Teaching Teens to Disagree Respectfully

Teens need to know that life is full of disagreements, and how you handle them can ultimately determine how successful you are in life. Developmentally, as children enter adolescence they form their own opinions as they begin to establish independence. This will likely mean that they won’t always see eye-to-eye on various issues with a parent, family member, peer, or teacher. These disagreements are to be expected, but we want to teach our teens to express themselves in a respectful manner.

Depending on our personality, there are many different ways that we approach disagreements. Some people prefer to avoid conflict. They might steer clear of people with alternative views, which can prevent them from exploring new ideas. They might simply say they agree with the other person, despite feeling differently, to avoid the conflict, which means they are not being true to themselves. Other people are overly aggressive when they disagree with someone or “lose it” when things don’t go their way. They approach the disagreement as a battle to win instead of trying to resolve the issue. Whether your teen tends to avoid conflicts or aggressively disagree, neither approach is a healthy way to handle disagreements.

Handling disagreements respectfully is an important life skill that can make a huge difference in your teen’s future. They will especially need this skill in their career and marriage.

Following are some ways for parents to teach their teens  to engage in disagreements with respect:

Role model good listening. Encourage your child to be a good listener, and make sure you model good listening by giving your teen your full attention when he/she speaks to you. Truly listening to someone else shows them respect, so teach your teen these steps to good listening. When the other person is talking, try to stop yourself from thinking about why you disagree or what you’ll say next. Instead, focus on what the other person is saying. After they speak, repeat any key points the other person made to show you listened and heard what was said.

Seek to understand. Let your teen know that they should ask a lot of questions when they are disagreeing with someone so that they can truly understand the other person’s point of view. Exploring the other person’s ideas and opinions or seeking clarity about their thoughts does not mean that you agree with them. It simply shows your willingness to understand the other person, rather than just disagree or be argumentative. Sometimes when you fully understand the other person you realize that their idea is good, but they just didn’t explain it well.

Walk in their shoes. Seeing things from others’ point of view is a fundamental aspect of empathy, which studies show is important for a teen’s success later in life. Empathy helps teens to avoid seeing issues as black and white or right and wrong. They are able to value other people’s opinions, even if they don’t agree with them.

Provide conversation opportunities. Teens need the chance to practice these skills, so make sure you’re giving them the opportunity to discuss various topics. Talk about current events at dinner or chat during a car trip about a book your teen read. Regular discussions about potentially controversial topics help teens learn to express their opinions about what’s going on in the world and in their lives. As your teen talks, make sure you are exchanging ideas, considering other viewpoints, and giving respect to each other’s opinions.

Don’t make it personal. Let your teen know that disagreements about concepts, beliefs, or ideas should not become personal. If your teen is feeling upset, it can help to remind them that they are mad at the idea, not at the person suggesting the idea. Make sure your teen knows what constitutes respectful behavior. They should never yell, use sarcasm, insult, name-call, or make derogatory comments.

Stay calm. When faced with disagreements, the best thing you can do to keep it respectful is to stay calm. Role model this and teach stress-reducing principles to your teens. If you feel your emotions rising, excuse yourself. Ask the other person to give you a moment to think and then take some deep breaths and return to the conversation when you’re calm again.

Watch your words. Let your teen know that the WAY we say something can be more important than WHAT we say. Teach your teen the magic of using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. When we start our statements with “you” they sound argumentative and can often make the other person feel defensive, but when we begin our statements with “I” we are able to communicate how we feel or what we think without attacking the other person. Give your teen these examples:

  • Don’t say “your idea is stupid.” Do say “I don’t agree with your idea, and here’s why.”
  • Don’t say “you always nag me when I have a lot of homework.” Do say “I’m really stressed today because I have a lot of homework. Can I do those chores tomorrow?”
  • Don’t say “Are you crazy? How can you think that?” Do say “I have a different opinion.”


Final Thoughts…

When people are able to deliver and receive disagreements respectfully, both parties benefit, but when disagreements are delivered in a negative way, it creates conflict and mistrust. Role modeling and teaching teens now how to keep disagreements respectful will set them up for success in adulthood.

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