t behave nicely at this moment and they come in looking to discharge those negative emotions somehow and what better way than to get into a fight with you?
Your silence instead of an immediate punitive response can allow them to focus on what’s going on in their own head. When you’re yelling at them, they don’t have any room in their head to feel badly about they just behaved. They’re too focused on the horrible things you’re saying and what a jerk you are. If you aren’t talking, they’ve got the space in their own head to feel badly for how they just spoke to you and they can often turn it around right then without you having to do or say anything.
When you disarm a potential argument this way, it can open the door for a mature discussion about what’s really bothering them.
STEP TWO FOR PARENTS
Listen so closely that you hear what they mean to say.
Often teens have really important things they want to say to you but they don’t know how to say them or are afraid to say them, so they say whatever comes out of their mouths and we often react to the words without really hearing the message.
For example, “My algebra teacher is such a dork” can mean “I’m really having trouble with algebra and I need your help.” When a teen comes home and blurts out that “Sheila is such a slut,” they could very well mean, “My friends are starting to have sex and that scares me and I sure would like to talk with you about sex.” When your teen comes home and informs you that “marijuana should be legal,” he might be trying to say, “Hey mom, I started using marijuana and I’m afraid I might get in trouble soon, could you help me?”
STEP THREE FOR PARENTS
Keep your own fears in check.
Once you hear the message your teen has for you, it might scare the living daylights out of you. You might have all kinds of things to say on the subject that you feel you need to immediately share with them. REFRAIN. Your teen has ideas, too, and once again, they need the room in their head to sort those ideas out and if you’re talking, they can’t hear themselves and they also can’t hear you. Wait to see if they have more to say on the subject. They often do. The first thing they said was usually their way of introducing the subject and seeing if you were in the mood for having a serious discussion. They generally have more to say to you, but they can’t say it if you’re talking.
STEP FOUR FOR PARENTS
Acknowledge their life as unique.
Your teen doesn’t really “think you are stupid” until you “start talking and confirm it.” You have been a teen and you imagine you know what they are going through. Try to keep in mind that you have never lived their life. No matter how much similarity there is between what they’re going through and what you went through, their experience is new and unique and as soon as you start talking about what you went through, there’s bound to be some minor difference that will convince them that you don’t know what on earth you’re talking about. That’s the point at which they stop listening altogether. When they want your opinion (and they do), they’ll ask for it.
STEP FIVE FOR PARENTS
Say the things for them that they are much too cool to say.
There is incredible pressure on teenagers to “be cool.” You can’t act like a little sissy kid anymore around your friends and you have to be tough or you’ll be eaten alive. Therefore, they are almost completely prevented from admitting that anything scares them. That doesn’t mean nothing scares them, it just means that they can’t admit it.
When they come home and say that “Sheila is a slut,” if you were listening carefully and you heard your child’s fear of sex coming through, you can talk about Sheila and manage to introduce your child’s fears into the conversation without making your child admit that they, themselves are afraid. You can ask if Sheila is afraid of getting pregnant. You can ask if that other girl is afraid of getting a disease. You can ask if she was scared the first time she did it. You’re talking about someone else and it’s a less threatening conversation to have. If your teen is actually having this conversation with you, it’s probably alright to ask if they, themselves are scared about any of those things and they may be very open to having a really necessary conversation with you.
STEP SIX FOR PARENTS
Limit your comments to topics that they’ve introduced.
When a teen introduces a topic, it’s typically okay with them for you to make comments and ask questions about what they’ve already said, but not to press for further information. If you start asking a bunch of questions, it feels like an interrogation and they shut up or start arguing. If you begin to offer advice, it feels like a lecture and they stop listening or start arguing.
They want to give you the information. They don’t want you to give it to them. They do eventually want your opinion, but not until they ask. They just want you to hear what they have to say first. That doesn’t mean they’re always going to just bust right out and tell you, it takes a lot of patient listening to hear the whole story sometimes.
Imagine your teen comes home and declares that she wants to go to a rave. Either you know what that is or you don’t. If you know that it’s an all-night dance party where a variety of drugs are typically available, chances are that you can hardly keep from issuing an immediate, “NO WAY!” If you don’t know what it is, chances are, you want to find out what it is, who’s going to be there, what goes on, and how long it lasts, and you can hardly keep yourself from firing off a million questions. Either one of those approaches either terminates the discussion or begins an argument and completely destroys the opportunity you just had to have a discussion about drugs with your teen who originally approached you with that specific goal in mind.
Here’s an example of how your comments and questions could keep the teen talking long enough for you to discover that they are really conflicted about wanting to go to a rave …
TEEN: I want to go to a rave!
PARENT: Wow, a rave! Sounds exciting!
TEEN: Yeah, everyone’s gonna be there.Can I?
PARENT: It sounds really interesting, all your friends will be there “raving” or whatever it is that goes on there.
TEEN: It’s a big huge dance where there’s lots of kids and great music and you dance all night long.
PARENT: Wow, an all-night dance party! Sounds like a lot of fun!
TEEN: Yeah, they play all the best music and everyone’s there and you stay up all night dancing.
PARENT: So far it sounds okay.
TEEN: Well, it’s mostly kids, but there are some people there who are maybe like 19 or 20, but it’s mostly kids.
PARENT: It sounds like they have fun stuff there for kids and for older people, hey?
TEEN: Well, um, some of the older people do take some drugs, but I would never do that.
PARENT: Oh, so there are some drugs there. That sounds a little dangerous or scary, but it’s kind of exciting, too.
TEEN: Yeah, I really want to go, but I am a little worried about some of those drugs.
PARENT: Some drugs are pretty scary.
TEEN: Some of the girls do extacy and they really like it.
PARENT: I’m not really sure what that is.
TEEN: It’s some kind of thing that makes you really feel great and dance all night and the girls really like it, but some of them spend lots of money on it.
PARENT: So, it’s expensive?
TEEN: I don’t know, but Cindy offered to sell me some at the rave and I don’t want to go because I don’t know what to do.
BINGO!!! That’s what they wanted to say to you 10 minutes ago, but it took your patient listening without interfering to get to that point. When your kid tells you that they are being offered drugs and they are scared, if you manage to start an argument at that point, you forgot all the first few steps.