When Teens Push Back

In the teen years, conflict is normal and to be expected. What parents should consider is to pick conflicts that will be productive. What does that mean? 

By Momentous Institute | Jun 15, 2021
When Teens Push Back2

Anyone living with a teenager is familiar with push back on family limits and expectations. When teenagers push back, parents have a choice to double down or let it go.

Enforcing a limit can be the right move at times. After all, adults are responsible for the safety and development of the child. Teenagers, though developed and mature in some areas, are not adults and do not always have the ability to make long-term rational decisions within a greater context. So there are certainly times where an adult’s job is to set and enforce limits and explain the limit, and its purpose, to the child.

But allowing teenagers to push back is important, too. After all, when teens push back against limits, they’re practicing an important skill: advocacy. They’re saying, “This isn’t fair. This doesn’t feel just. I want to challenge this.” And while that can be frustrating for parents (do they have to challenge everything?!), it is also an important skill for them to practice.

In the teen years, conflict is normal and to be expected. What parents should consider is to pick conflicts that will be productive.

What do we mean by that?

Limits and boundaries can be set for different reasons, some are for safety, others around values. It is important to think about the purpose of the limit. As long as the core purpose remains intact, the details of the expectation can be up for discussion. Let’s take an example.

Let’s say you have a limit around cell phone usage at night. Your rule is that cell phones have to be plugged into the charger in the kitchen at 8:00 pm. The purpose for this limit is that cell phone usage before bed impacts sleep and you want to ensure that your teen is getting adequate sleep in order to focus at school.

Now, let’s say your teen, as is normal and developmentally appropriate, pushes back against this limit. They feel that 8:00 is unfair, and none of their friends have such restrictive rules!!!

There are two ways for a parent to handle this. One is to say, “A rule is a rule. I am the adult and I have set the rule at 8:00 because I need you to get sleep and having your phone at night impacts that.”

Another way is to say, “The reason for the 8:00 rule is because I don’t want you to have access to the phone too close to bedtime. The blue light of the screen affects your sleep, and when you don’t get enough sleep, it’s not healthy for you and it impacts your learning. How can we achieve that goal of making sure you get enough sleep in a way that seems fair to you?”

In both of these responses, the purpose for the rule is made clear. The difference between them is that the second response creates space for the teen to share their own perspective on how to achieve this result. The teenager may very well push back with something that is not reasonable, but they likely won’t ask for unlimited access to their phone 24-hours a day, because it doesn’t achieve the goal that was mentioned. Instead they may ask to have their phone another hour or two. Here parents can have a problem-solving approach with the teen to say, “How will we be sure that you plug the phone in at the time we established?” Or, “How will I be sure you won’t go back out and access the phone again later; what can we do to prevent that?”

Sometimes sticking to the limits is more appropriate, for example when safety is at stake. And sometimes picking your battles is the most appropriate response, such as when your teenager wants to wear a pair of ripped jeans when you’d rather they didn’t. But sometimes it’s worth the energy and time to allow teens to push back. In doing so, they’re practicing their advocacy and problem-solving skills and turning unavoidable conflict into constructive conflict