The Best Way to Fight With a Teenager
By Lisa Damour
Lisa Damour writes about adolescent behavior.
When raising teenagers, conflict usually comes with the territory. A
growing body of research suggests that this can actually be a good thing. How
disagreements are handled at home shapes both adolescent mental health and
the overall quality of the parentteenager relationship. Not only that, the
nature of family quarrels can also drive how adolescents manage their
relationships with people beyond the home.
In looking at how teenagers approach disputes, experts have identified
four distinct styles: attacking, withdrawing, complying and problem solving.
Adolescents who favor either of the first two routes — escalating fights or
stubbornly refusing to engage in them — are the ones most likely to be or
become depressed, anxious or delinquent. But even those teenagers who take
the third route and comply, simply yielding to their parents’ wishes, suffer
from high rates of mood disorders. Further, teenagers who cannot resolve
arguments at home often have similar troubles in their friendships and love
In contrast, teenagers who use problem solving to address disputes with
their parents present a vastly different picture. They tend to enjoy the sturdiest
psychological health and the happiest relationships everywhere they go, two
outcomes that would top every parent’s wish list.
So how do we raise teenagers who see disagreements as challenges to be
Compelling new research suggests that constructive conflict between
parent and teenager hinges on the adolescent’s readiness to see beyond his or
her own perspective. In other words, good fights happen when teenagers
consider arguments from both sides, and bad fights happen when they don’t.
Conveniently, the intellectual ability to consider multiple outlooks
blossoms in the teenage years. While younger children lack the neurological
capacity to fully understand someone else’s point of view, adolescence sparks
rapid development in the parts of the brain associated with abstract reasoning.
This leads to dramatic gains in the ability to regard situations from competing
viewpoints. We also have evidence that parents can make the most of their
teenagers’ evolving neurobiology by being good role models for taking another
person’s perspective. Adults who are willing to walk around in their teenagers’
mental shoes tend to raise teenagers who return the favor.
But research findings rarely translate cleanly to the realities of family life.
Conflict comes with heat, and we can only contemplate another person’s
viewpoint when heads are cool. Imagine an adolescent announcing his plan to
spend Saturday night with a former friend known for serious wrongdoing. Any
reasonable parent might respond “Absolutely not!” and trigger an eruption,
retreat or gloomy submission in a normally developing teenager.
An interaction that ends here is an opportunity lost. But hard starts can be
salvaged if we allow for the possibility that first reactions can give way to
second ones. The parent in this scenario might soon find a way to say, “I’m
sorry that got ugly. I need you to help me understand why you want to spend
time with Mike when you don’t even like him that much. And can you put
words to why I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of you hanging out with
No parent or teenager can, or needs to, turn every dispute into a
thoughtful consideration of opposing outlooks. And some families weather
toxic battles that go far beyond the squabbles inherent in raising adolescents.
Still, the balance of research suggests that gardenvariety disagreements offer
the opportunity to help young people better understand themselves and
others, building in them the lifelong skill of finding room for civility in the
midst of discord.
No parent looks forward to fighting with his or her teenage child. But the
friction that comes with raising adolescents might be easier to take when we
see it as an opening, not an obstacle.
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Lisa Damour is a psychologist in private practice in Shaker Heights,
Ohio, a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University and
the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. She is
the author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven
Transitions Into Adulthood.” Follow her on Twitter: @LDamour