Helping Teenagers Argue Effectively

I have little doubt that a number of readers of this blog will feel that today’s teenagers argue too much. However, I wish to put the case for the opposite! So let me begin by clarifying what I am talking about in this article when I refer to the ability to argue. I am not, on this occasion, talking about those times when teenagers make unrealistic demands of us; or when a discussion passes boiling point and ends with the stomp of feet up the stairs and the slamming of a bedroom door; nor about those times when as parents or teachers we pass the point of frustration with what seems like the innate ability of teenagers to question absolutely any instruction, however small and reasonable it might seem to us. Rather, I am talking about the ability to present a point of view in a thoughtful way, whilst showing respect to those who differ in their opinion. I am talking about constructing an argument using a logical thought process, while taking account of the bigger picture that provides the context for whatever is under discussion. I am talking about the ability to listen to those with whom one disagrees, taking on board points that are being made, but nevertheless holding firm to important principles. I am talking about developing negotiation skills and ultimately reaching a level of maturity that understands that arguments are often about clarifying and learning; not necessarily about winning.

The ability to argue effectively is an important skill for teenagers to have with them as they approach adulthood. It is a skill that will make them more marketable to potential employers; it will help them build stable adult relationships; it will help them in situations where they need to be able to listen to, and negotiate with, others. But this is not a case of developing a life skill, all of whose benefits lie at some stage in an uncertain future. In the shorter term, those who have begun to learn the skills of arguing effectively in their early teenage years are better equipped for some aspects of their future education as well as being armed with a powerful weapon to help them resist some of the negative peer pressures with which they might be faced in their later teenage years.

As indicated above, there are a number of aspects to arguing effectively. As with any complex skill, time and practice are essential to its successful development. One of the ways that human beings learn is through their mistakes, and learning to argue effectively is no exception. At times, teenagers will get it wrong: their frustration may take over, they may shout and become disrespectful, but when these things happen, they rely on the significant adults in their lives to help them learn from their mistakes. The important question for parents and teachers, then, is not how we can stop teenagers from arguing, but how we can best help them develop their argumentative tendencies in a way that will equip them for the adult world to which they are headed.

Advice for Parents

Try to keep calm. Parents, of course, can bear the brunt of it when teenagers are going through the learning process, and especially when they are getting it wrong. However, responding with the same type of broken behaviour pattern being portrayed by the teenager is not helpful in moving the situation forward. Responses like shouting over your teenager to stop them shouting, or trying to demonstrate that you can be even more stubborn and unreasonable than them, or becoming aggressive in response to their aggression, only ends up with two people behaving badly. Consequently, the teenager learns nothing about arguing effectively. If necessary, walk away until the temperature has cooled sufficiently for you both to be able to return and address the topic in a more rational way.

Model respect and good argumentation skills. The best way to help your teenager understand the need for respect, even when they disagree with someone’s viewpoint, is to model it in your dealings with them. The parent who takes time to listen to their teenager’s point of view, considers their arguments, asks questions for clarification when they do not understand, values good points made during the course of an argument, remains polite even when provoked, demonstrates empathy for their teenager and their situation, and who explains their decisions both models respect and demonstrates some of the important skills for arguing effectively. The teenager who knows how it feels to be respected is far more likely to respect others, and the teenager who has experienced significant adults in their life arguing effectively is far more likely to seek to develop a similar technique.

Keep the bigger picture of parenting always in mind. It is important for parents to keep in mind the overall goal in parenting a teenager – to help the teenager reach the point where they can enter the adult world successfully. For the parent, winning an argument with their teenager is not the ultimate goal. Sure, it may give a short-term feeling of satisfaction, but especially if the argument has been won through the use of bullying tactics, or by sacrificing truth for expediency, then the overall goal will have been set back. This is not to say the parent should always give in, or should step back from strongly held principles. However, the wise parent will look for opportunities to give ground when the teenager argues effectively, admitting that the teenager has explained a perspective that they (the parent) had not previously understood or appreciated. Through such comments, the teenager “feels” the value of arguing effectively and is more likely to press on with the development of this important life skill.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Differentiate between disrespect and argument. I have occasionally come across a teacher who seems to regard every student attempt to question as a sign of disrespect. Such an approach says more about the insecurity of the teacher than the disposition of the students. I have also come across students who wanted to take every possible opportunity to pick a fight with the teacher, often over unimportant issues. Neither approach facilitates learning. Even in situations where students have done wrong, or where tempers have begun to rise, there are often genuine attempts by students to gain clarification of issues through raising a contrary argument. Teachers who have developed the ability to understand what is happening even in the midst of a simmering situation, and who can answer arguments calmly, clearly and logically, do the most in such situations to foster learning. Teenagers often ask questions by arguing, and they need teachers who can model appropriate ways to disagree and good argumentation skills so that they can learn more about the issue under discussion and also about the good use of argument as a learning tool.

Promote the ability to construct logical argument. Teenage brain development starts at the back of the brain and moves forward. This means that teenage responses are governed more by the amygdala, situated at the back of the brain and triggering strong emotions, than by the pre-frontal cortex, which is at the front, develops later, and governs logical thought. As most of us have observed, teenagers often respond to situations emotionally and need help if they are to develop a considered and logical response.

Various aspects of the academic programmes followed by teenagers in school encourage debate and logical argument. Essay-writing in many subjects also depends on building a good argument. However, students are often told of the need for a well-constructed argument without anyone ever really explaining what that is or how it can be developed. Helping teenagers understand how to develop good argumentation skills and to put them to use in their academic work is an important factor in the development of their logical argumentation skills for life generally. However, teenagers often need help, too, in making the transition from using logical argument as an academic skill to using it more widely, be it within their school community or their family life. By asking the right questions, and by refusing to accept a lower standard of argumentation from students in their discussions generally in school than they would accept in their academic work, teachers have an important role to play in helping their students develop the life skill of being able to argue effectively.

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