Parenting Questions

How can family life be simpler, kinder and calmer?

My 12 year old daughter is generally hard-working and interested in all sorts of hobbies, but is very argumentative. Everything I, or her brother, say is questioned or opposed. We can’t have a conversation without it turning into an argument. It’s tiring and makes for unhappy dinnertimes. The arguments are about things like not wearing a coat or tidying her room, rather than the path to world peace. Do I continue to celebrate her different opinions, or is there a way of making family life simpler, kinder and calmer?

Sometimes, a parenting question enters my inbox that makes me immediately shout,“Yes! I know exactly what you mean.” My own nearly 12 year is going through exactly the same stage. This argumentative trait tends to coincide with a hormonal surge, often identified only retrospectively, a few weeks afterwards when we notice they have grown about an inch! In the meantime, a once pleasant, compliant and cooperative child suddenly answers back to absolutely everything and normal interactions become painfully fraught. So, for better or worse, you are not alone. As you suggest, it is applaudable that a child feels safe and secure enough to pronounce their opinions, but they are not entitled to be rude, cheeky or dismissive of others in the process. 

As a starting point, I think it is helpful to list all the areas where compromise is not an option. For example, she must wear a raincoat on a rainy day and she must do homework before watching the television. Ensure that your daughter is clear on why these particular things aren’t up for negotiation. To ensure that everyone is clear on the importance of these particular rules, you might consider having a family meeting to run through them, explaining your reasoning and that you will not be entertaining arguments around them. Be sure that both parents (if you are co-parenting), are on the same page. 

Be clear that there is an expectation that everyone in your household ‘chips in’ and that you don’t reward poor behaviour. It can help to draw up a list of ‘chores’ that you expect each child to complete each week in order for them to earn particular rights (access to their phone or the family Netflix account, for example. You decide!). 

Then, you might move to giving your child exactly what she is looking for at this point in her development: agency. She desires power, independence and is striving to individuate – find her own pathway, distinct from those around her. The external battle is reflecting one that she may be having internally. Move the family conversation to “things we argue about” and let each of your children lay out all the things that annoy them about family life. Get it all out in the open and then coach your children into thinking through solutions to each. 

For example, you might agree that you argue too much! Can you come up with family rules about the way in which arguments should or could take place? Can each of your children let the other know what helps and what hinders? You want to veer towards constructive consensus. By the end of the chat everyone should feel better. 

In general terms, you state that “everything you say is questioned”, so you need to rethink how you are asking your daughter to do things and try something new. Our parenting needs to evolve slightly at her stage of development. Instead of telling her to do something, you could ask her opinion on it instead. “What do you think is the best way to do this?” “What do you think we should have for dinner tonight?” “How can we make sure tomorrow morning goes well?” “How can I help you to be as organised as possible?” It might also be that you ‘mix it up’ a bit and get another adult in your home (if applicable) to ask her to do particular tasks. 

As counter-intuitive as it might feel, we need to find a way to attune to her desire for power in a way that boosts her self-esteem and confidence, without damaging the quality of your relationship. It can be easy to end up in battles, but try to remember to praise her when she is kind to her sibling (even if it is momentary), when she does cooperate and when she is thoughtful. Otherwise, we can end up in family dialogues that are cyclical and that feel horrible! Every day marks a fresh-start. 

When you begin to see progress, such as a reduction in arguments or more thoughtfulness between siblings, notice it, praise your children for their maturity and encourage them to reflect on why things feel better. After all, reflection breeds resilience. 

Lastly, I would say that when our children are being trickier than usual, we need to be sure that we aren’t missing anything. Check that there isn’t anything going on at school or within her friendship group that is making her unhappy. By spending some quality 1:1 time with her doing something that she loves and enjoys, you might be able to open up those chats and ‘reach in’ gently. Our unconditional love and support mean the world to them, even if they don’t always show it or appreciate it. Good luck!