If you live in a home with one or more teenagers, at times you may feel like you are hostage to their moods. While it may be easier to retreat to the peace and quiet of your locked bedroom or give in to their behavior just to not further rock the boat, there’s no need to allow a teenager to control the home. It takes some work to build a better relationship with your teenager, but the payoff is worth it.
Teenagers engage in arguments because it is a strategy that works for them on many levels. Don’t kid yourself, teens have figured out that if they argue with parents they can make it very aversive for parents to follow through. In fact, research shows that the more aversive they make it; the less likely parents are to ask teens to do chores or follow through with consequences in the future.
In other words, teens argue because they get something out of it.
If nothing else, they get parent’s eyes to bug out of their heads and steam to come out of their ears, which for some reason teens find amusing. For all of these reasons (and more) it is very unlikely that teens will be the person to back down, or walk away, from a conflict. Teens are more likely to relish in the back and forth of an argument and propel it into a terrible conflict — one that likely started from something as simple as request to put away a pair of shoes. Don’t allow yourself to be party to that escalation.
An argument with a teenager can be like a grease fire and every word exchanged is like fuel on the fire. It takes two (or more) to keep this fire going, so often the best approach is to walk away. That doesn’t mean the teenager wins and you lose. It means you are smart enough to recognize that in that moment, you are not going to accomplish your goal by continuing to argue.
The goal as a parent is to deliver attention in another setting, a positive one, as opposed to giving teens attention during these arguments that ultimately serve to create bigger problems. Parents are often fooled into thinking that teenagers just want to be left alone. Trust me, it is not true, they still have “attention tanks,” you just have to know how to fill them up properly. One way to fill up these tanks is to establish a “date night/afternoon” to spend one-on-one time with your teenager. The idea is to fill up their attention tanks during this time so they will be less likely to try to fill them through engaging you in a big argument. Additionally, parents tend to be more comfortable walking away from conflict when they know they can have some quality time with their teen at another time.
There are some specific rules parents should consider when spending positive time with their teens during date night. First of all, parents should try to relax and keep it light during these one-on-one times. This is not your opportunity to “parent” or lecture them about all the things they do wrong, and what they really need to be doing or thinking about. During the date night it is best to resist the urge to “parent” and recognize this time for what it is — an opportunity to build a strong relationship with your teen through listening. Listen and keep the conversation positive. Your goal is to create a time your teenager enjoys so he or she will want to spend more time with you. Talk about neutral subjects — sports, fashion, television shows. Don’t overreact, don’t criticize and don’t jump to conclusions. Listen more than you speak.
You can also consider parallel activities that you both would enjoy. Take a day trip, go to a ball game, take a class together, go to a movie…The more you can fill your teenager’s attention tank with positive interactions, the less you may find yourself hostage to a teenage temper tantrum.
Teen/Parent “Date Night” Dos and Don’ts
- Keep your mouth closed
- Keep your sense of humor
- Keep your ears open (listen for subtle messages)
- Make positive comments
- Keep your emotions and nonverbals positive
- Try to understand the teen’s perspective
- Mock what is important to your teen
- Jump to conclusions about the teen’s ideas or attitudes
- Overreact to negative statements by your teen
- Personalize or focus on differences between your and the teen’s perspective (“what is the world coming to” & “when I was growing up…”)
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Blake Lancaster, PhD, is a Licensed Psychologist and a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Behavioral Health at the University of Michigan Health System. He received his Ph.D. in Child Clinical Psychology from Western Michigan University, and completed his internship and post-doctoral training at the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska where he also served as a junior faculty member from 2008 through 2012. His clinical practice focuses on providing behavioral health services in primary care pediatric settings using the integrated behavioral health co-location model. This integrated approach allows for delivery of empirically-based treatments for a wide variety of behavioral health concerns that arise in primary care pediatric settings (e.g., sleep problems, toileting issues, ADHD problems, anxiety, depression and general behavior problems).
University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.