Though parents have been teaching their children not to argue with adults for generations, new research from the University of Virginia shows that young teenagers who are taught to argue effectively are more likely to resist peer pressure to use drugs or alcohol later in adolescence.
"It turns out that what goes on in the family is actually a training ground for teens in terms of how to negotiate with other people," said Joseph Allen, a UVa psychology professor and the lead author of the study, results of which were published in a recent edition of the journal Child Development.
Allen said that parents are often "scared to death about peer pressure," but also frustrated by argumentative children.
"What we're finding is there's a surprising connection between the two," he said. Allen noted that teens "learn they can be taken seriously" through interactions with their parents.
"Sometimes, it can be counterintuitive to tell parents to let their teens argue with them," said Joanna Chango, a clinical psychology graduate student at UVa who worked on the study. In fact, learning effective argumentation skills can help teenagers learn to "assert themselves and establish a sense of autonomy," she said.
The study, part of a larger longitudinal study, observed 150 13-year-olds engaging in arguments, and then polled the same participants three years later about their experiences with drugs and alcohol.
At 13, the teenagers were tape-recorded summarizing disagreements between themselves and their mothers. The recordings were then replayed for the mothers to hear.
"Usually, it's sort of an ongoing disagreement they have that they haven't been able to resolve," Chango said, adding that topics ranged from household rules to grades to monthly allowances.
Once the discussion was reopened, Chango said researchers filmed the teens and their mothers for eight minutes. Teenagers who displayed "confidence" and used reason to back up their statements were more likely to have refused drugs or alcohol when polled by researchers three years later, Chango said.
"Basically, our main finding is that the more that these teens are able to openly express their own viewpoints and be assertive ... they are more likely to resist peer influence to use drugs and alcohol a few years later," Chango said.
Chango recommended parents teach their children how to effectively convey their thoughts and emotions during conflicts, which in turn teaches children to stand up to negative influences outside of the home.
"We sort of see this as a transition of skills," Chango explained. "Even if their viewpoints don't line up . the teen is going to be able to take those skills into other environments," Chango added.
She also noted that it is important for parents to listen to their children's concerns during a conflict.
Parents of teenagers should teach by example and model good discussion practices for their children, Allen said.
He added that parents should be firm and prove to teenagers that providing "good reasons presented in a moderate way" is more effective than whining or hostile behavior such as slamming doors.
"If they're able to learn how to be confident and persuasive with their parents, then they'll be able to hopefully do the same with their peers," Chango said.