How to Argue With Anyone, a guide to getting what you want without making enemies, is part of our series The Way Back to School.
It's harder to argue with your parents (or whomever your guardians or closest elders are) than it is to argue with almost anyone else. Even if you manage to pick up communication pointers in therapy or via friendships with functional, happy people who have good boundaries, most of us start out with whatever arguing style our families demonstrated to us, and under stress, we return to what’s familiar.
Around our families, it’s also easy to revert to the roles we're used to playing in them, like, “peacemaking middle child,” or, “the person who insists they’re fine until they explode with sudden berserker energy,” and if you think this ever goes away, watch how your parents behave with their parents and siblings sometime.
Parents are older and supposedly wiser—and they once had a custodial duty to decide what’s best for you, plus the power to punish you if you messed up. “Our house, our rules”–style stakes can rise pretty high after you become an adult, though (especially if you're actually living with parents in a pandemic), if your parents perceive your beliefs and choices as a challenge to their authority.
Chances are also high that your family members either have the exact same annoying habits as you (because they taught them to you in the first place) or that together, you create a perfectly interlocking puzzle where their button-pushing fingers are custom-fit to your buttons (which they installed). If you’d like a more peaceful existence with your elders, but don’t know how to get there, here are some tips for arguing with them with minimal pain and maximal resolution.
Before you're actively in an argument, figure out what your boundaries are.
Setting boundaries starts with knowing that there are some decisions and some things that belong only to you. For instance, your body belongs to you. You are the boss of your gender identity and expression, your sexual orientation, your romantic and sex life (if that's a thing you do, whether that's a thing you do), your health, your weight, your appearance, and your clothes.
Your parents raised you, and probably at considerable expense, but they don't own you. They have more life experience, numerically speaking, but they don’t automatically know more than you about everything, and they don’t know you better than you know yourself. You are the only person who has to live your life. Your education, your career, your choices, your religious beliefs, and the way you parent your own children (if you decide to have them) is up to you. Your parents get to have opinions about these things, but they don't get to be mean to you about any of it, and you get to set limits, like, “This isn’t up for discussion.”
Once you figure out what you will (and won't) tolerate about your decisions and life, you can start to filter the conflicts with your parents through that lens. When your parents get upset with you (or refuse to do something you’re asking them to do), ask yourself:
- Is what I want here something that adults generally get to expect from one another?
- Is this how they would speak to peers that they like and respect about this subject?
- If they disagree, do they have the power to make me do it their way?
Let's look at some common scenarios that may cause you to ask these questions, and how to adjust to each:
Yes, adult housemates who aren’t related would also have to figure out chores and groceries, and if your parents own the house where you live together, they probably get more of a say in how things are done. You can be a good household citizen and a considerate guest and also expect your room to be your private space. If sharing a household is a recurring source of arguments, see if your parents would be willing to hash out expectations around privacy, chores, rent, and paying bills so that everyone has a clear understanding of expectations on both sides.
Your body and clothes
If you want to experiment with a different haircut, exercise your reproductive rights, or stay up too late reading novels, fine. You don't have to consult your parents on your wardrobe or inform them about private medical stuff—they can opine all they want about those things, but it doesn't obligate you to do what they say. “Thanks for the tip; I’ll think about it” is a good catch-all response here.
The state of the world
If you want to try talking to your family about politics, I salute you, and I offer you (a) this patient and gentle guide for discussing the Black Lives Matter movement with family who are more concerned about broken windows, and (b) a reminder that, while you shouldn’t give bigotry a free pass, you can be intentional about how you spend your time and energy. There is plenty of urgent organizing and political action to be done with like-minded people to build the world you want to live in that doesn’t require you to single-handedly change the hearts of all of your most embarrassing relatives.
Your friends and the people you date
If your parents hate someone you bring home, and you trust their judgment, and it’s not something obvious like, “Whoa, homophobic much?” then it’s probably worth asking why and hearing them out. Sometimes we need a jerk-spotter who isn’t impaired by sexy love chemicals—my grandmother’s, “Eh, he starts all his sentences with ‘I,’” said all I needed to hear about a bad-news ex. But if your parents hate everyone you date or hang out with, that sounds like a Your Parents problem, and a gentle reminder that you get to pick your own friends might be necessary.
Your job, school, and money
It’s so hard for parents to watch their children struggle, but it’s also really hard to fight with someone who thinks footing the bill for education or offering financial help during an economic crisis means that they’re buying obedience or the right to make your choices about what to be when you grow up for you. When you’re on the verge of snapping, “Look, did you raise a capable adult or not?” ask your parents about when they were your age. What did their parents think they should study? How did that work out?
If you’re drowning in well-meaning but unhelpful advice, like “If you really wanted a job, you’d just show up in person at the corporate offices and ask to speak to the guy in charge, that way they’ll see you have initiative!” sometimes all you can do is say, “I appreciate your support, and I’m doing what I think will work for me,” or, “Sure, I’ll think about it.” (Deciding not to do something counts as thinking about it.)
Knowing what your boundaries are won’t make it possible to forever win (or avoid) arguments, but it can help you choose your battles and avoid investing time and energy in convincing other people about stuff that is, at the end of the day, completely up to you.
Take responsibility for your own shit.
Figure out what your own bad habits and sore points are and how you tend to react. For instance, I have a truly insufferable “Teen Lawyer, Attorney At Being Right!” avatar inside me that I need to shove down when other people talk about scary stuff like “feelings” and “the future.”
Once you identify your own insufferable teen, you can acknowledge and own your part in the conflict, like this: “I know when I get upset I yell. I'm going to try my best not to do that, but I really want to talk this through. Can you help us stay on task and let me know when we need a subject change?”
If you get easily flustered, or there's something really important that you want to say, write it down first, or practice saying it to a friend or a therapist so it's not brand-new.
Treat arguments like problem-solving exercises instead of competitions with winners and losers.
When someone is known for being “good” at arguing, people are seldom talking about qualities like, “What a gentle, good listener,” and, “I love how they slow way down and carefully check the facts.” “Did you see the part where they apologized for yelling and thanked the person for the correct information? Amazing!!”
Over a lifetime of this, it’s easy to get the idea that (a) absolutely every issue has two equal and opposite sides and solutions are for the weak, (b) if you want attention, pick a fight with someone, and (c) the more you talk, the more right you are.
This matters in our families because people imitate what they see, and they adopt the behaviors that they see being rewarded. If we’re going to imitate reality TV show competitions, why can’t it be the one where the nice British people bake things and they definitely ARE here to make friends? (“Your dough needed more time.” “Quite right, thank you.”)
If something's important enough to one or both of you enough to get heated about it, it's probably important enough to get to the bottom of it and figure out what you can do to fix it.
Work on your listening skills.
Even—and especially—when you think you already know what the person you're arguing with is going to say, ask to be sure. Your assumptions may be right, but why not find out before you sink a bunch of time fighting about something that isn't actually their perspective at all?
Some ideas about how to do this:
- "What did you mean when you said that?"
- "You keep saying that everything’s fine, but I can see that you’re still upset. What aren’t you telling me?"
- "Can you show me what you have in mind?"
- "What I'm hearing you say is _, do I have it right?"
Give your parents an opportunity to correct and explain themselves fully before you jump in. If you spend the time when the other person is talking on thinking up things to say, you’re missing important stuff.
Check your facts and be open to fact-checking. Remember that it's free to look things up and to be wrong. When you admit, “I was incorrect when I said that, and I’m sorry,” you make it easier for them to do the same.
Remind yourself what you love and like about them.
Literally make a list ahead of time, if it helps. Treat them like somebody you like. Don't poke people's sore spots, don't insult them, don't try to score easy points off them, don't drag in unrelated topics or resurrect old zombie fights to shamble around and stink up the place.
Check in and take care of each other's physical comfort.
If we trust that the people we love will still be there for us tomorrow, our arguments can be there too, when everybody's had a nap and some breakfast. So check in as you go: Does anyone need a break to cool down, some water, to be seated more comfortably, to be done driving a car? Demonstrate that you care about the person more than you care about winning, and include yourself in that care. Do you need a glass of water or a subject change? If you feel yourself regressing, or like things are going nowhere, do you need a break and a chance to regroup?
Ask people directly what they want to get out of the argument.
You can say something like, "In a perfect world, where you get everything you want from me/from this conversation, what does that look like?"
This works especially well when you're stuck in a cycle where one person suggests solutions, and the other person keeps shooting them down without offering any of their own. Maybe what they want is something that's easy for you to do. Maybe they haven't thought about it and this is a good time to take a break and give them a chance to do so before you talk again. Maybe what they actually want is impossible or off the table, as in, “Sorry, the grandchildren factory is permanently closed.” If you can get them to spell it out in their own words, you can figure out what, if anything, to do.
Know that you can only do so much.
If you read this far and thought, Hahaha, right, good try—you haven't met MY family, this will never work, you're probably right!! You know these people better than I do, so your sense of what's possible is probably correct.
It’s not always safe to argue. There's no way to get so good at arguing that you can persuade abusive people to be safe people, and it's not on you to patiently work things out forever and ever with people who mistreat you. Some parents and adult children do become estranged, usually as a last resort, and almost always to escape from abuse and harm when nothing else worked. Remember, too: "Obey me about everything in your life, or else I will make you homeless" isn't an argument—it's abusive and controlling behavior. If any of that sounds like your situation, and you need resources to help you get out of it, you'll find a whole bunch here.
In other cases, where you're just involved in a non-threatening disagreement: Part of maintaining healthy boundaries is realizing that you can’t change other people, including your parents, or fix their hearts for them. Sometimes, the best option and best use of your time is to not fight at all. Other times, count moments like “successfully interrupted rant after two minutes instead of the usual 30” or “I didn’t change any minds but I said what I needed to say” as wins in a long, long, game.
You can’t change a long-standing family dynamic all by yourself, but simply trying a different approach can be rewarding in itself—a small way to be good to yourself in a world (or home) that feels hostile. Sometimes when you engage differently, you give the other person permission to engage differently. That chance to adapt—and maybe even to surprise you—is a gift you're giving, whether or not your parents take it.
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