Between the ages of 10 and 13, conflicts with parents surge. Children this age become more independent and begin to forge their identities. At the same time, brain development makes them more impulsive, sensation-seeking and sensitive to peer pressure. The tumult can take parents by surprise, especially because the period right before adolescence is often relatively harmonious.
For parents, learning how to effectively argue with teens and young teens is crucial. Navigating disagreements over screen time and sleepovers sets the stage for conflicts over bigger issues—like sex and alcohol—that come up later.
Therapists say argumentative young teens are healthy ones. They are learning how to handle disagreements and advocate for their own point of view, skills that are critical for successfully navigating adult relationships. Arguments also indicate that children are separating from their parents and asserting themselves.
"It is worrying if [arguing] doesn't happen," says Brad a family psychologist in Md. More deferential children "may not be doing the hard work necessary to forge an independent identity."
Carl , a counseling psychologist in Texas, notes that arguments also give parents important information about what is going on with their children and what is important to them. "What you don't want is a mystery child," he says.
What's the best way to quarrel with a young teen? Psychologists say certain strategies are key. First, figure out what you're willing to compromise on. Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, advises parents to imagine 10 years in the future. Then, compromise on things that are temporary (like goth makeup or laundry strewn on the floor) and stand firm on things that could be permanent (tattoos).
"Where parents go wrong is they have the view of the slippery slope. If I give in here, it will all fall apart. The opposite is true." When parents are rigid, children are more likely to be more oppositional, he says.
He suggests that parents instead come up with three possible solutions and let the child choose. He also says parents should listen to their child's point of view, banish the sarcasm and name-calling and refrain from bringing up past behavior. But parents shouldn't accept disrespectful language from their children either: Warn them that the discussion will be over if they keep it up. Praising teens when they are being civil is important, too, and much more effective at changing behavior than levying punishments.
While it is obviously tempting, yelling isn't helpful either. Children can feel intimidated or overpowered and they are likely to miss the lessons parents are trying to teach. Teens will also be more likely to resort to yelling in their adult relationships.
Adrienne says most of her arguments with her daughter Jaylen, 11, revolve around the child cleaning her room (she resists) and taking a shower in the evening (she delays, wanting to watch one more YouTube video or spend a bit more time with Pokémon Go).
Try This at Home
- MOM: Time to turn off your phone.
- TEEN: But I just need to finish this game. And all my friends get to stay up later.
Five minutes later.
- MOM: You need sleep. Remember, we've already agreed that this is the time the phone goes off. You know the consequences: no phone time tomorrow.
- TEEN: That's a stupid rule. You never let me do anything. You're mean.
- MOM: I'm sorry you feel that way. But that's not
how we talk to each other in this family. If you keep using
disrespectful language, the conversation is over.
TEEN grumbles and rolls eyes but acquiesces.
When things get particularly heated, mom has found that the most powerful parental move of all is to keep cool and walk away. A victory in an argument with a teen likely won't feel that satisfying to parents. Don't expect a "you're right."
Psychologists say that parents need to walk a fine line between being too lenient and too strict with young teens. If they are too permissive, they won't have the authority later on to set limits on activities that can be potentially dangerous. And if they quash arguments and require complete compliance, teens won't learn how to advocate for themselves and negotiate with others.
"They are more susceptible to peer pressure because they are not used to having any input," says Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. "When their peers say, 'Let's go get a six-pack and drink it behind the school,' they say, 'OK.' "
Maya and Jeff say they give their sons Mark, 13, and Tom 11, a good amount of say in how the boys spend their free time, accommodating trips to the mall and meetups with friends. But the couple does have a few nonnegotiable rules. The boys aren't allowed to associate with children who use alcohol or drugs. And the brothers are required to attend important family functions, including each other's sporting events.