Want your teen to rock life? Don’t be afraid to let her talk back

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Photo by JRPhoto12, used under Creative Commons license.

Yesterday NPR published a new piece called Why A Teen Who Talks Back May Have A Bright Future.

Researchers from the University of Virginia recently published their findings in the journal Child Development. Psychologist Joseph P. Allen headed the study.

Allen says almost all parents and teenagers argue. But it’s the quality of the arguments that makes all the difference.

“We tell parents to think of those arguments not as nuisance but as a critical training ground,” he says. Such arguments, he says, are actually mini life lessons in how to disagree — a necessary skill later on in life with partners, friends and colleagues on the job.

Teens should be rewarded when arguing calmly and persuasively and not when they indulge in yelling, whining, threats or insults, he says.

In the study, the group videotaped 157 13-year-olds who were talking about the biggest arguments they’ve had with their parents. The disputes were usually over money, grades, chores, and friends. Then the parent and the child both watched the video. The researches said the reactions of parents were all over the charts — “Some of them laughed uncomfortably; some rolled their eyes; and a number of them dove right in and said, ‘OK, let’s talk about this,’ [Allen] says.”

According to Allen, the parents who tried to talk out the issues were the ones who were teaching their kids how to deal with arguments. The researchers found that when the teens were dealing with pressure to try drugs or alcohol, they responded to their peers in the same way they did to their parents — if at home their parents were mellow and tried to talk the issue out, the teens had a much easier time resisting peer pressure with friends.

Basically: if your kid feels confident that he or she can honestly discuss an issue with you, they’ll also feel confident being honest with their friends.

What do you guys think? How did you learn to deal with disagreements growing up — and how is that impacting what you’re teaching your kid?

Comments on Want your teen to rock life? Don’t be afraid to let her talk back

  1. Best thing my mom ever told me, repeatedly: “You can say anything to anyone as long as you do it with respect.” Because she let me talk things out and challenge her, I carried that advice with me and used it in a lot of situations that could have been pretty ugly in my young adult life. I’m trying to model that to my daughter now, especially as she gets closer to her preteen years.

    • My mother used to say this too. If she made a rule, I was allowed to ask why. If I felt something was unfair, I was encouraged to form a calm, rational argument to explain why. She also passed down a bit of advice from her father about teachers, bosses, pretty much anyone who would be considered ‘in charge’ of kids or teens – “Just because they’re bigger than you are, doesn’t make them right.” and she assured me that if anyone was ever acting in a way that was wrong or unfair, she would always support me speaking up about it. I can’t even explain how grateful I am to her for that.

  2. Great advice, Amy’s mum!

    This is an interesting one for me, as my husband and I grew up in families with very different experiences of this, neither very helpful. In my case, there weren’t arguments, not because we were terribly passive aggressive or anything – just, by some freak of nature, my siblings and I were never terribly hormonal and moody, and on top of that our parents were hugely reasonable and never found any reason to start on us. Not that we were angels, but they recognised that we would do and try and wear certain things, and they didn’t see a need to pick at that while everything else (relationships, school) was going fine.

    My husband’s family was and remains a setting of explosive, shrieking rows. I will definitely mention this research to him, as it’s interesting how frequently in his family people respond to calm, reasonable arguments *as though* the other person were shouting/whining/being unreasonable. Neither of us wants to recreate this atmosphere in our house, but, unsurprisingly, he sometimes finds it difficult to restrain himself if frustrated.

    So I’m pretty unprepared for teenage arguments, given we really never had them, but I know I do actually like teenagers, and I think that’s a good place to start. I think that when teenagers complain ‘You’re treating me like a child’, they’re often right – not in the sense that parents aren’t allowing them to do X or Y, but that parents aren’t *trusting* them to do or try something and letting them prove themselves.

  3. There was alot of yelling in my house growing up so I didn’t learn much in that regard but with my daughter yes there are arguments, yes they are sometimes yelling matches but I am also 99% of the time extremely up front and honest with my children. my daughter at 15 tells me practically everything, every kiss, every hug, every time a guy has tried something on her or things they talk about, she tells me every detail and she does so because she feels at ease with telling me and I am happy about that, I never felt that way with my parents, always felt I had to hide things from them. I always make sure to relate things when I can to real life stuff, like if there is a real life lesson to be learned, something that will be helpful to them when they are adults I always point that out, i explain the reasons behind like everything lol, they hate it I am sure but I think in the end they will love me for it, I had none of that growing up. Anyways thats my two cents

  4. Even with my 5-year-old, who is ready to argue with me over anything, I feel like I’d rather have a kid who feels confident enough to state his emotions and desires than one who listens to every last thing I say. My parents got a lot of “Your kids are so well behaved!” but you know what? My relationship with them sucked, I was scared of and angry at them for most of my childhood. I’m not saying I think all well behaved children who mind their parents are that way, I am saying that it is comforting in my own relationship with my kids to know where I am coming from in that respect when I’m deciding when to pick my battles.

  5. Oh boy do i wish this article had been published when I was growing up!!!! For so many years, my father and I did not have a good relationship because he would never listen to my reasoning as to why I wanted to do/not do something. It was “his way or no way”, which was frustrating, because I always approached an argument with an arsenal of well thought out points supporting my point of view, but it always deteriorated into a shouting match with tears because he wouldn’t even LISTEN to my points. I recently read a chapter in the book, Eastern Body, Western Mind by Anodea Judith which supports some of the points made in the article. She states that when kids start “talking back” they are simply trying to assert their own autononmy, get in touch with what they feel and what they need, and stand up for themselves. To continually squash that and punish a child for talking back can have long term effects on their feelings of autonomy, and may lead them to subconsciously not “stick up for themselves” when it comes to honoring their needs and feelings later in life. I am a case in point. I love this article and the research it was based on, and hope parents take it seriously. Not only is it important for kids to learn how to disagree and discuss arguments rationally and respectfully, but it is important for parents to allow children to stand up for themselves and have their own voice.

    • i definitely feel the same way — my dad had anger management issues and my mom and i were, under no circumstances, allowed to even disagree with anything he said, no matter how arbitrary. if we did, it always devolved into a screaming match or emotional manipulation, etc. for the most part, my mom and i learned to lie and do whatever we wanted behind his back anyhow, and as an adult i’ve been very passive and passive-aggressive. I’ve been lucky to not get caught up in really horrible things, but in the end, i have no relationship with my father and haven’t seen or spoken to him in almost 15 years.

      i’ve read this in nurtureshock too — that when kids want to argue with you, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. this is how they learn to communicate and deal with conflict and assert their independence. my daughter’s only 4 and we have another on the way, but i’m hoping to remember this as the girls get older!

      • My husband has a very similar background, sadly. He and I have spent several years learning how to argue with each other, which I have faith will help us parent better too, but…

        • You make a great point – arguments in a relationship are a normal part of learning to live together, not a sign of trouble. It will help me to think of inevitable disagreements with the logical, rational, adult with whom I cohabitate as a training ground for someone much harder to argue with in the future. I’m mostly remembering myself and my sister as teens – we were logical and opinionated, but immature enough that arguments tended to go downhill fast.

  6. I see this as a teacher, too, and occasionally will “coach” students on making their points, such as if they had an argument with another teacher. They’ll say what happened and I’ll say, “OK, your feelings were very valid and I understand your frustration. However, when you did/said XYZ, the other person reacted that way because they may have felt ABC. Let’s replay that conversation together to find new ways of dealing with it and then why don’t you talk to Teacher X privately after school?” It’s about reteaching life skills rather than punishing for the wrong things being said because a lot of students haven’t — and even readers here hadn’t while growing up 🙂 — learned it at home. I do hope such assistance sticks and helps give them skills the next time they have such a confrontation.

    Seriously, this is one of the best parts of teaching teens. A lot of non-HS teachers will say, “How you can deal with that disrespect?” or are shocked at what they’ll hear students have said or done and make all sorts of assumptions about the students. However, their behaving this way is really different from a “full” adult acting a certain way; for me, it’s about not taking things personally, supporting them in their maturation, and rejoicing in their successes with them!

    I actually can’t wait to have teens of my own — it’s the middle childhood years that seem much harder to me — but I know parenting is the hardest job out there and hope I can do right by my future kids one day.

    • As a beginning teacher who had the worst first year ever, and after being laid off, I’ve had time to think about my classroom management. I’ve even read a couple of books that have theories I want to try out. One of the books works with the theory that kids who are (chronic) discipline problems should be treated as having learning/coping disabilities and should be invited to help solve their problems (after teachers try to identify then with help from the students). I want to try this out when I get another job, but my biggest fear is that administrators will get on my back about not doing things their way…I definitely need to work on being assertive.

      • I hear you! I’m sorry to hear that your first year was so rough — while things can be super hard for new teachers, it sounds like your school wasn’t doing their part to support you like they should have been. I think your idea on inviting the students exhibiting the disruptive behaviors to be part of their own problem-solving team. 🙂 Administrators really do mean for the best but, not being in the classroom all the time like you are, sometimes (often?) their suggestions are coming from a caring place but ineffective and the teacher can feel indirectly blamed. I’ve found it best to avoid getting administrators — and often even parents — involved with behavioral issues. For example, I want to pick my battles: students snacking, as long as they clean up after themselves, is a non-issue for me. However, if I report problems, they’ll suggest I ban food, etc. which honestly just causes more problems.

        I think being assertive is always good, especially for kids who are looking for someone to set boundaries in their lives without many, but I’ve found that a lot of students actually do best with a softer approach. (Which is another form being assertive, too!) For example, pulling a student aside for a private chat after some bad behavior, “Hey, it seems like you’re having a rough morning. You feeling OK today?” and taking it from there. Often I’ve found students let down their guard and we can work out an compromise. “I hear you’re having a really rough day and I can imagine it’s really hard to concentrate right now! Would you like to take a break for a few minutes to get a drink of water and go on a walk around the school? When you get back, can you just start your work? It’s OK if you don’t finish: you can always come after school if you need more time.”

        I’ll spare you the rest of the spontaneous pedagogical lecture but it sounds like you’re a very caring person who will be a great teacher one day. I hope you can find a position in a place that is a good match so you can experience this success firsthand! 🙂 /mentor-teacher mode 😉

  7. This makes so much sense to me. I wasn’t a particularly rebellious teenager and I didn’t really challenge any rules, but I DID argue with my father relentlessly about politics, religion, and other related themes. We would stand at opposite sides of the bar in the kitchen and just go back and forth. It got heated but was always somehow still respectful, and ultimately I think these conversations did me a huge huge service. I learned to value my own opinions and to improve my ability to articulate my positions — as well as to learn from others to re-frame my positions as needed. Once I went off to college, I was a lot less scared of professors than many of my classmates, and I always felt really comfortable in class discussions, and I think that the fact that my father took me so seriously explains this and helped me succeed. I am very grateful to him for this! Another thing he did was encourage me to read books he had read and then ask my opinions on them and listen.

  8. This is a great point, but I think it needs to be said that if you are going to invite “talking back,” you also need to be ready to truly listen. My parents felt like they were really good at discussing things with their kids – and they were. The problem was that at the end of the discussion, the answer was ALWAYS still “well, you’re still going to do what I originally asked, because I said so and I’m the parent.” I ultimately ended up feeling like I could make the best points in the world but I would STILL be wrong – a feeling that has plagued me in my adult and professional life. I think that if you’re going to do this, you need to be prepared to compromise.

    • Yes, I agree with this so much. I could write out a well reasoned argument and leave it in paper form for my parents and most of the time they didn’t want to listen to what I had to say.

  9. When I sat down and tried to reason with my mother, she would yell at me. When I started yelling back just so I would be heard, she would insult me. When the yelling stopped, she wouldn’t talk to me until I groveled on the floor for forgiveness. She would insult me as I was apologizing. Every. Single. Time. She is never wrong. She never has to apologize for anything. She spent all of Christmas this year “jokingly” insulting me. Did she apologize? No. I had to, for not wanting to deal with her for a few days after being ridiculed all day on Christmas. I can’t even talk to her about the things she does, because no matter how nicely I say it, I’m being rude and SHE deserves an apology. I can’t cut her out, either, because I am, at the moment, financially dependent on her since I’m still in college.

    In contrast, my fiance and I have discussions, rather than screaming matches. We don’t yell, we sit down close to each other (proximity helps sometimes), and we talk it out until it’s done being talked about. If we need a break, we take one. If we need to say something, we’re honest but kind. We’ve pieced this together from our own bad fighting experiences and how we wished they could have worked. It’s not a bad system at all, and it works for us. It’s less time-consuming than yelling, too.

  10. Love this! I was allowed to “talk back” from a very young age. Some of my friends’ parents considered me a bad influence because of it – I was always trying to negotiate when I was told “no” and encouraged my friends to do the same. Like the article says, I wasn’t rewarded for yelling or throwing a fit but logical debates were welcome. I often wrote letters and persuasive poems and diagrams to make my case. I didn’t always win, but I did always feel like my points were heard, which was often good enough.

  11. I totally agree with the findings of this study.
    My parents raised me as a Christian, but they were always open with me about their experiences with drugs, alcohol, friends and sex. I renounced my faith at 14. They would buy me alcohol, so long as they knew where I would be and with whom; they did not ban drugs in the house and because of the lax rules I never felt the need to go overboard like my friends with strict parents.
    I didn’t have to sneak out to sleep over at my boyfriend’s house, and at 16 my mum helped me get a prescription for the pill, because she would prefer I was having safe sex, than doing it in secret and having an ‘accident.’ It just seemed like common sense to them. They were protecting me by leeting me have all the experiences I need to have as a teenager safely.
    They made me feel that I had a strong base at home and a family I could trust. They thought me how to be responsible for my own actions, instead of rebellious and careless.
    I know alot of people are shocked and don’t agree with how they did things, but I appreciate it. I feel like I’m really level headed and I intend to give my children the same level of trust that my parents gave me.

  12. And right now this is making me worry about my husband. He grew up in a household were there were NO arguments. If things got heated someone would leave, and perhaps spend the night in their car, and when they came back no one mentioned a thing and they all went on their way. They get their points across but making comments. Consequently my husband reads too much into things, expects me to read into things and refuses to actually reason out anything. Which is EXTREMELY frustrating. He also cannot express a desire and have it contradicted. He cannot argue a point. He cannot discuss.

    I came from a household where screaming, yelling and quiet, sad emotional manipulation were common place. I had no say, and my parents were very strict. I worked so very hard to get past that and be able to express myself, argue my point and still remain calm. Counseling helped. Have you any idea how validating it is when an expert tells you that you need to stop reacting to your parent, not because you are misbehaving, but because the parent goes to you to pick a fight so they can feel better? To know that you’re not the crazy teen, but rather that your sense of justice means that you refuse to take crap that’s not your fault, and that means that people can get an easy rise out of you by picking on you, or by picking on those around you for no reason.

    I worked so hard to overcome my childhood, and now helping my husband (ever so slowly) over come his. I want my child to be well adjusted. To be able to express themselves and feel sure of themselves without years of self doubt, counseling and then having to tell themselves that their parent is literally crazy sometimes to turn a corner. I want them to be able to argue a point and discuss desires without feeling like the other party is against them. Oh boy, parenting is heavy, heavy stuff!

  13. I agree with this completely, and wish my parents had honestly listened and tried to work things out more when I was a teen. They treated me like I was unreasonable and childish most of the time, and they often still do.

    I still can’t talk to them about certain subjects, because I know it will just upset them and nothing productive will be discussed. I still find myself thinking (or occasionally saying, when things get really tense) “I don’t know why I bother to tell you anything” far too regularly.

    I know communication is a two way street. I’m trying to do my part by discussing things calmly, but even a calm discussion can lead to upsetment for everyone.

  14. This is great! My mother was c.r.a.z.y.
    I was always ready to argue and was very ‘uncontrollable’ as she called me but I honestly think she could’ve gotten through to me easier if she didn’t scream back and hit lol. I am glad that she had bad communication skills though because I’m doing things so different with my daughter even as a toddler. When she wants to argue with me it’s really important to the hubs and me that we give her equal say and respond calmly and fairly so she learns how to be effective and calm rather than crazy lol!!!

  15. My parents straight up shut me down. They parented very very unfairly. My brother and little sister were allowed to do pretty much anything and I was pretty much homebound with a book. And any argument on my part was greeted with ‘shut up’, slaps, groundings, or behavior guaranteed to fuck my head up and make me take the blame for their failures as parents. When I found out I was pregnant just weeks into my senior year. My parents did the right thing and stood by me. But I did more than that. I went over and over in my head the ways I WANTED TO BE, and the ways I wanted life to be for the little one I was growing. I went over where my parents had messed up, what I’d seen other parents do. What I thought my parents and others had gotten right. And I promised myself I’d go through with it. I’m not perfect, not by a long shot. But I’ve got a 17 yo now who tells me when she’s kissed someone, tells me when she thinks she might like girls more than boys, tells me when she gets a bad grade, tells me when she’s going to be at a party where there will be drinking, and calls me to come get her if she’s uncomfortable with her situation. NONE of which I could have done. I don’t EVER shut her down for rational arguments, even if at their core they are irrational LOL. She gets shut down for poor me, whining behavior and I let her know that when she’s willing to talk and not whine, we’ll figure it out together. I’m her mom first, but I’m also one of her best friends. And her friends (and my other kids friends) all say they wish their parents were like me. It’s pretty validating for the 16 yo who was told she was a hysterical, bitch, druggie, slut (who was in reality a straight A student, virgin and had never tried drugs) My parents have since apologized for their behavior. And I’ve converted my husband over to my way of dealing with kids. You reason with them the first couple of times unless it’s just dire (say running into the street or swinging a shovel where it could hurt someone) and the 3rd time, it’s time for discipline in a reasoned way. Consequences for actions are always spelled out ahead of time and I *always* follow through. So the kids know I keep my word. Reasonable, supportive and full of follow through is not a bad way to parent. And the proof is in the kids (all 6 of them LOL). Long way from single teen mom who had horrible role models for parenting.

  16. Growing up, like many out there, home life was less than ideal and yelling was rampant. I’m trying to teach my kids to “argue effectively”, they’re still young (10, 8, 6, and 6 weeks)and it’s not always easy, but I want them to grow up with these skills.

  17. i heard once from Dr Wendy the phycologist of The Doctors tv show (it was on the radio though) that the arguing and forming of individual opinions is a very important part of a childs development- and not having that happen can (that doesnt mean WILL ALWAYS) lead to attachment issues to parents later in life. i thought that was very interesting, and it looks like this solidifies it as an important part of someones development… very cool!

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