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I’m Butting Heads with My 12-Year-Old: 8 Ways to Defuse Arguments

My son is bright, funny, kind, and generous. He’s also moody, snarky, picky, sarcastic, and annoying. After all, he’s 12. It goes with the territory.  

While I have worked as a family therapist for the last 20 years, I was not fully prepared for what this age was to bring: less compliance, more sarcasm with a smattering of eye rolling and, in general, a lot of head butting between us.

We argue a lot lately, mainly about mundane things like his not making his bed or untying his shoes before he puts them on. But sometimes we argue about bigger issues, like whether or not he should be allowed to stay out late just because everyone else does or whether or not getting good grades is important. Sometimes he is in the mood to listen, sometimes not. 

When I am able to distance myself from the high emotions that run between the two of us and take stock of what is happening, I am struck lately by how often these incidents are happening and how many times my wishing him to be the sweet, loving boy I know him to be conflicts with his budding independence and pre-teen rebellion.

We are clearly at an emotional crossroads with one another. 

I find myself spending hours mulling over my approach to my son. Here are some things that help me gain perspective—when I can remember to take a breath before I yell. Maybe they’ll help you too.

How to Defuse an Argument with Your Tween

1. Go for a car ride.

More information comes to the surface when we’re in the car. When I’m not looking directly at my son, he’s more likely to ask for advice or talk about an issue that’s bothering him. Sometimes the conversations are about new rap songs, sometimes they are about the existence of an afterlife. Whatever the topic, the more I don’t look the more I see.  

2. Take away the phone.

This isn’t a punishment, it’s a way to save him from himself and the rest of the virtual world. Do I always want to be enforcing the phone rules? Do I always want to be hearing myself say ‘put the phone away?’ No. But I know that if I don’t, the result will be a cranky, over-stimulated, under-focused 12-year-old.  

3. Discuss a new topic. 

Continuing a conversation that is clearly triggering negative emotions and conflict doesn’t benefit either one of us. Sometimes pivoting to something less contentious saves a lot of emotional space. We can always come back to a difficult topic once tempers have cooled. 

4. Try not to lecture.

I have to trust that when I say something once it will be heard. That’s not always the case, of course, but no one wants to be on the receiving end of hearing something over and over. 

5. Confide in another adult.

Whether it’s my spouse, a friend or a family member, it helps to admit the truth about how I feel to a trusted co-conspirator. My husband knows my son just as well as I do and can empathize with how I’m feeling.

6. Apologize when I’m wrong.

A client once told me that if only her mom had admitted when she was wrong, it would have bolstered her confidence and made their relationship much closer. Owning up to my mistakes and apologizing to my son isn’t easy, but it’s modeling good behavior.

7. Be kinder to myself.

Parenting is hard. We all need to go easier on ourselves.

8. Remember that he just wants to be understood.  

As hard as it is to be the parent of a preteen, I think it’s harder to be 12 years old. I want to stay connected to my son, so I need to be willing to handle the behaviors that go along with this stage. 

My mother always says, “They don’t call it Sweet 16 for nothing.” So, I know the time will come when there will be fewer arguments, less mumbling and eye rolling, and smoother sailing for our relationships. And I know one day I’ll look back and realize we made it through this awkward stage. Together.

Stacie Goldstein is the founder of The Whole Family Center and has worked with adolescents and adults for over 20 years. Combining traditional psychotherapy, mindfulness and meditation, she guides people on a successful journey to achieve their goals and be more content in their lives. Stacie lives in Bergen County, NJ and is the mom of two teenagers.

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