Parent Question: Why are teens so argumentative?
(1) They are busy practicing a new way of
thinking. (Jean Piaget called it "formal operational thought.") Between 11
and 16 years of age, teens develop the ability to solve problems WITHOUT the
concrete, action-oriented experiences of a child. Teens are forming theories
about everything—and testing them out. They make assumptions, consider
hypotheses, and work out the inferences that follow. This abstract thinking
is actually very difficult to master. So, teens argue constantly to practice
their abstract thought processes.
(2) Most parents are threatened by their arguing teen. I know of one dad
who threatened to put his "rude and argumentative" daughter into juvenile
hall because of it! She was a totally good kid with straight A's, piano
recitals, drama club—the whole bit. If he'd understood that she was
struggling to learn abstract thought and logic, perhaps lively debates would
have taken the place of rejection and heartbreak on their home front.
(3) What can parents do to actively support their teen's abstract thinking?
Why not go with the flow and nurture this new development? Encourage your
teen's efforts to define his or her world view through abstraction and
reflection, questions, and experimentation. Don't rush in with answers.
And don't automatically go on the war path when a teenager questions your
most deeply held values or assumptions about life. Let teens have the
opportunity to make intellectual choices for themselves. Organize your home
environment to allow for formal abstract thinking.
How can parents cope?
1. Why not create a think tank that is rich, both socially and
intellectually! Let your teen interact with and bring in other people’s viewpoints.
Exposure to different types of people and thought can be very
positive now. Different role models should be made available too.
2. Dig out some of your old college books on logic. Reread Aristotle and
Socrates. Introduce them to your teen. (Wow! They'll think you're "far
3. You might even set up and engage in formal debates. (This would have the
added benefit of teaching all of you the rules for "fighting fair" when you
disagree.) Remember: the goal is to increase the capacity to think—for
teens and parents alike. So, use this time to reexamine some of your own
ideas and clean up any of your own thought processes that may have grown
stuck, rusty, or sloppy over time. The timing is perfect to support your
teen's cognitive growth—and your own.
Remember: This argumentative phase is related to your teen's
struggle to learn abstract thought and logic. Try to nurture, support, and
even enjoy this development, rather than feel annoyed or threatened by it.