We all know that there are pros and cons to having an argumentative child.
Not only do I have two (sometimes) argumentative teenagers, but I work therapeutically with children and teens in my clinic, Everlief. So I feel well qualified to write this article!
In this article, we’ll explore how to navigate the challenging and rewarding aspects of raising an argumentative child. You’ll gain insight into understanding your child’s behaviour. Most importantly I’ll give you practical, expert-backed strategies to empower you.
The Argumentative Child
On the plus side argumentative children…
- Are practising skills for becoming a confident leader.
- Feel safe enough to express their views.
- Often have advanced reasoning and logic skills.
- Are passionate about their points of view.
On the problematic side, argumentative children…
- May frequently trigger an emotional reaction in you.
- May wind up other members of the family and cause frequent escalating tension.
- May struggle with peer relationships as well as family relationships as they can be difficult to be around.
1. Argumentative Behaviour: Increase Your Awareness of Patterns and Triggers
An example of a pattern is when your child is always more argumentative at a certain time of day.
On Monday mornings, I know I need to be mentally tough to successfully avoid mirroring my child’s mood. This would lead to arguments.
If I want a good morning, I need to be calm and responsive.
An example of a trigger is when plans change. If a child becomes argumentative when plans change, you need to have some tricks up your sleeve in advance, because plans change all the time.
For example, if you find you don’t have time to go to the park after school as planned, you could allow your child to choose which shop to stop at, to buy a consolation treat instead. This will help disarm your child and reduce their need to argue.
2. Avoid a Power Struggle: Dealing With a Child Who Always Has To Be Right
In the case of argumentative kids, you want to allow a certain amount of debate whilst ensuring emotions remain in check, so that everyone feels heard and respected.
You want to be good role model and a good leader.
When your child is “spirited” you need to do some work on yourself as a parent to ensure you support your child in the optimal way!
You need to understand and adapt your emotional responses.
The general rule is “do something different”.
If you observe that you would normally engage in a power struggle with your child over what time to go to bed or when to start homework, try a new approach.
For example, you could walk away from this struggle, deciding that this is not a battle you are going to pick.
Later (or the next day) when your child is calm, re-negotiate the rules until you are both happy.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
3. Stay Cool Under Fire: When Faced With Argumentative Behaviour, Adjust Your Physical Responses
Strong parenting isn’t about being a disciplinarian. It is about knowing how to respond in a skillful way to get a desired outcome.
Physically, micro-changes in your body language can contain a situation. Once you have skilled yourself up, you can teach your child this vital skill too.
I know how hard it can be not to get wound up when your child seems to know exactly how to press your buttons and has to have the last word.
Believe me, I know!
There are powerful and simple ways to manage this.
Small physical changes can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and calm us, enabling us to respond rationally and thoughtfully rather than reacting.
What are these physical changes?
Here are some examples.
- Take a slow, deep breath. Make sure the breath goes all the way into your belly. Ideally, extend the out breath so it is longer than the in breath. Repeat as needed.
- If you have found yourself squaring up to your child, immediately take a step backwards. Then sit down if you can. Relax and soften your shoulders. Soften your face.
- Model a calm and respectful tone. Deliberately lower your volume a little and focus on making your tone neutral. This will help you regulate your emotion and will help prevent triggering an emotional reaction in your child.
It’s a good idea to practise these techniques when you are calm, not just in the moment.
4. Work on a “Respectfully Argumentative” Style
The type of arguing you do in family life will shape your child’s communication style in their adult interactions.
Your child needs to learn to present their views in a way which shows respect to others and helps achieve a calm resolution rather than igniting an angry and defensive response.
This is a key life skill, not just for future lawyers but for all children to grow up to be adults who can have successful relationships.
Practise this by using an object and making it into a game.
For example, whoever is holding the wooden spoon gets to talk. Everybody else must listen without interrupting. With practise this should become a general rule in the home.
Defensive Argumentative Children: Disarm With “I Statements”
Switching to “I” statements can be transformative if you have a defensive argumentative child. These statements highlight your feelings instead of focusing on the child’s behavior.
For example, instead of saying, “You’re being too loud,” try, “I find it hard to concentrate when the volume is high.”
This approach reduces the chance of your child feeling accused or defensive.
“I” statements also encourage empathy and understanding. They give your child insight into your feelings and how their actions impact you.
If your child starts to use “I” statements too, they will be learning how to express their emotions in a wonderfully healthy way.
As you can see, this brilliant technique can diffuse tension and pave the way for a more harmonious parent-child relationship.
5. Learn to Have Better Arguments With Your Argumentative Child
It would be unhealthy for a child not to feel they could present their point of view.
If your child is argumentative, congratulate yourself that they feel safe enough to share their views openly and passionately with you.
There is a huge difference between a calmly argumentative family meeting or debate, and a face-off, with each member triggering and escalating the other’s anger.
Set up some family rules.
Everybody should know what a healthy argument looks like and what it doesn’t look like. You could even make a poster like the one below.
Reinforce common family values such as respecting others’ point of view, privacy and personal space.
You also need to be clear on how you want family members to interact successfully.
6. Lead By Example: Model Resolving Arguments in Front of Your Child
It’s healthy to argue (in a respectful way). This means it’s okay to have some disagreements in front of your child. However, there are two golden rules.
The first rule is keep any serious arguments behind closed doors away from the children.
Children need to feel safe and contained by their parents. They should not be taking on adult worries.
Minor disagreements, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, are perfect to model healthy disagreements however!
The second golden rule is that you must always resolve the disagreement.
Don’t sleep on it.
Every family has different strategies for successful resolution of disagreements. You are no exception!
When you are successful in resolving or “making up” after an argument, what is the key to your success?
Note this and do more of it.
Examples might include:
- Use of humour to diffuse tension.
- Walking away for a few minutes, then calmly finishing the debate.
- Agreeing to respectfully disagree.
7. Provide Positive Reinforcement: Why Negative Consequences Don’t Work For Argumentative Behaviour
Parenting experts almost universally agree that negative consequences don’t work, except in the very short term.
They can contribute to low self-esteem, shame and guilt.
You should positively reinforce any examples of your child acting in a healthy way when it comes to arguments.
Label exactly what your child has done which is so effective.
“I’m so impressed. You managed to walk away without having the last word, because you knew you had made your point clearly already.”
“I noticed you managed to make your point using a calm tone of voice. This really helped me to hear your perspective without feeling defensive.”
“It’s brilliant that you put across your own opinion and you also listened to mine without interrupting. Thank you.”
8. Why Is My Child So Argumentative? Look Beneath the Surface
To know how to deal with an argumentative child we need to know what is causing the child to be argumentative.
What are we looking at here?
Is your child argumentative but happy?
Their argumentative nature is simply reflecting their strong personality and passionately held views.
On the flip side does your child seem to be expressing distress?
If your child has suddenly become argumentative or seems to pick fights for no reason, argumentativeness could be a sign that all is not well.
Do any of these scenarios resonate with you?
- Your child feels that their life is out of control, so having the final word in arguments is a way for them to get some sense of control.
- When arguing, your child’s mood spirals out of control very quickly (a possible sign of high stress).
- You feel like you are treading on eggshells because the slightest thing can cause an argument.
If any of the above apply to your child, my online parent course – End Emotional Outbursts – will empower you to support your child.
It will help you develop a deep understanding of your child and implement an individualised action plan.
9. Your Argumentative Child’s Growing Brain: Align Expectations with Your Child’s Development
Not by a long shot, in fact.
Even if you have an older teen, you should not expect them to be able to think like an adult in every situation.
You must manage and adapt your expectations.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for rational thinking and responding. Though it has a spurt in development in puberty, it continues developing until at least age 25 (probably until at least age 40).
The limbic system of the brain governs emotions.
In children it is over-developed when compared with the pre-frontal cortex.
Also, the connections with the pre-frontal cortex are not fully formed and optimised.
This means that children and teenagers are much more likely to react to difficult or triggering situations, rather than considering carefully before choosing a rational response.
The answer is to cut them a bit more slack than you would an adult.
Argumentative Child vs Oppositional Defiant Disorder
Diagnoses and labels can sometimes be helpful. They can help adults to understand children and teens with difficulties and to adapt their approaches.
I do not believe it is a helpful or a good thing to label any child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder however.
Because in my opinion it is a meaningless diagnosis.
You can learn about the diagnostic criteria here. In my opinion, labelling children as oppositional defiant can prevent adults from looking deeper.
It merely describes a set of behaviours but it doesn’t analyse why a child might be behaving or responding in an unhelpful way.
How to Deal With an Argumentative Child: Rounding Up
Now that you know how to deal with an argumentative child, it’s time to practise what you have learned and reflect on small changes you will make.
Pick just one or two of the strategies I have talked you through, and focus on those at first.
Do this consistently and your family life will be calmer in no time.
You will be able to deal quickly and effectively with an argumentative child, whilst appreciating your child’s personality AND taking their emotional needs into account!
Your Argumentative Child: Frequently Asked Questions
Why is my child so argumentative?
It could be a phase of asserting independence, a response to stress or change, or an indication of underlying issues. However, your child may simply be spirited and passionate about their points of view. They may become a great leader in the future if they can hone their skills.
How can I prevent arguments before they start?
Focus on “connection over correction” to better understand your child and the reasons behind their argumentativeness.
- Identify triggers and manage them ahead of time.
- Maintain open communication.
- Set clear expectations.
Is it normal for my child to argue with their parents so much?
Some arguing is perfectly normal as children develop independence and critical thinking skills. Excessive arguing could indicate underlying distress or mental health challenges. If it’s persistent and disruptive, consider seeking professional advice.
How can I help my child express themselves more effectively?
Encourage active listening, constructive communication, and empathy. Teach your child to use “I” statements and provide a safe space for them to express their feelings.
What should I do if my child’s argumentative behaviour isn’t improving?
If the argumentative behavior persists, impacts your child’s functioning or relationships, or causes significant distress, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Speak to your child’s doctor or healthcare provider. Sometimes schools can provide help in this area or can make a referral on your child’s behalf.
My 7 year old argues with me about everything. How should I respond?
Focus on avoiding power struggles. It’s okay for your child to have strong opinions about things that help them express their identity and don’t affect others, like what colour they wear.
But it’s not okay to feel like your child is in charge. It’s not healthy for them or you. Pick your battles. Let them have their independence in some areas, but set very clear boundaries and family rules over the bigger areas.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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