WORTH READING: When Dealing With Teens, Try More Silence

By Patrick C. Friman, Ph.D., ABPP, Boys Town

(This article is part of a parenting.org series for parents of adolescents.)   

It takes two to tango. You cannot have a tug of war without people pulling on both ends of the rope.  And, an argument between a parent and a teenager requires both participants to vocally state their point of view on the issue at hand. To halt the tango, one partner merely has to stop moving. To end the tug of war, the people on one end of the rope merely need to let go. And to stop the argument, one person just has to stop speaking.

In short, one way to handle an argumentative teenager is to not speak. Silence makes anyone uncomfortable, especially teenagers. They simply are not accustomed to having their parents in their physical presence and saying nothing. Try it and watch your teen twitch.

I am particularly in favor of trying silence when teenagers are at their verbal worst. That is, when they are calling people names, threatening to move out or quit school, making declarations about not being loved, or using any of the crude insults they’ve learned to deploy in their campaign to dominate their parents. Unfortunately, when teenagers behave this way, they are being so provocative that most adults feel compelled to respond. But no matter how difficult it may be, my recommendation is that parents refrain from speaking; merely stare and say nothing.

When teenagers argue, they are dominated by an emotional, reactive part of the brain. This part has little capacity for reflection. But when emotion subsides, a more reflective part of the brain takes over and reviews the argument made by the reactive part. In a sense, it reviews the mental tape that was “recording” while the argument took place. If there is only one voice on the tape (the teenager’s), and it sounds idiotic at best and virtually insane at worst, the reflective part of the brain will notice and possibly learn from it. However, if there are two voices on the tape – the teen’s and the parent’s – and both are exhibiting idiocy and possibly insanity, the reflective part of the teenager’s brain will later rule that the reactive part was fully justified in all it said (and did).

I hazard to guess it would be almost impossible to find a parent of a teenager who hasn’t felt bad about having an argument with his or her lovely, but occasionally contentious, child. I would also hazard to guess it would be virtually impossible to find a parent who ever won such an argument. That is, a situation where a parent argued a point so successfully that the teenager, in the middle of the argument, stopped, complimented the wisdom of the parent’s perspective and promised to do better in the future.

Regardless of who is involved, most arguments merely match reactive brain part against reactive brain part and neither side gives an inch. That is why the argument – although widely and frequently used – is not a very effective strategy for teaching a teenager something.

Teaching can take place only when someone is willing to listen. By becoming the silent partner in an argument with your teen, you can set the stage for some real teaching to begin.

For more on parenting, check out these posts from Michael:
“If I Had My Child to Raise Over Again” 
The Best Wise and Witty Quotes About Children and Parenting
Top 5 Strategies for Teaching Your Children to Behave
Dad Shoots Teen Daughter’s Laptop Over Facebook Post 

Comments 4

  1. Pingback: COMMENTARY 767.5: Two Sets of Proud Parents

  2. Michael, I deeply appreciate this as a divorced mother who has only had FAITH in God and your words of wisdom and the wise and wonderful input of the choice of people whom I have chose to surround myself with to be in my inner circle.
    This is profound! Along with the steadfast of faith and being foundational. This has assisted me in the true love of the blessing of my teenagers and the letting go of a tug-a-war with a “wild horse”. I have learned it is ok to just be a sound board and wisper to the respecting growth in the life we choose as parents to bring into this world. Life is not a conformation of shaping into a cookie cutter mold or that if one has a thought or is not able to remain in a “rule” let’s just cut it off and govern… It is about leading not by words, but example and loving enough to remain silent and being strong to bring a child who is confident in who they are by expression of all feelings and I guess like putting our arms out wide and strong to GUIDE in true strength… A TRUE gift of a blessing of life we have been given as PARENTS… It is the basics of the Rod and staff… BUT the Rod must be used wisely and goverend accordingly.

  3. My grandmother used to always say there is never a reason to argue.
    If you are wrong you cannot afford to argue, and if you are right you don’t have a need to (because the truth will become known). It is as profound now as it was 4 decades ago when my grandmother first said it ( :

  4. When I was just barely out of my teen years, my mother and my younger sister would constantly argue and push each other’s buttons. After the argument they would each call me, tell me their side and why they were right and the other wrong. During each phone call I would tell them to not comment back or ask a question that they knew would provoke a fight; I suggested time and again to just hang up – which I did frequently. I finally got to the point where I told them that if they were going to rehash the argument with me, try to get me on their side, and ask me what they should do; that I was ending the call, that I had been making suggestions which they continued to ignore, and to call me back when they wanted to have a dialogue with me. After 30 years, I know that neither of them learned anything as my sister is now arguing with her 13 year old daughter. I talk to my niece and tell her that she does not need to argue back – we’ll see if she learns the lesson.

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