Do Disagreements Help Teens Resist Peer Pressure?

January 12th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Why parent-teen arguments may be the best medicine.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It can be hard to find the positives when dealing with an angry adolescent, but new research indicates that teens who talk back may have a better chance of resisting negative peer pressure.

Researchers from the University of Virginia recently published findings in the medical journal Child Development suggesting that butting heads with your teen can be productive. Psychologist Joseph P. Allen told National Public Radio that while almost all parents and teens argue, healthier arguments can be lessons in how to disagree – good exercises for future interactions with partners, friends and colleagues.

“We tell parents to think of those arguments not as a nuisance but as a critical training ground,” Allen said. “The healthy autonomy they established at home seemed to carry over into their relationships with peers.”

LifeScience.com recapped the research highlights: 184 seventh- and eighth-graders from urban and suburban populations in the Southeast performed tasks and tests in a lab, along with their friends and parents. The teens answered questions about drug and alcohol abuse as well as their friendships and social acceptance, and they also discussed or argued with their mothers on an issue that prompted a disagreement – all while being observed in a lab. Discussions involved things like money, grades and household rules.

Part of the study involved taping 157 13-year-olds describing their biggest disagreement with their parents and then playing the tapes back for both parents and teens. "Parents reacted in a whole variety of ways. Some of them laughed uncomfortably; some rolled their eyes; and a number of them dove right in and said, 'OK, let's talk about this,'" Allen told NPR. It was the parents who said wanted to talk who were on the right track, says Allen. "We found that what a teen learned in handling these kinds of disagreements with their parents was exactly what they took into their peer world.”

One of the most important takeaways from the research, Allen says, is that teens should be rewarded when they argue calmly and persuasively, not when they indulge in yelling, whining, threats or insults.

But it’s more than a lesson in arguments and holding your ground, says Allen. Strong relationships – rooted in genuine trust and some level of independence for the teen – enable more difficult conversations for which teens may otherwise rely on friends. "It may be that teens who are secure in their ability to turn to their mothers under stress are less likely to end up feeling overly dependent upon their close friends, and thus less likely to be influenced by their friend's behavior when it's negative," Allen said.

Do you have teens in your household? Do you agree with the conclusion that arguments with parents could prepare them for real-world challenges?