Arguments with teens are part of life for most parents, but you can reclaim some peace in your life by accepting that risk is a part of every teenager’s journey to adulthood.

At some points in your life with teens and tweens you can feel like almost every conversation ends in yelling and slammed doors, so this article is the first of a three-part series on shutting down Arguments with Teens. If you were to look at the cause of most of these arguments, I think you’d find that they relate to one of three things: risk, respect or release. In this article, we’re going to look at the issue of risk.

Risk and the development of responsibility

If your teenagers are always griping about how life isn’t fair and you don’t let them do anything, then building some risks into their life is a great way to let them start test driving their adult life and learn to be responsible. Lots of parents can find the thought of their kids taking risk terrifying, so let me clarify what I mean by this.

The teenage years are about pulling away from your family to set up your own life. If you don’t let your kids do this gradually, then one day they’re going to find themselves all grown up and expected to act like an adult without any of the skills to do that. Some kids are in a rush to get to this grown up life, others would be happy if it never can and the majority just progressively move towards it. If you have one of these last teenagers, you probably don’t have many arguments with them. You might experience the odd season where they are demanding a bit more independence than usual, but you can usually get through that with a few heartfelt conversations.

If you have a teen that’s reluctant to grow up, it can be easy for parents to cling onto that childhood too. We have to realise that it’s our job to prepare our kids for the big world and help them develop the skills they’re going to need to not only survive out there, but thrive. Parents of these kids need to look for ways that they can teach their kids that risks aren’t bad things and sift out and respond to the good opportunities when they come along.

The parents who have a teen hell-bent on getting to their adult life before they turn 14 are the ones that really tear their hair out about risks. In my article about kids making wrong choices, I explained what’s going on in the brain of a teenager that can make them do that, and what parents can do if their child is a massive risk taker, so I won’t go into that more here.

But what I will talk about is the things you can do in your relationship right now that limit the arguments about their behaviour.

Teen argument

Influencing risk taking through relationship

Three professors at the University of Tasmania, Joan Abbott-Chapman, Carey Denholm and Colin Wyld have explored risk taking behaviours with a group of high school students, looking at how their relationships with parents and friends affected their decisions to take risks.

It’s pretty interesting stuff. Firstly, they found that in this average group of teenagers, 75 percent trust that their parents would be there to support them in times of need. They also found that only 57 percent would ask for it. That compares with 95 percent of parents who thought their kids trusted them and 89 percent who thought their kids would come for help if needed. We as parents clearly think we’re closer to our kids than we really are.

Overall, their research found that teens are less likely to take unhealthy or unsafe risks if they feel they have access to good support from their family, but they are more inclined to jump into tricky situations if they feel the only people who understand them are their friends.

This means we as parents have some work to do. We’ve got to make sure we’re transforming our relationship during the teen years from being one where we tell kids what to do and make decisions for them, to being one where we identify options, pros and cons with them and support them to make their own choices. We have to model great decision making, living by our values and using them to guide our response to situations, knowing that our teens are observing us very closely even if they want us to think they’re not. Our relationship with our teens needs to be one where they can expect to be able to talk about any issue openly without us telling them off and yelling. Yes we can talk about our disappointment, but the focus in these talks needs to be dealing with the fallout of risk taking or poor decisions, rather than how we feel about it.

If your teenager is constantly railing against the injustice of your rules and the difficult life you expect them to live, then engage them in a discussion about how they’d like their life to be now. Look for low level risks that might scare you a little, but are not that bad. If they’re keen to go to the city with their friends on the train, what boundaries could you put around that so that you feel they’ll be safe? If they want to go to a party, what can you do to limit the risks there?

Letting consequences be the teacher

Right. So far we’ve covered the importance of focusing on our relationship with teens so that they feel they can talk to us, accepting that they need to take some risks to develop responsibility and how we can negotiate those risks if we’re smart. There’s one last thing that I want to touch on and that is what you do when they take a risk and something goes wrong.

It can be really easy to use your “I told you so” mantra when kids make a choice and it blows up in their face. That’s what they’re expecting you to say. But if you can bite your tongue and do some listening, you’ll realise that your teens are going to learn far more from the consequences of their decision, than from you lecturing them.

Again, you need to avoid arguments about this and look for ways that you can support them to work things out for themselves. The most dangerous risks, according to the trio of academics above, are the ones that teens choose just for fun. So they’re the ones that they need to learn not to jump into. If they’ve done something crazy, like breaking into somewhere, drinking a lot of alcohol or doing a prank that has ended up in someone getting hurt, our kids need to know that we’re going to be there to support them, but they need to pay the price. The relationship and the risk.

Then there are those little risks that don’t always work out too well. They decided that they really wanted to go to a concert with their friends, they’ve been arguing with you about it for weeks and you finally sat down and outlined all the reasons why you thought it was a bad idea. In the end you agreed to them going provided they took their phone, checking it regularly for messages, and called when they were ready to come home rather than accepting a lift home from someone.

At 9pm you’ve got a call from them at a service station because they want you to come and get them. Their friends ditched them and they didn’t feel safe at the concert anymore. Then they realised their phone was flat so they started walking home. But the shoes they’re wearing are hurting their feet and they now need a lift. You’ve probably sent 30 text messages by this time and rung every one of their friends’ parents to try and check they are safe.

As a parent everything in me is saying “Give them the lecture”, but I know the best thing I can do is say “Are you okay?” and unless they start delving into it themselves, then say “Let’s get home now and you can tell me what happened in the morning.”

If you want to cut down the arguments in your house, the best thing you can do is to not be a participant in them. If you see part of your job in the teenage years as building up this supportive relationship with them and helping them to identify risks worth taking, you’re going to remove many of the issues that turn into arguments straight up. Then the next best thing you can do as a parent is let the consequences of their decisions be their teacher, not you.

Arguments with teens

The reference I used in the article I’m not able to give a link to, but here are the details:

  • Joan Abbott-Chapman, Carey Denholm and Colin Wyld published their study “Social support as a factor inhibiting teenage risktaking: views of students, parents and professionals” in the Journal of Youth Studies, 2008, in volume 11(6).

What topics do you find yourself arguing about with tweens and teens? Are there some that relate to risks that you probably could have let go of? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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