arguing with teen“Spiteful words can hurt your feelings but silence breaks your heart.”  -C. S. Lewis

A family arrived in my counseling office for their first session. Dad looked nervous, Mom looked relieved and the two teenage kids looked like they had just walked into a morgue. Both parents complained of being driven crazy by the constant bickering that went on between the four of them. Did this mean that they had failed as parents?

On the contrary, I thought. When I applauded the kids for trusting their parents enough to fight with them, both teens perked up and began to join the discussion in earnest…

It may be hard to believe, but research has found that teens who learn how to argue effectively by practicing on their parents are far more likely to be able to resist peer pressure down the line. Psychologist Joseph P. Allen and his team at the University of Virginia published the findings of their study of parents and teens, called “Predictors of Susceptibility to Peer Influence Regarding Substance Use in Adolescence.”

The study interviewed 157 kids when they were 13 years old about their biggest disagreement with their parents and did follow-up interviews with the same kids and parents when the kids were in high school. The researchers wanted to know what made some kids more vulnerable to peers pressuring them to use drugs and alcohol and what parents could do about it.

What the research team found was that, even at 13, the kids who could talk to their moms or dads about disagreements over things like grades, chores and friends were forty percent more likely to stand up to peer pressure down the line. In contrast, the kids who backed down right away when in conflict with parents were later found to be more passive with peers as well. Parents, take heart–at least all that arguing is good for something!

Effective communication is one of the cornerstones of relationship. It is the means by which we form connections with others, work out inevitable differences, make plans for the future, collaborate on a project, and achieve greater closeness. Learning the necessary skills can be far more difficult than any of us first imagined–especially when it comes to conflict.

Now we know that arguments themselves are not the problem, but the style in which you argue can be. Improving and adjusting your arguing skills can make a big difference and can influence whether or not your relationships stay open and trusting. Silence, however golden it may be, is not the answer when we have to work out our differences.

What can loving and effective families do to help prevent teens from collapsing under peer pressure? The most important piece of advice is for parents to listen. When parents listen to their teens, the teens listen more to their parents. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with your kids–in fact, you can agree to disagree if need be. But the message is that if kids feel confident enough to express themselves to their parents, they also feel more empowered to be honest with their friends.

The other important message to parents is to reward and acknowledge your kids when they argue calmly, NOT when they yell, whine, insult, name-call or threaten you. There is a difference between arguing forcefully with emotion and being verbally abusive. When emotions are too hot, it is best to take some time out to calm down so that both sides can listen.

The parent also needs to be calm and respectful in the discussion, modeling the behavior you are trying to encourage. For example, if your child makes a good point while arguing, the parent should acknowledge the point rather than just continue on a tirade of what’s right and what’s wrong. It is also helpful to ask your teen questions (and then really listen) to help uncover what he or she is thinking, feeling and wanting. You can learn a lot from this.

It should be easier to listen and to remain calm in the face of teen upset if you remember to be happy that your teen is arguing with you! A certain amount of conflict between parents and teenagers is both healthy and normal. Imagine while in battle (calm battle, that is) that you are actually training your teen in assertiveness, independent decision-making and healthy resolution of conflict.

Arguments help teens practice communication skills that will be required all through life with partners, friends and colleagues–and, oh yes, with their own teenagers someday too!

Mom and teen arguing photo available from Shutterstock