How To Argue Effectively With Your Teen (Hint: The Point Isn’t To 'Win')

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
A brown-haired teenage girl sitting on the bed and having an argument with her mother
Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

My 15-year-old son and I generally get along well, though of my children he’s the one I’m more likely to butt heads with. One of the bigger disagreements we’ve had happened over screen time at the beginning of the pandemic.

There we were: new pandemic, in lockdown and schooling from home. I was trying to maintain the existing screen time rules, and my son was becoming more and more frantic and stressed about the time he was allowed on screens. We had one huge argument that ended with my grounding him from screens altogether except for school. He ended up in tears, and though I had wielded my parental authority and “won,” I felt terrible about the outcome.

As I calmed down, I realized I had completely steamrolled my son. He wasn’t just mad that he wasn’t getting his way — he was genuinely frustrated that I wasn’t listening to him.

Calmer, I returned to his room to try again. This time, I approached the discussion from a place of wanting to understand. In talking with him, I learned that he was stressed because he no longer got to see his friends face to face. His entire social life was online. Many of his online hours were spent doing school. It didn’t feel fair to him that I was counting those hours toward his recreational online time.

I had been thinking about the dangers of blue light and the sedentary nature of sitting in front of a computer all day; my son was trying to maintain some semblance of social normalcy the only way he knew how. Together, we worked out new ground rules, and I changed the way I looked at screen time.

“Arguing” Like A Scientist

In his book Think Again, Adam Grant discusses how we, as humans, handle arguing: like a preacher, passionately expressing their opinion as if it’s sacred; like a prosecutor, fastidiously addressing each of their opponent’s points and tearing them apart with logic or science or statistics; or like a politician, pandering to their opponent in an effort to win them over emotionally. No matter who we’re arguing with, whether it’s a colleague, friend, or family member, we tend to resort to one of these three tactics. Grant makes the case that we should instead argue like scientists.

Here’s where the fight comes in. Turns out, when I argue, I usually fall into prosecutor mode while wrongly believing I sound like a scientist. Scientists are curious; I, on the other hand, hurl facts and statistics in order to prove I’m right.

As I read Grant’s book, I heard echoes of my parenting self in his description of “preachers”and “prosecutors.” Sometimes when I butt heads with my teenage son, my preacher side comes out. I’m right, and not only am I right, but I am also The Boss. Therefore, you lose. Sometimes I am the prosecutor, meticulously outlining all the ways in which he is wrong and I am right.

Grant’s book made me think of the time I steamrolled my son about screen time — like a preacher — and how hurt he was. I remembered how much better that discussion went when I came back and approached the discussion with curiosity — like a scientist. I thought of other times I’d used my parental authority to preach or prosecute, and how that may be negatively impacting our relationship and stifling his autonomy. That’s not the parent I want to be.

Are We Preachers And Prosecutors With Our Teens?

With little kids, we often have no choice but to sometimes assume the preacher role. We literally know better than they do, and it’s our job to teach them. We can still converse like scientists, approaching conversations with curiosity so we can learn and understand how they’re feeling, but the ultimate decision is ours. Yes, you have to brush your teeth. Yes, it is bedtime. Yes, you have to get a shot at the doctor. And here are the reasons why. We can build in compassion and empathy for their opposition to these things, but our explanations will inevitably contain preaching.

It’s hard to let go of the parent-knows-best approach as our kids transition from children to tweens to teenagers. But if the goal is to raise independent problem solvers who contribute positively to society and are happy and confident with their life choices, we have to start loosening our grip on the reins in preparation to hand them over.

Now, my most effective conversations with my son have been the ones in which I acted more like a scientist. Rather than beating him over the head with all the reasons why he’s wrong, I ask him why he thinks what he thinks. If I approach from a place of wanting to genuinely understand why he feels the way he does, we’re far more likely to emerge from the conversation without having “argued” at all. Instead, we have a conversation.

Listening Doesn’t Always Mean Changing Your Mind

Of course, as a parent you will have to err on the side of safety or well-being at times. But a kid who feels genuinely heard is going to handle a “no” a lot better than a kid who feels they’ve been given an arbitrary commandment to obey, with no further explanation.

So, if you find yourself engaged in a battle of wills with your teen, ask yourself what role you’ve assumed in the argument. Are you determined to “win” by preaching at them, prosecuting them, or politicking for their approval? If so, step back, take a breath, and start thinking like a scientist — instead of asserting your authority, seek to understand. You may find that your teen is more knowledgeable and thoughtful than you realized and that they have good reason for feeling the way they do. You may even, like me, find yourself changing your mind.

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