Is It Good to Fight With Your Teen?

How the occasional arugment can help improve your parent-teen relationship.

Posted Jul 29, 2017

The call would come most Saturday nights, like clockwork. “Can I sleep at Spencer’s tonight?” Then, even though we had already told our high-school junior “no sleepovers,” a discussion ensued. Sometime we would hold our ground, but often we would give in, not so much because we were pushovers but because we realized our initial decision was made arbitrarily. For parents, arguing is stressful, and makes us feel disrespected. We worry that giving in means we have given our kids too much power and that they will grow up to be entitled. This is definitely a concern, but there is some interesting research to suggest that, within limits, all this arguing, complaining. and negotiation may actually be good for your teen.

In their fascinating book Nurtureshock, Bronson & Merryman cite research to show that teens do not see arguing as negatively as their parents do. In fact, many feel it strengthens their relationship because it allows them to see things from their parent’s perspective. Families where there is moderate conflict are actually better adjusted than those who either fight too much with their parents, or not at all. One investigator, Tabitha Holmes, found that although 46% of the mothers they surveyed felt that arguing with their daughters was destructive, only 26% of the daughters agreed. And here is something else—even though they might ask for a yard, teens are often satisfied if you give them an inch. For example, although one daughter in the study was not allowed to get a tattoo, she felt completely satisfied when her mother let her buy a coveted pair of "wild" shoes instead. That is because it’s more important for teens to be heard than to win the argument.

Another insight comes from the work of sociologist Annette Laureau. Laureau wanted to know if middle class parents approached parenting differently than working class and lower class parents. The results, presented in her book Unequal Childhoods, are fascinating. Laureau found that parents from different socio-economic classes had distinct philosophies about rearing their young, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Parents of lower and working class kids generally adopted a “go out and play” attitude. As a result, these kids were much more independent than their middle class counterparts. They could entertain themselves and also fought less with their siblings. Taught to respect authority, these kids were also more obedient than youngsters raised on the other side of the tracks. On the other hand “Mommy, I’m bored” seemed to echo in the streets of the more affluent neighborhoods. There, parents saw their children as a project. They played more with their kids, signed them up for after school activities, and oversaw their studies. Not only were these kids less independent, but they also argued a lot more with their parents. However, here is the kicker. As adults, the more affluent kids were much more likely to demand of life what they wanted than working-class kids. All that arguing as kids taught them not to take authority for granted and to negotiate a better outcome for themselves. Laureau found this effect to be true even when she controlled for race and accounted for the other obvious advantages afforded the middle class children.

Obviously too much arguing is not good for anyone, and there is a risk that kids who get their way too often will grow up to be entitled adults. But the next time your teen challenges a curfew or does not want to go visit his grandmother, keep in mind that that the ensuing argument can be valuable to both his development and to your relationship.

In order to reduce the stress use this simple technique developed by psychologist and author Ross Greene. Before taking a position, categorize the issue in one of three baskets. Anything that compromises your teen’s safety goes in Basket A—these decisions are non-negotiable, like a new driver taking a road trip. Basket B is filled with circumstance-dependent events: While an eleven o’clock curfew is appropriate for most weekend nights, there are occasional exceptions. Basket C contains all the issues you initially think are important, but really don’t matter—like that extra piercing your daughter is dying for. The mistake my wife and I made was to initially treat our son’s sleepovers as a Basket A decision, when it really fell in Basket B.

When it comes to parenting, flexibility is key. It turns out that the kids of flexible parents grow up to be better adjusted than those of either rigid or permissive parents. Better adjusted means that they are happier, do well in school, and report being closer to their parents than kids of parents who either took a "my way or the highway" approach or tried too hard to be their child’s friend.

Whether it’s going to a party, their curfew, wearing the latest fashion accessory, playing video games during the week, or even sleeping over at a friend’s house, remember the wise words of Rick Lavoie: "A teen does not want your authority, just some of his own.”

References

Merryman & Bronson (2009). Nutureshock. Twelve, New York, New York

 Laureau, Annette (2003). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life. University of California Press

Greene, Ross (1998). The Explosive Child. Harper Collins: New York

Lavoie, Rick (2007) The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning on the Tuned Out Child. Touchstone, 2007