To argue effectively with your teenager, you both have to be listening. It doesn’t do a lot of good just to try and overpower each other. Here’s the mistake a lot of teens and parents both make when they are disagreeing: they continue to restate the same point repeatedly. When the other person doesn’t seem to hear it, they just say it more loudly. Eventually the tone of voice gets rude and then the argument can turn nasty. That’s when teenagers are blamed for “having an attitude,” or “being disrespectful,” or “talking back.”
It’s essential to realize deescalation has to occur before anything else. This means the discussion must remain calm. It’s completely fine, and actually positive to feel and express emotions. It’s not encouraged to do this offensively, with a blaming and/or defensive attitude. When’s the last time you were happy to hear someone’s point after they called you a name, rolled their eyes, or spoke with contempt in their voice? I know I have no interest in what someone has to say after that. All I’m thinking is what a jerk they are, and then I dig my heels in.
Parents and teenagers ask me all the time why it’s so much easier to talk about things in my office than at home. The answer is in remaining deescalated. When a family is learning to communicate better my primary goal is to keep the emotional triggers deescalated. I do this by slowing the discussion down and making sure each side acknowledges what they’ve just been told by the other side. In other words, I make sure parents are listening to their adolescents, and vice versa. I also don’t allow blaming. I ask each person in the room to expound on anything they’ve said by also explaining their current emotional state. For example, a teen might say to her mom, “I really want to be able to go to the party even though there won’t be any parents there.” When asked to expound on this, she may say, “I feel left out if I can’t go. I also feel I’m not trusted if I’m not allowed to go.” While this may not cause Mom to change her mind, she can certainly relate to feeling left out and not trusted. Those are really unpleasant emotions. Instead of Mom arguing that these types of parties are unsafe, Mom can tell her daughter she hates those emotions too. Once Daughter feels heard, she and Mom can work together to come up with some kind of creative solution.
It’s so incredibly important to communicate with your teenagers in a way that deescalates them. You won’t even have an impact on them if they are angry, defensive, and otherwise emotionally charged; they are not ready to listen in that state. You aren’t ready to listen either and the only two options become either fighting or shutting down. You may get your child to comply with you, but they will resent you. This is not what your objective is. The objective is always to keep them safe and teach them whatever they need to learn from a situation.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT