There are 15 teenagers in the building community that I live in. Every now and then, us parents of these teenagers will get together for what we euphemistically term “tea” but what is really therapy.
We talk about exams, SAT scores and the race to get into the right colleges. And then we talk about arguments and how our households seem rife with them.
“I didn’t grow up like this,” a mother will say. “I listened to my parents; didn’t argue so much about everything.”
“Times have changed,” we will admit ruefully. “The world has changed.”
“Sometimes it seems like my son argues just for the sake of it,” a parent will confess.
“No matter what I say, he takes the opposite view to the point where I have now started to instruct him on the opposite of what I want. But he is smart. He has guessed my game and is beating me at it.”
“It gets my blood pressure up,” a father will mutter. “When will it end?”
At our last meetings, someone shared two heartening studies. One was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
In it, researchers used a sample of 1,842 adults between the ages of 33 to 84. Over the course of eight days, these researchers asked the subjects whether they encountered situations where they might have argued and what was their reaction to such situations. The subjects also had to give saliva samples.
Sixty two per cent of the subjects reported that when they encountered a tense situation, they did not argue; instead they walked away or kept their thoughts to themselves. The remaining subjects argued. They had it out with their opponent as it were.
Researchers discovered that while all their subjects had feelings of disquiet about the tense environment, only those that did not argue experienced elevated levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – for one extra day. Those that argued felt unpleasant and uneasy, but these symptoms were erased from their bodies through the argument as it were. Those that stewed in their thoughts and kept quiet had cortisol coursing through their blood the following day.
Household arguments are unnerving and enervating. But they do serve a biological purpose, it seems. They get rid of the accumulated stress that caused the argument in the first place.
The second study was recently conducted by the University of Virginia and it supports what numerous other studies have said.
Teenagers argue not merely to rebel or to prove a point. They argue for a deeper developmental reason. Arguing is a way for them to “separate” from their nest; from their parents.
It is his way of cutting off the umbilical cord and venturing forth into a brave, new and often terrifying world.
The good news is this: teenagers who argue at home often turn out to be well-adjusted adults in college. They eschew risky behaviours and turn down objectionable substances.
Arguing at home helps them formulate their own point of view about the values that they will take with them. It builds up their brain muscles and allows them to put choices in perspective.
While they may mock a parent for refusing to allow them to attend parties, such arguments also help crystallise the parental point of view to them.
My grandmother used to say that those kids who are rash while young will turn out to be model citizens in adulthood. She said that to comfort my mother while I was growing up. She insisted that the continual arguments that I had with my parents was a sign of respect.
At least your daughter is “engaging” with you, she would say. At least she is not deceitful and closed. The same could be said of today’s teenagers who have verbal battles with their parents, but will hopefully become model citizens of the future.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir