Testing times: why are teenagers so argumentative?


The first thing that parents of argumentative teens should know is that it is normal and they are certainly not alone.

In fact, for the better part of a century, the literature has been referring to adolescence (roughly 12-18 years of age in Western countries) as a period of 'storm and stress'.

And while you can't really prevent your teenager from being argumentative, you can better understand why they are behaving in this way, and how to more effectively communicate with them, and resolve issues.

A whole new world

We know that teenagers experience enormous physical, emotional, psychological, and social changes. It's a lot to happen in a small period, and for many, it's a tumultuous time. Intellectually, what's happening with young teenagers is that they're no longer literal, or what we call concrete thinkers. They have started to develop the ability to think in a more abstract and logical way.

What that means is that they start to see alternative explanations to different ways of doing things, and that includes testing out their own, independent ideas. This often results in 'talking back' – because they no longer really intrinsically believe that their parents' way of doing things is the only way or the right way.

These arguments often come down to your child testing their new ideas, but also testing parental power.

When children are 8 or 10, parents can say things like – 'Because I know best' or, 'Because I said so'. With teens that often won't cut it! They want a better explanation; they want to know why their ideas aren't as good, and this often leads to quite heated debates.

Importantly, when children go through puberty, the hormones that are released in their bodies actually change the parts of their brain that involve emotion. This biological change makes them typically more emotional than an adult or a child, and that includes the way they react to things.

However, the parts of the brain that help them deal with or regulate their emotions don't develop until late teens/early adulthood. This means they frequently feel a variety of intense emotions but they don't yet have all the tools to deal with them.


Know the triggers

Some parents will say that any simple conversation turns into an argument with their teen! Again, that can be normal. These arguments often come down to your child testing their new ideas, but also testing parental power. Teenagers are trying to take more control of their lives, be more assertive, and test the boundaries.

We know that during adolescence, friends become everything, and teenagers often want to spend time with their friends; they want to do the things their friends are doing; and they want to go where their friends are going. However, this mismatch between what parents permit, and what a teenager wants to do, is often a huge source of conflict.

Think about it from your child's perspective – they have new ideas about how to do things, and they want to put those into practice. It's not about being argumentative, per se, it's about them taking more control (and yes, responsibility), rather than just having their parents make those decisions on their behalf.

Top tips for resolving teen drama

Tip 1 – Stay calm

It's very hard for a teenager to have a heated argument if the other person is not arguing back. It might be a challenge, but you need to role model the behaviour you expect from your child during these interactions.

It's completely OK and healthy for a parent to say: "I can't argue about this now. Let's take some time to calm down, and we'll discuss it later."

Tip 2 – Choose your battles

Rather than raising every small thing that frustrates you about your teen's behaviour, don't be too concerned about the typical eye rolls, bored looks and mumbled speech, and concentrate on the things that are important and that are really going to matter, such as safety. Let the small things go.

Tip 3 – Involve your teen in decision making

Giving your teenager a sense of ownership about what happens to them is a really good way to avoid confrontation. Obviously, this is only appropriate at certain times, but when it is, explore it. If the decision concerns something that you think your child can handle, let them do it.

This might involve letting them do something in their own way, and not the way that you would want it done. Such gestures can give teenagers a greater sense of ownership of their lives.

Keep this mind next time your teen seems to be arguing with you for no reason, and see if you can turn the argument into a constructive conversation.

This has been co-published with The Lighthouse, Macquarie University's multimedia news platform.