What To Do If You Have An Argumentative Child

Almost every day when it came time for 9-year-old Lucy to do her chores, there was a fight between her and her older brother. Even though her parents had set up a system where she did the dishes on even days, and her brother did them on odd days, she would complain about the injustice of the current dish situation. “Sam didn’t do his job yesterday so now I am stuck doing them today!” And if it wasn’t the dishes, she would find another injustice to protest. On a family bike ride, she would argue about the riding line up; “Sam got to be in front last time; it’s my turn!” On car rides she would protest; “Sam was in the front last time; it’s my turn today!” When it was time for dessert an extra serving of turmoil always came along with it. She would whine, “You gave Sam the biggest piece! It’s not fair!” When she wanted a sleepover, she would argue: “Sam had two friends over last week, so I get to have two friends over this week!”

Does any of this sound familiar? When parenting a child with a strong personality, it is sometimes easier to see the weaknesses in the child than it is to see the strengths. If your child is argumentative, it may be very hard for you to see the value in this behavior.

When it comes to learning styles, children exhibit various traits that would classify them as visual learners, audio learners, kinesthetic learners, and so on. However, did you know that arguing is actually a learning style for various personality types? Some personality types love learning and showing off their intelligence. This intelligence combined with logic and a need to win can be a recipe for an argumentative child. In all actuality, your child may be a talented debater in the making, voicing their rational reasoning and showing off their intelligence and competence.

Often argumentative children are intuitive types who are curious thinkers asking “why” often and not being satisfied with a “because I said so” response. They are not deliberately trying to undermine your authority but are trying to understand the reason the rule exists. It is best to stay calm as they voice their objections. This intuitive questioning can cause them to be problem solvers, so use this to your advantage. Embrace their debating as a strength versus weakness. Infante and Rancer, who developed the argumentativeness scale that is used throughout universities worldwide, said, “Arguing stimulates curiosity and increases learning because individuals tend to seek out information about the issues on which they argue. Arguing reduces egocentric thinking and forces individuals to explore issues from multiple perspectives.”

Any strength can be viewed as a weakness if it is being underused, overused, or misused. The goal is to harness this assertive gift they’ve been given and teach them to use it in the appropriate ways, at the appropriate times. Rather than trying to extinguish the irritation, try to understand it. In my parent coaching practice, when a parent asks me what they should do when their child talks back to them, I usually respond by saying, “listen.” One of the biggest complaints that teens share is that their parents just don’t listen. Even if their communication feels argumentative it is still communication. A child who talks back to you gives you much more to work with than a child who is silent! Remind your kids that you value their opinions, but they need to be respectful to you and talking back is not showing that they trust you as a parent.

It may seem easier said than done, however, it is possible to instruct your child how to debate so it isn’t offensive to others.

  1. Point out the right and wrong times for them to question. Teach them phrases like, “Another way to look at it would be” or “here’s what I think” or “I disagree”.
  2. Encourage fun debates, like “Why dogs are better pets than cats,” and look at the topic from every point of view. Try not to react to their opposing opinions with emotion. Instead, step out of your parent shoes and view their opinions objectively and honestly.
  3. Be sure your family values are clear. “We honor and benefit from each person in this family for their individuality and for what they have to offer and teach each one of us”.
  4. View debating as practice for their critical thinking skills in life. After all, your job is preparing them to leave the nest! Home is the best place for them to learn how to have a healthy argument.
  5. Model an open mind by not taking offense when your child disagrees with you.
  6. Model active listening by not interrupting. Repeat back what you heard the other say to clarify the meaning. This helps to keep the message from being misinterpreted. It is also not the time to interject your own point. Instead, try to understand the other’s perspective without defending your own position. Use phrases like, “I see your point,” “I hear you saying…”
  7. State your honest opinion. Calmly and rationally point out their valid or factual points and the points that are just an opinion or belief.
  8. Let them respond. If you’re giving your child time each day to air their arguments respectfully, you can “parking lot” the other issues that come up and address them during the designated time. If they continue to argue, don’t engage. Calmly tell them to “parking lot” the debate for later and then be sure to listen actively when it is time.
  9. If they are still arguing irrationally, respectfully disagree. And tell them you are happy to re-visit the topic again once they have thought of a solution that respects both sides.
  10. Avoid getting sucked into an argument. Your child may want to keep proving their point over and over, so after they have stated it once and you have actively listened, disengage by walking away and saying something like, “let’s take a time out and think about this from all sides. Then we can talk again later.”
  11. Diffuse their argumentative nature. They are debaters so don’t let them lure you in! If they say, “I don’t see why we need to do homework” or maybe when they are teens, “Marijuana is legal, so I don’t see what’s wrong with it.” Say something like, “You could be right.” They already know how you stand, that’s why they were expecting you to jump into their trap. You are not saying they ARE right, but you have avoided the debate they were baiting you into. You can invite older children to put the argument into writing.
  12. Concede a point every now and then. If your child makes a good point and has followed all the rules of a fair debate, reward him/her by issuing a compromise of your original mandate.
  13. If arguing with siblings, give them the one opinion rule. They respectfully share their opinion. The other sibling must repeat back what they heard, then share their own opinion. If the argument keeps circling, set a timer for a short amount of time and tell them they have to finish when the timer rings. Give them a phrase to help them end their argument. “I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”
  14. If the argument is still going, send them to a calming corner in their room so they can focus on something else like a game or book.

Have a Debate Night with Your Family

Sample Debate:

  1. State rules for how to respectfully hear another’s opposing opinion and how to respectfully disagree.
  2. Make the statement: “Dogs are better than cats.”
  3. Family members must each state whether they agree or disagree.
  4. Family members who agree to each share one reason to support their claim.
  5. Family members who disagree give one reason to dispel the claim.
  6. Introduce one family member to be the “troll” and insert comments that don’t follow the rules. They shouldn’t be allowed to use inappropriate language or bully. 
  7. Model how to respond to the troll without being inflammatory.
  8. Model how to concede a point if the other side has offered a more valid argument.

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