Focus on the Family

Unhealthy Ways to Argue

Four habits to avoid in family disagreements

by Gary Smalley, Dr. Greg Smalley

Attempts at communication between parents and teens can be extremely frustrating for both parties. Unfortunately, many families tend to use one or more of four common habits that bring further anger and destruction to the relationship. In other words, these four common habits are what we shouldn't do when we have family disagreements. Let's examine these unhealthy ways of arguing so we know what to avoid.

Four Destructive Ways to Argue

1. Continually withdrawing from an argument

Conflict avoidance or withdrawal doesn't happen only in "dysfunctional" families; it's common in otherwise healthy families as well. In our seminar survey of more than 5,000 adults, when we asked "How did you and your parents deal with conflict?" the number-one response was avoiding or with­drawing from it.

How about your family? Do you find that you and your teenager con­tinue to bring up the same areas of conflict without resolving them? If so, these discussions probably end in hurt, frustration, or fear because the issues have not been handled adequately.

2. Letting arguments escalate into hurtful, name-calling fights

If you and your teen find yourselves starting to shout and call each other degrading, dishonoring names during an argument, the anger level will usu­ally skyrocket. Nothing can make a discussion escalate out of control faster. Yet when we asked our survey respondents how their families had handled conflict, "Yelling and screaming at each other" was the third-most-common answer.

What usually starts this kind of interaction is the accusatory word you. For example, "You never ... You always ... You make me ..." As this hap­pens, you're usually left with greater hurt and frustration. Furthermore, the fear level is now higher because you remember the increased pain of the argu­ment. The result is more love-killing anger between those involved.

Usually following on the heels of an escalating argument is the third bad habit we need to avoid.

3. Belittling or invalidating each other during an argument

To invalidate someone is to make fun of him or attack his personhood. For example, during a conflict we might accuse our teenager of being stupid, uncaring, wild, immature, ugly, or something equally dishonoring. When this happens, it can cause emotional damage and sour the relationship.

Invalidation takes place when we try to cut someone at the core of her being, like saying something about her age, personality, appearance, or intel­ligence. To be invalidated can be extremely painful. Perhaps you remember a time when a parent, teacher, coach, or friend said something that hurt you deep inside, maybe not even realizing the depth of pain his comment caused.

Why do conflicts between parents and teenagers so often escalate into name-calling, yelling, and invalidation? One reason we need to understand is the intensity and variability of teenage emotions. It's no secret that adolescence is a period of emotional highs and lows. Our teens may feel as if they're on an emotional roller coaster: loving one minute and hating the next; feeling a sense of pride and then suddenly feeling shame. One moment the future looks bright, and then in the blink of an eye it's hopeless.

The intensity and variability of emotions, especially in teenagers and especially during conflict, can cause a calm discussion to turn instantly into a raging war of words. It's no wonder that you can expect to experience occa­sional escalation and invalidation.

One of the best ways to deal with escalation and invalidation during a conflict is to take a "time-out." In other words, when emotions start to heighten, body temperatures rise, and words start becoming dishon­oring, it's time to take a break. Always agree to resume the discussion when everyone's emotions have settled. As you utilize the time-out with your teenager, you will be modeling a great conflict resolution skill that he or she will be able to use for a lifetime.

Let's now turn our attention to the final habit in arguing that can pro­duce anger and become extremely toxic to the honor in your home.

4. Starting to believe that a family member is trying to hurt, frustrate, or cause fear on purpose

When we begin to develop a negative belief about someone, it can have per­manent and ruinous consequences. What we believe about our children may come true, good or bad. Once we start developing a deep conviction that our teenager is stupid, clumsy, try­ing to drive us crazy, or going to get pregnant, we'll actually hear or see signs of it even if it isn't true. Confirmation bias is particularly destructive when it comes to parent-adolescent conflict.