Guest post by Michael Y. Simon, LMFT
One of the most frequent calls received by therapists who work with teens goes something like this: “My son (or daughter) is a really good kid and doing very well in school; lots of friends and no really significant problems at all. The problem is I don’t like him very much these days; all his friends’ parents think he’s great but we argue all the time. Can you help?”
Well, usually there is plenty of help available. And it often comes by way of talking to parents about several important developmental reasons for why arguing can be both normal and “healthy.”
So, is arguing caused by “raging hormones”?
Well, yes and no. Hormonal changes demonstrate that development is unfolding. There is a evidence of the contribution that hormones make in increasing conflict in the home. Androgens such as DHEA are used by the body to help manufacture other steroids. Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) tells the pituitary to secrete hormones, which effect development of eggs and sperm, as well as the hormones estrogen and testosterone. These two reproductive hormones are deeply related to the experience of emotionality and persistence of mood of all kinds. However, it’s not as simple as saying that if your teen is experiencing a particularly strong influx of hormones in the system that day, he or she will be “moody.” It just doesn’t work that way.
But in general terms, for boys, over 50 times the amount of testosterone is available after puberty begins, then before it starts. Recent studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) demonstrated that THP, a hormone usually produced in response to stress—and one that usually works to decrease anxiety and calm children—actually reverses its effect at puberty. Scientists hypothesize THP production plays a significant increase in anxiety and mood swings among young teens. So while more testosterone in the body on a particular day doesn’t necessarily cause a mood swing, more testosterone in the system, in general (over time) might just do so.
Stress and conflict are different things for teens and adults
Adriana Galvan at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) is doing some of the country’s most important research on teens, stress and risk. Among many fascinating results, the team’s work has helped to illustrate not only the different sources of stress and conflict experienced by teens and their parents but also the difference in when teens and parents experience the most stress. As it turns out, there are significant variations in what happens to adult versus teen brains under stress and conflict. What have Galvan and others found?
Data suggest that the greatest sources of stress for teens are parents, while for adults stress tends to come from work or schoolwork. There are also differences based on the time of day: adults find morning time most difficult, while teens “lose it” more in the early evening. And when teens are under stress, they most often revert to “all or nothing” or emotional reasoning (“I feel bad, so everything is bad.”) rooted in the structures of the central cortex like the amygdalae. Underdeveloped amygdalae result in the poor modulation of emotions, the misinterpretation of emotions and intentions of self and others; and the over-interpretation of adults’ non-angry facial expressions as reflecting signs of anger. They experience more distortions in their thinking under generally stressful situations and temporarily lose the ability to think well, in more nuanced ways. While there are complicated reasons for this “loss of reasoning capacity,” it is somewhat adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint and has a strong basis in biology and the effects of the stress hormone cortisol on the brain. Under identical stress conditions, teens show much greater cortisol release than adults.
Adolescence seems to biologically “prime” kids for stress and conflict
You probably already know what kids are arguing about. They argue about everything. They argue about what to do or not do (the rules…about what’s okay), about what’s true (about perceptions of reality) and about what matters (about what is salient). They argue and fight with parents, and often lie, a fact cited by most parents as guaranteed to push their buttons. In fact, about 98 percent of teens lie to their parents. Why?
A groundbreaking study at Penn State showed that teens are three times more likely to lie than attempt a protest (against the rules, against parental perceptions or around differences in what “should” be important). Because teens mostly tell the truth in hopes their parents will “give in” or let them do something they want to do (not necessarily the behavior in question), usually negotiating involves arguing. So, one way of thinking about it is that teens will either lie or they’ll argue. And if the argument results in a new freedom, it’s worth telling the truth about.
While certain types of arguing stresses out parents, teens take it as a sign of being taken seriously and a way of learning about their parents’ values. Adults take certain types of arguing as a sign of disrespect, but fail to make a distinction: teens feel good about the relationship and disclose more when they can fight over the rules; this doesn’t mean they are fighting over the authority of the parent. And research shows that moderate family conflict is associated with significantly better parent/child adjustment than is frequent or no conflict. How and whether argument is resolved is what makes the difference. Since problem solving often utilizes negotiating, engaging in “arguments” with teens is a way of telling them that you want to find a solution that works for both of you. This is an inherent position of respect because it means you’re searching for understanding, not necessarily agreeing. Even if the parent ends up saying “no” or “I just can’t do that now,” and the teen can be angry or frustrated, they all report feeling heard and respected. This is rarely the case with punishment. So, is arguing actually a healthy aspect of family life? Yes, as long as it is happening in moderation and includes a lot of listening and reconsideration on both sides. It helps grow (temporarily) argumentative teens into respectful and confident young adults.
Michael Y. Simon, LMFT has spent his adult life working in support of children, youth and families. He is a psychotherapist in private practice, school counselor and founder of Practical Help for Parents a support organization for parents, educators and mental health professionals. Simon is also the author of “The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager” (Fine Optics Press, 2012).