Share Viewpoints, But Resist the Power Struggle
"I've got a problem," a friend of mine said. "There's been so much bad news lately, and I can't get my son to understand why he's wrong about the reasons. He won't even listen to me; he just argues."
"How old is he again?" I asked.
"Sixteen," she said.
First, some background. As I write this, it's mid-July. It's right before the Republican National Convention and the day after the terrorist attack in Nice, France. We're only a week removed from the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas, which followed the killing of two unarmed black men in separate shootings by police officers. That would normally make this untimely when you read it, but sadly, violence and political consternation seem to be universal.
This isn't about politics, so we're not taking on those issues. However, my friend's frustration is a universal puzzler. How do you help teens see all sides of an issue when it seems like they don't listen to anything that you say?
First, remember what we've talked about before: It's a teen's job to separate from you to create their own personality. That starts early in the teen years, and it's an essential part of human development. It's why they'll argue with you about whether the sky is blue. If you understand that, it's easier to avoid power struggles with them. Most power struggles are a waste of time; they're about winning an argument regardless of who's right.
But as parents, it's also important to share your values and beliefs with your kids. We want to protect our children from "bad" ideas, and we want our teens to acknowledge right then, in that moment, that they might actually be wrong. (Really, how often does that happen?)
Try sticking to the fundamentals of the attention rule: Attention increases behavior. (Funny how often that applies, huh?) If you get in a prolonged argument, your teen just tries to outlast you, and the attention from the argument encourages more power struggles.
That doesn't mean that you just give up. Say what you want to say. Heck, throw in a few statistics and facts to back up your point of view. But then it's important to do for your teen what we always wanted our parents to do for us: Stop trying to convince them. Trust them enough to think it through and make a good decision. Sometimes they'll agree with you. Sometimes they won't. But without the power struggle, they're less likely to make a choice just to spite you.
As long as your teen is safe, it's important to let them try out ideas and beliefs. They might frustrate you today, but they also might change their minds in a month. (For example, when was the last time that you saw a Goth 40-year-old?) That's how the system is supposed to work. If we want them to learn to think for themselves, we sometimes have to let them disagree.
-Carl Grody, LISW-S, is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.