As your children grow out of infancy and further into childhood, disagreements will become a normal part of life. When you’re a parent, of course, this can grow quite exhausting! You may find that the older they get, the more things there are to disagree about.
When your kids were toddlers or preschoolers, they were small (and light) enough to scoop up and swiftly remove from a store, a park, or other public space when they became indignant over not getting what they wanted. Sure, it was sometimes embarrassing, but you did what had to be done. As they get older, addressing the conflict gets a little more complicated, and it’s easier for frustration and even anger to arise.
Once they reach elementary and middle school, you’ll need to establish a more productive approach to handling disagreements.
Here are five tips on how to have a healthy disagreement with your kid or teen:
Set the Example
Do you remember the old saying, “Do as I say, and not as I do?”
Here’s the problem with that. As a parent, you are the leader and a de facto role model in your child’s life. And kids and teens are excellent observers! From their earliest days, kids learn from the examples of their parents. An important way to set the stage for healthy disagreements with your children is to model this behavior with your spouse and other adults in the household.
Even kids who have not yet become verbal notice how you handle conflicts. During a disagreement, do you speak calmly, or do you yell and demean the person you are in a disagreement with? Do you shut down or simply walk away? Or, do you take a mental pause, and choose to demonstrate active listening and compassion despite how you may be feeling on the inside?
No parent is perfect. Believe me, I’ve not always set the example that I have desired to. However, the good news is that our kids are great at forgiving us. (Forgetting? Not so much.) We can always have a re-do. Take time to consider the example you’re setting for your kids. You can adjust your approach using the other tips below.
Being empathetic is often the last thing we think to do when we’re in the middle of yet another disagreement over more screen time with our teen or a request to have “just one more cookie” before dinner by our kid. After all, we’re the adult, and many of us believe that our kids should listen without question.
I get it.
But demonstrating empathy to our kids during a disagreement can go a very long way.
It’s a healthy way to show them that you do care about what they’re feeling. Often, kids (and adults) just want to know that they are being heard and understood.
One way to validate their emotions and demonstrate understanding is by saying, “I think I understand why you feel ____ since_____. But given all of the circumstances, we will still need some time to consider your request. Can we chat more about this tomorrow?”
Letting them know that you understand where they’re coming from can help calm tensions and make continued discussion easier.
Use Active Listening.
Do you want to know one of therapists’ greatest superpowers? Active listening.
When you listen actively to your kid or teen, you take the time to hear them out without interrupting or trying to jump in with your retorts and opinions. You reflect back to them what you hear them saying and ask them to confirm that you’re right. If not, they have a chance to clarify what they’re trying to say.
For example, when your middle schooler wants to play a video game with graphic and/or violent content, you can listen to their rationale. Then pause and say . . .
“I understand that this is a game that is exciting for you and that many of your friends play it together. I get that it’s a way to socialize. But your dad and I request that you select another game without any violent imagery. Think of some better options and we can discuss it more later tonight.”
Acknowledge their points and then reflect them back. This tool is often used to help adults resolve conflict. While it may take some practice for your kids or teens to understand how it works, setting the example for them now sets the stage for continued healthy disagreements as they grow.
Few things can drive parents to exasperation like an argumentative child. Kids can be like heat-seeking missiles. They often know our weaknesses. Chances are they know exactly what to say and do to make you lose your temper. Whether we like it or not, our kids sometimes enjoy doing this to us! For some kids, any attention—even negative—is better than no attention at all.
It’s important to remember that expressing anger—hitting, yelling, throwing things—is a natural response for a child (and some adults). These behaviors are ways that a child with limited or developing language or cognitive abilities can express their emotion.
However, if you can remain calm and unruffled during an argument, you’re teaching them an invaluable skill. You’re demonstrating self-control and helping them to develop social and emotional competence. You’re also showing them that disagreements don’t have to lead to verbal conflict. Likewise, you’re teaching them that it’s okay to set emotional boundaries for yourself by refusing to get dragged into arguments.
And, when you remain calm, you can help defuse your kid or teen’s anger. You’re not feeding into it, and they will feel the difference.
Give Them a Choice, When Appropriate.
Children need to be given opportunities to make their own decisions if they’re going to learn to make healthy choices around disagreements. When it’s appropriate, be willing to compromise with them. Listen to their point of view, present your own, and then ask if they can think of a way to manage the disagreement.
When you treat them with respect and are willing to hear them out, you’re more likely to win their respect in return.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are some things that cannot be compromised. Safety is the big one. Studies suggest that the rate of alcohol and drug use among teenagers may be rising. Alcohol is one of the leading causes of death among teens. Some experts point to permissive parenting as playing a role in the increasing rate of teen substance abuse. While none of us desire to be in conflict with our kids, it’s important to remember to remain in the parenting role and to set boundaries as needed.
If family arguments become more frequent and volatile in your household, it’s important to consider counseling as an option. Many therapists, like myself, work with families to help uncover sources of disagreements and learn emotionally healthy ways to communicate. Family ministry leaders are also a great resource! Please reach out for support, if needed.