People do not rebel without a reason, and the early adolescent finds just cause for rebellion: what he sees as the infringement of personal freedom. It feels unfair to be made to do what he or she doesn't want to do, and to be kept from doing what he or she does want to do. Basic rights of self-determination are being denied by the powers that be at home, at school, and out in the world. What is the early adolescent to do?
The answer is rebel. Actively and passively, your son or daughter becomes more resistant to your demands and restraints, creating two common disciplinary problems for you to deal with — automatic arguments and endless delays.
A negative attitude gives the adolescent the motivation to change, and rebellion gives him the power to change. Standing up to parental authority by questioning their demands is one way this is done. Parents who have a low tolerance for argument are often at high risk of overreacting when arguments occur. “Don't you talk back to me!”
Rather than empowering the early adolescent when he or she attempts to argue with you, remember that it takes two to make an argument. Your son or daughter can't argue with you unless you agree to argue back. So when your request is greeted with a challenge back, “Why should I have to do what you say?” declare your unwillingness to argue and repeat your insistence on what you have asked. “As I said, this is what I need to have you do.”
Because standing up to parents by arguing takes courage, never purposely or nervously smile or laugh during this exchange. Feeling ridiculed and humiliated, your adolescent will get very angry at you for taking lightly what he or she means seriously and is brave to do.
But before you write off all arguments as being irritating and unproductive, appreciate the plus side of what your son or daughter is doing. He or she is daring to speak up to your authority, is learning how to state his or her position, is willing to argue his or her case against more skilled opposition, is secure enough to brave your disapproval, and is tough enough to refuse you automatic or immediate obedience.
Children who are willing to stand up to parents are usually willing to stand up to peers and the pressure to conform that they can create. Children who automatically do what their parents ask without any resistance often may be at higher risk of doing what they are told by dominating friends (not to mention dangerous strangers).
Arguing is active resistance. It is about learning to stand up for oneself. And before children learn to do it with peers, they must learn to do it with parents.
However, don't ever agree to argue about what you have no intention to change. The more your son or daughter argues, the more invested in persuading you he or she becomes, the more angry he or she gets on finding out that your mind was made up from the beginning.
So you have asked your early adolescent one, two, three, four times to do the dishes and they are still not done. Every time you agree to “wait a minute,” you end up waiting another twenty. So finally, in exasperation, you raise your voice and command, “I want them done now!” Whereupon your son or daughter looks at you and in a disapproving voice declares, “Well, you don't have to get so upset about it!” So the dishes finally get washed. But not with soap. So you are back to square one.
What's going on? Passive resistance is the power of delay. It's a compromise. In actions, the early adolescent is saying, “You can tell me what, I'll tell you when, and when I get enough ‘when,’ I'll do what you want — partly.” The best way to deal with endless delay is with relentless insistence (supervision), either using nagging to wear down your child's passive resistance, or waiting until the next exchange point to get your request met.
Do not give additional power to this passive resistance by getting upset, by backing off your request, or (worst of all) by fulfilling the request yourself. If it's worth asking your child to do, then it is definitely worth not defaulting on your request and doing it yourself. Not only will you let your son or daughter win with passive resistance, but you will end up feeling angry at doing what someone else should have done.
Both active and passive resistance work to some degree. The early adolescent does gain more power of self-determination than she had before because no parents can hold out against this resistance all the time. It's the end of the day. You're just human. You're tired. You don't want an argument, you're too weary to pursue delay, so you just let some of your requests go. And every time you do, your son or daughter gathers a little more power, which sets the stage for the last phase of early adolescence — early experimentation.