By Jane Mose, MA, CFS Family Peer Specialist
Imagine this scenario: Your son has a project to do for an upcoming science fair. Yesterday he asked for your help with it. You told him that you would shop for the necessary supplies later this week and then help him get the project started this weekend. But today he has come to you and said, “Let’s work on my science project now. You said you’d help me with it tonight.”
“No,” you say. “I said I’d help you get started this weekend. I still haven’t had a chance to shop for the supplies you’ll need.”
“Then go get them right now!” he says. “You said you’d help me tonight!”
You try to explain that he must have misunderstood, and you don’t have time tonight to go shopping or help with the project. But he keeps arguing, yelling as he gets angrier and angrier at you and insists that he is right.
And this is not the first time he’s been so insistent and argumentative—it seems as if he constantly questions and disagrees with you and always thinks he is right!
Dealing with a continually argumentative child can be very draining. It’s hard not to get frustrated with a child who insists he is always right and yells at his parents in order to make his case. This behavior can come across as rude, arrogant, and disrespectful to the parents.
Christian parents know that God tells children to respect and obey their parents, so continual arguing with parents is not a behavior that God desires (Ephesians 6:1-3). But God also wants parents to love, nurture, and train their children in his ways, including when those children are misbehaving (Ephesians 6:4). Often the first step in doing this is working to understand the reason(s) behind the behavior.
Children—especially those with histories of trauma—often have underlying reasons for being argumentative. Here are some possibilities:
1. The child needs control in order to feel safe.
Some children have histories of being hurt in situations over which they had no control. Most children spend their days in environments where they are told what to do by adults throughout their days, which can make children with difficulties feel continually unsafe. Arguing can become a way to get control and experience a bit of safety as a result.
2. The child is recreating a familiar past environment.
Sometimes children feel the most comfortable in the types of environments that they have experienced the most, even if those environments are not ones we would consider good for the child. So a child who has spent a lot of time in a home with constant arguing may actually cause arguments in order to feel comfortable in a newer environment.
3. The child is testing the parents (often unconsciously).
Sometimes children need to find out if their parents will set needed boundaries: Will my parents set limits and stick to them to keep me safe? For children who have joined a new family, the test might be this: Will my new parents still love me and keep me in the family if I argue and yell at them?
4. The child struggles to trust parents.
Children learn trust during their first year of life, as they cry to get needs met and their parents consistently and lovingly meet those needs. Children who did not have their needs met consistently as babies often have difficulty trusting others, including their parents. The same can happen with children whose trust was violated by the harmful actions of others later on. Repeated arguing can be a sign of lack of trust.
5. The child has a lack of empathy.
Empathy, the ability to understand the viewpoints of others, is a learned behavior. It often develops naturally as children grow older, but young children as well as older children from hard places may not have had the guidance and opportunities to learn empathy yet. Understand others’ viewpoints is key to reducing the tendency to argue with them.
6. The child feels a need to be seen and heard.
Making sure a child feels seen and heard is called giving that child Children who have experienced neglect or abuse probably had no voice in what was happening, and they need to learn that their thoughts and feelings are important. By arguing—and especially by getting a reaction from their parents—they may be subconsciously seeking the attention that shows they have a voice in what happens to them.
7. Arguing has become an automatic, learned behavior.
Children who have argued with parents often for any reason continue to do so automatically, without thinking. For example, imagine a daughter who was adopted argued with her parents often because she didn’t trust them at first. After years of connecting with her parents and feeling safe, she has now learned to trust them. However, when they tell her something, her instant reaction is still to say “no” and start arguing. She needs to “unlearn” that behavior.
Understanding the reason behind your child’s argumentative behavior can help you determine your next steps in changing that behavior. In Part Two of this series, we will look at strategies for reducing the frequency and duration of children’s arguing.
Look for related topics from the CFS Peer Specialist:
Jane Mose, MA, is an adoptive mom and former special education teacher who appreciates the opportunity to support other parents and encourage them throughout their parenting journey. She is trained as a Certified Parent Peer Specialist through the State of Wisconsin and as a Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) Practitioner through the Karen Purvis Institute of Child Development.