Argumentative + Adolescent = Normal

According to family psychologist, Jack Hinman, argumentativeness is a necessary developmental pattern for adolescents. The good news? It’s normal. The bad news? You can’t entirely control or stop it.

Teens need to push boundaries and assert themselves in order to move from the compliant dependence of childhood to a more independent adult identity. It’s a messy process at times, but without some level of self-assertion—aka argumentativeness, your teen is likely to get a bit stuck on her journey toward young adulthood.

The best tool a parent has for managing this pubescent phenomenon, says Hinman, is relationship. “Parents should view their relationship with their child as a bank account,” he says, “and they should make deposits at every opportunity so that the account is full when it comes time to make a withdrawal.” According to Hinman, who is a parent himself, deposits should take the form of positive attempts to connect, encourage and communicate. Attempts to deposit are most effective when the teen is open and relaxed.

Some ways to make deposits?

  • When your child does something praiseworthy, say so!
  • Slow down and have relaxed, curious conversations with your child
  • Show up for games, performances and other things your child is engaged in
  • Be generous, but sincere, with your expressions of affection, praise and encouragement
  • Small things are big things–even just watching TV quietly together can communicate affection, connection and love

Withdrawals, on the other hand, occur whenever there is a negative interaction such as a disagreement, the assignment of a consequence or the delivery of critical feedback. Having a full bank account—i.e. a strong, positive relationship—maximizes a parent’s influence during difficult interactions. “Parents are losing credibility with their teens,” says Hinman. “The assumption that ‘my child should listen to me because I’m a parent’ won’t fly with most teens. Parents have to work constantly to maintain a positive relationship with their children—especially during adolescence—if they hope to have influence when it counts most.”

When parents reach a point where occasional arguing morphs into chronic defiance, they may not have any opportunities to make relational deposits. A chronically defiant teen will simply not allow positive interactions. It’s at this point, when lost ground cannot be recovered, that outside help from a therapist, clergy person or other trusted adult may be necessary for a parent to regain positive access to the relational account.

Jack Hinman, PhD, is a clinical director the InnerChange family of adolescent treatment facilities.