Q: In last week’s column, you advised parents not to argue with teenagers. That’s fine and dandy advice, John, but you failed to tell your readers how to stay out of or end these arguments. For example, my strong-willed, stubborn, argumentative 14-year-old daughter wants to argue with me about nearly every decision I make, every “No,” every rule, every instruction. I am going slowly insane. How do I make her stop?
A: First, I need to correct your thinking about these ongoing arguments because your thinking is a big part of the problem.
You think your daughter is “argumentative.” You believe, therefore, that there’s something you can do TO HER that will stop these arguments. But there is no such thing as an argumentative child; there are only parents who open the door to argument and then step right through onto the battlefield. The parents in question mistakenly think that some combination of words, some logic, some patient, intelligent explanation will cause a supposedly argumentative child to pause, reflect, and then say, “Mom, when you put it like that, I can’t help but agree with you.” No child has ever said those words, and no child ever will.
You are the cause of these arguments. Therefore, the person who needs to change here is you. The first thing you need to do is train yourself to engage your brain before you engage your mouth. When your daughter asks you for permission to do something, don’t “pop off” a decision (unless, of course, circumstances demand one). Bring out your smart phone, set the timer for ten minutes and say, “Check me out when the alarm goes off.”
Making impulsive decisions often leads to self-doubt, and self-doubt leads to capitulation, and the more a parent capitulates, the more convinced a child becomes that she can get her way if she only makes enough noise, and so she makes more noise, and the parent becomes angrier and angrier and so on. Sound familiar? Preventing this downward spiral will prevent you from feeling guilty, and few things lead to worse decisions than guilt.
When the timer’s alarm goes off, communicate your decision to your daughter. If she asks “Why?” or “Why not?” go to the second step in the plan: Simply say, “Because that’s what I have decided.” If she persists in asking the questions, become what I call a Bad Mommy Robot—simply persist in giving that answer, as in:
“But why?” daughter demands.
“Because that’s what I’ve decided,” Bad Mommy Robot answers.
“That’s not a reason!” she complains.
“That’s the only reason I can think of,” says Bad Mommy Robot.
“I hate you!”
“If I was fifteen, I’d hate me too right now. You have my permission to hate me.”
Just keep that up. At some point, she will stomp her foot, scream something incoherent, and storm off. Your robotic responses will drive her temporarily insane. That’s much preferred to you going insane. You can’t afford to go insane. You have too many parenting responsibilities. She’s young. She’ll bounce back.