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What Drives Arguments with Your Teen?

  • Drs. Gary and Greg Smalley DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships
  • 2007 9 Mar
What Drives Arguments with Your Teen?

What is actually driving the arguments you have with your teenager? And the answer may surprise you: FEAR! Every person on the planet wrestles with fear. People may not like to hear that. They may try to contradict this notion, "But I'm not afraid of anything. I feel perfectly safe in my home. I'm not afraid of my teen." That's good, but that isn't the kind of fear we're talking about. We mean things like fear of failure or fear of not being loved or fear of being alone.

Fear is one of the primary motivators for all behavior. Everyone has typical and often highly developed behaviors they use to deal with their fears.

As the primary motivator for behavior, fear frequently colors the way we live and react to life. Our fears can take many forms, including such things as anxiety, worry, concern, stress, apprehension, dread, defensiveness, avoidance, etc. Our fears can often be irrational. Our fear-based behaviors will often lead to us reacting, developing life strategies, and coping behaviors that carry numerous unfortunate consequences. Many times we let fear stop us from doing what we want and need to do. While there are many core fears, some of the more common ones we've seen include fears of being: alone, helpless, controlled, worthless, rejected, abandoned, failure, and unimportant.

To deal with our fears, most people—consciously and unconsciously—fall into well-worn patterns of reacting when someone pushes their fear buttons. They'll do anything to soothe their hurt. They'll do or say anything to calm their fears.

More often than not, emotions and thinking result in behavior that damages relationships. When your fears are triggered, you react. You may fear losing control, so you try to seize control. You may fear losing connection, so you try to seize connection. Reactions are "strategies" we employ to get the other person to help us feel better.

This means that it's not merely your fears that disrupts and injures your relationships. It's how you choose to react when your son or daughter pushes your fear buttons. Most of us use unhealthy, faulty reactions to deal with our fear, and as a result we sabotage our relationships. We use these reactions in order to protect ourselves. We react to the person who pushed our fear button by getting angry, blaming, withdrawing, belittling, defending, or a host of other things. These reactions generally are an attempt to change the emotion or control the other person so that the fear goes away. Thus, the emotion of fear becomes an enemy to conquer or avoid. Unfortunately, in our protected state our hearts become closed behind our defenses and walls, which also inadvertently shuts the door to intimacy.

However, as an emotion fear can be a very useful source of information, and acknowledging and discussing fear can open the door to an intimate moment. Being willing to be vulnerable enough to share our fears with one another opens the door to sharing caring, compassion, understanding, and love; in other words, intimacy.

If you aren't connecting to the word "fear," an easier way to look at our fear is to see them as "buttons." Everybody has buttons. Our buttons are not the problem. Most of our buttons, we believe, have been with us from childhood. Even as a kid, I (Greg) remember fearing failure. I had a learning disability and my high school guidance counselor told me that I probably shouldn't go to college; he suggested that I pursue a trade instead. His words made me feel like a huge failure. So when he said, "Maybe trade school would be a better fit," it pushed my button—my failure button. Still, the buttons, in and of themselves, are not the problem. The problem is how we choose to react when they get pushed.

Many of the ways we attempt to react to or cope with our buttons are problematic. They're red flags. If you keep doing things this way, over the course of years you're going to put your relationship with your teenager at risk.

Remember, every one has buttons (fear). The Fear Dance happens when someone pushes a button and then we react in unhealthy ways. Let us illustrate the dance.

"Why won't this boat work!" echoed across the lake as I (Gary) yelled and stomped my foot. Now it was official, I was completely frustrated and totally embarrassed. I had bragged about my new boat, how wonderful it was, what a great time we'd have on the lake, and now the only thing that came to my mind was the proverb: "Pride cometh before a fall."

There was a missionary family who was staying with us—seven of them altogether. In addition to room and board, I'd promised them an enjoyable adventure out on the lake aboard my brand new boat.

The next day, we packed a picnic lunch, loaded fishing gear, water skis, and anything else that could be used for water fun. Greg and I herded the entire family onto the boat. The best part was this was to be the missionary family's first time on a lake boat. It was going to be the perfect day. I should have known better!

With everyone aboard, anticipation brewing, excitement in the air, Greg pushed away from the dock and then took his seat behind me.

"Let's go have some fun!" I yelled. The entire boat erupted in screams and whistles of joy and happiness.

Trying to ham it up even more, I told the young kids to give me an official count down. Five…Four…Three…Two…One…Blastoff!

We flew away from the dock like a rocket ship. The best part was hearing the five-year old boy say to his father, "This is the coolest boat on the lake!" I was in heaven. But then something happened.

"Why are we losing speed?" I thought to myself. Worse yet, "Why has the engine stopped?"

"Daddy," cried the young boy, "What's wrong, why are we slowing down? I want to go faster!"

"Don't worry everyone; I'll have this fixed in a second."

After turning on the ignition key several times the engine roared back to life. And once again we were off.

And then it happened again. The engine died.

This pattern of the engine starting and the engine stopping went on for the next 15 minutes. I checked the engine, gas level, oil, and any other thing I could possibly think of. As soon as I'd get the engine running, it would die. Finally I screamed out off total frustration. I wanted to sink this stupid boat right where we it sat floating, but with the missionary family aboard, I figured my salvation was at sake if something happened to one of them.

And that's when Greg said, "Hey Dad, what is this cord for? Because any time the motor is running and I pull it, the engine stops." And then he started laughing.

I know understand how Abraham could have possibly placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial alter. Like my son, I'm sure Isaac had done something to completely irritate his father. The cord that Greg was pulling on every time I'd get the boat running was the emergency engine kill. I had been ready to blow up my boat, while all along, it had been Greg playing a practical joke on me.

I smiled at the missionary family, and leaned over to Greg and whispered in his ear, "You're in big trouble!"

"Lighten up, dad!" snapped Greg, "It was just a joke!"

Still smiling, I gave Greg the look that says, "Wait until we get home!"

"How was I to know that you can't take a joke?" asked Greg.

"Just admit that you made a mistake, Greg," I said, "and besides, you do stupid things like this all the time. And now you've wrecked their fun as well."

"Why are you making such a big deal, I fixed the problem," He screamed.

"Watch yourself!"

"I didn't do anything wrong!" yelled Greg, "If anyone should admit anything it should be you for not being able to take a joke."

"Typical," I thought to myself. And then I shut down and stopped talking to Greg altogether.

My interaction with Greg lasted only several seconds, but our dance was in full swing. Did you see it?

Let's do like they do during a football game and use "super slow motion." Here is what was really going on for both of us. My (Gary's) button, my greatest fear, is the fear of being controlled or feeling helpless and powerless. If I feel as though I'm being controlled—or even if I believe that I'm at risk for being controlled—I instantly will react. When my boat didn't work, I felt totally helpless. When I realized that Greg was playing the joke on me, I felt controlled—he was doing something that was causing me embarrassment and I had no control over. The reality was that buttons had already been pushed. When I couldn't get the boat to work properly in the presence of the missionary family, I felt embarrassed and humiliated. So a bunch of buttons had been pushed in that moment (e.g., humiliated, helpless, controlled). The problem was that I never knew this. No one had ever said, "Gary, the real issue isn't the joke Greg played on you, it's that your buttons got pushed."

Once several of my buttons were pushed, then I reacted. I threatened Greg ("You're in big trouble"), although I didn't say it, I blamed him ("My feelings of being controlled and humiliated are your fault"), I demanded things from him ("Just admit that you made a mistake"), I belittled him ("You do stupid things like this all the time"), I criticized him ("You've wrecked their fun as well"), and finally, I shut down and withdrew from Greg. The interesting part of the Fear Dance is that the reactions are really designed to get the other person to change so that we feel better. I wanted Greg to take responsibility, to admit to has mistake, to feel bad for me, or whatever, so that I wouldn't feel controlled and humiliated—so that I would feel better. But it's not Greg's responsibility to make me feel better. That is my job—my feelings, my responsibility. We'll talk more about breaking the dance shortly. But first, let's look at Greg's side of the dance.

Greg's main button is failure. Any time that he feels like he is failing or that someone thinks that he failed or did something wrong, he hates that. So when I whispered that he was in big trouble, it pushed his button—he instantly thought that he had failed in some way. So he reacted by minimizing my feelings ("Lighten up…It was just a joke"), defending himself ("How was I to know that you can't take a joke"), going into a fix-it mode ("Why are you making such a big deal, I fixed the problem"), and sarcasm ("If anyone should admit anything it should be you for not being able to take a joke"). Looking back, Greg also had his humiliated button pushed when I started to attack him in front of the missionary family.

Isn't it amazing how the dance works, and how quickly things can get out of control? My button gets pushed, I react in some way and push Greg's button. He then reacts and my button gets pushed once more, but perhaps even harder this time. Or a new one gets pushed. And so we begin a hurtful dance, an endless cycle that goes 'round and 'round.

The Fear Dance keeps people stuck. Every relationship team, to whatever degree, has some kind of dance. Sometimes it hasn't reached poisonous levels, but unaddressed, it can send even the happiest relationship into helplessness.

The ultimate problem with such a diseased cycle is that it breeds total dependency. The Fear Dance causes me to believe (wrongly) that my son is both the problem and solution. If he just didn't attack me, I think, I wouldn't need to defend myself. If he would just calmly sit down, if he would only remind me of all the things that I do right, I wouldn't get so upset. When I see Greg as both the problem and the solution, I become totally dependent upon him. And the same thing happens to him with me.

© Copyright 2006 Smalley Relationship Center