You know how it goes: Even the smallest disagreements with your teen can turn into yelling, doors slamming, feelings hurt and evenings ruined. But there’s a trick to preventing these regular altercations from escalating.
Ask your teen if they actually enjoy what’s happening during the fight.
Most of the time, they don’t feel good about it, so they’ll redirect their anger before it gets out of hand. Let me break down how this works to end any argument.
End any argument with this question
The ultimate phrase that will end any argument in its track is, “Do you like where this is going?”
Your teenager will be caught off guard by this question, even if they have Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a condition in which children are uncooperative, defiant and hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures. This question totally breaks down whatever you were fighting about and makes the disagreement about something different: it makes it about the fight itself.
When to use this trick to stop disagreements
This question that shuts down arguments has to be used at the right time to be effective. If you can resolve a fight before it escalates, you might not even have to use it at all. But when you feel the tension rising and the fight becomes more emotional and personal, you can use it as a trump card.
Say you’re arguing with your teen because they missed curfew. It might go something like this:
“Mom, this is totally unfair! I was only 15 minutes late and it wasn’t even my fault! There was an accident on the highway!”
“Yes, but you were 15 minutes late yesterday, too, and the night before that, so clearly something needs to change. You know what we agreed would happen if you were late like this!”
“Just let me stay out later and then it won’t be a problem!”
“It’s not my job to let you do whatever you want, and it’s not fair to make me stay up an extra hour later every night to make sure you make it home in one piece!”
“You never trust me to do anything!”
Stop. You’ve had this argument before and you know where it’s going. And your teen knows where it’s going, too. Now it’s time to pull out the decisive question to end any argument:
“Do you like where this is going? Because I don’t. This isn’t fun for me. We’ve had fights like this enough times that we both know what’s coming next, and I don’t like it. Tell me, do you like it? Do you enjoy what happens next?”
Suddenly your teen is disarmed. You’re not fighting about curfew anymore, and a lot of the energy diffuses. You’ve shifted the argument to, “Do you like fighting?” I would bet that neither you or your teen particularly enjoy screaming at each other at 11 p.m., so there’s a good chance your teen might say that they don’t like it either.”
Success! You’re on the same page. You’ve both admitted to each other that you want a way to resolve the fight, not to escalate it. Now it’s time to make amends.
After the fighting stops
After you and your teen have stopped arguing, you can work on finding a solution to your conflict.
You can talk about compromise, change the topic by being inspirational, ask your teen what their ideal solution would be, or decide to walk away and talk about it in the morning. Either way, the fight is over and you can both get some sleep.
You and your teen will be driven to come up with a working solution to your conflict because the alternative is more anger, shouting, and pain. And you’re over that. Whether it’s about curfew, clothing, or cannabis, you and your teen can use this technique to decide to move past the fight and into the compromise.
About the author
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.