Having to deal with an argumentative child is something many parents know far too well. For years, we struggled with our son’s “know-it-all attitude” and worried that it would ruin his relationships with his friends. Sometimes it felt like he would deliberately take an opposite position – in spite of obvious proof of the contrary – and not give in until he was convinced that he had “won”.
If you have an argumentative child, you know what I’m talking about:
- An argumentative child is quick to argue about anything and EVERYTHING.
- They are ALWAYS right, meaning that the other party has got to be wrong.
- Argumentative children will go to great lengths to explain to you why they are right and why you are wrong.
- They will challenge EVERY decision. They will argue about why their brother got more juice, why their siblings have “easier chores” and why it is not they who get to choose the movie on movie night in spite of selecting what your family has been watching for the past three weeks.
- When you tell an argumentative child that they are wrong, it is often at your own risk – the consequences can be far-reaching.
- They always have to win. Always.
- They have a habit of shouting and drowning out everyone else in the room.
- An argumentative child often comes across as rude, often because they question everything vehemently and completely disregard other people’s opinions. Or they make situations awkward.
The truth about an argumentative child is that they drive you up the wall. They wear you out – actually, they wear everyone out. But there is good news: it is possible to change your child’s behavior using simple strategies and believe me, I know what I’m talking about!
But first things first: why are some kids so argumentative? Why do they always need things to go their way? The first step toward changing your child’s attitude is to understand it.
Understanding the argumentative child
Every child seeks some amount of autonomy, and this begins as early as the toddler years: “no” is among the first words that toddlers learn, and they use it often to show that they too have a say. As your child grows older, and as their quest for autonomy increases, they tend to become more argumentative.
That said, some children are more argumentative than others from birth, and that has something to do with their personality.
Children – like everyone else – have their own unique personalities, and their temperament affects their behavior. There’s the kid who’ll try to keep the peace at all costs, and then there’s the other one who’ll criticize, argue and not let go, no matter the cost.
If you have an argumentative child, you’ve probably noticed that they have always been more argumentative than your other children, or perhaps argumentative as far back as you can remember.
Here’s the thing: children’s personalities tend to remain relatively constant because their dominant function, meaning the most well-developed one, develops in childhood. What this means is that there are high chances that your child will become more argumentative as they grow older and will always retain an argumentative streak.
That said, being conscious of the influence of your child’s personality can help change how you react to their behavior.
Our son has always been the mouthy type and that behavior drove us crazy for years before we understood how personality influences children’s behavior.
This discovery helped us understand that certain characteristics are part of his nature and instead of focusing on “getting rid of them”, we had to learn to parent with those characteristics in mind. But how do you go about it?
Here are easy ways to stop your argumentative child from driving you crazy.
Five strategies to help you deal with an argumentative child
1) Teach your child to express themselves respectfully
Some of the behavior traits that seem “problematic” and are frowned upon in childhood actually become strengths as your child grows older. For instance, if a “mouthy” child is taught to mind how they express themselves, they can become an adult who is not afraid to disagree respectfully.
It is therefore important for your child to express themselves, but they must learn that they must do so respectfully, and that they must understand that others too have their own opinions which may differ from their own. Teach your child to debate, not to argue, and to express themselves without offending others.
An easy way to achieve this is to use the same words to draw attention to their behavior. Different types of phrases that could work include: “I can’t talk to you when you’re shouting”, “I’m not asking you to agree with me”, “I will only talk to you when you are calm”, “don’t talk to me like that”. Once you say this, avoid engaging your child in further conversation by keeping silent or walking away.
Their behavior will not change overnight, but if you don’t give in and keep repeating the same words every time they manifest the same behavior, they will eventually learn to express themselves differently.
2) Give your argumentative child more decision-making power
The results of several scientific studies suggest that when children feel like they have participated in the decision-making process, they are less likely to display inappropriate behavior.
Development psychologists talk about “autonomy granting” as the process through which parents progressively transfer decision-making power to their children through parent-controlled processes. They believe that this is a key element of parenting.
Research suggests that a child’s ability to make sound decisions increases between the ages of eight/nine and 13, and that they gain decision autonomy (i.e., the ability to make decisions without parental involvement) between the ages of 12 and 17.
Allowing your child to make decisions that concern them can therefore be an effective strategy to deal with an argumentative child, and this approach can also teach them about making decisions and being responsible for the decisions made. That said, your child still requires some form of structure to guide their decision making.
This could look like:
- Allowing them to choose when to do their homework but giving them a time frame for when that homework should be done.
- Allowing older children to participate in determining the consequences of their behavior.
- Letting your child choose what chores they would like to do and letting them know that they while every member of the family has to do chores, they are free to change their chores if they so wish.
When it comes to younger children, limiting the choices available will make the whole autonomy granting exercise easier. For example, proposing two options – “you can either have ice-cream or cookies”, “you can have the green one or the yellow one” will reduce power struggles and make them feel like it was “their decision”.
3) Set clear rules and consequences
The problem with argumentative behavior in a child is that it ends up affecting your entire family and every family decision. If your child’s behavior is wearing you out, you may become less available to your other children.
Or if every family decision is conflictual because your argumentative child “disagrees” with any decision that they did not personally make, family conflict can arise and make family events stressful rather than enjoyable moments to share together.
It is therefore important to set clear rules and consequences, especially where your child’s siblings or the entire family is concerned.
For example, if you have a family movie night, let each child have a go at choosing the movie to watch. If your children participate in choosing family meals, assign each child a day where they can choose the meal.
When it comes to your child’s overall behavior, it is important to set rules related specifically to their argumentative behavior. For example, your child should know that
- Any disrespectful words will not be tolerated
- Shouting will not be tolerated
- Aggressive behavior will not be tolerated
- Following you around will not be tolerated
- Breaking objects will not be tolerated
How does your child react when they are in an argumentative mood? Think of their behavior to determine what you are unwilling to tolerate.
Limits go with consequences, so determine the consequences when those limits are transgressed, then share them with your child. The perfect consequence will depend on your child, yourself, and your family context.
What worked for us was letting our son know that we would no longer grant certain privileges to a child who was disrespectful, and that anytime he crossed the line, those privileges would reduce. This worked because the privileges that were to be cut out were important to him.
We also made it clear that he was always free to express himself, as long as he did so respectfully, and we always gave him a warning to let him know that he was treading on dangerous ground: “I will not argue with you”. Always the same warning.
It is always a bad idea to set the consequences of your child’s behavior on the spur of the moment. They need to clearly understand the consequences of their behavior in advance.
It also goes without saying that you must consistently apply those consequences if you want their behavior to change.
4) Avoid arguments as much as you can
If you have an argumentative child, you already know that allowing yourself to be drawn into an argument with them is like fighting a losing battle. When you avoid a power struggle, you “take the fun out” of arguing.
Here are three simple ways to respond:
- Respond once, then say no more. Even the youngest kids can get into a habit of challenging what you say just to see how far they can go. Or they may even view this as some kind of game. Once you’ve given your opinion, saying nothing means that the game is over.
- Walk away. Lock yourself away if you have to.
- Use the same exact script in similar situations. As I mentioned earlier, we found that saying “I will not argue with you” sent a clear message to our son: don’t cross the boundaries or you will have to face the consequences.
Reacting in anger will only make the situation worse so if you feel like you’re losing control of your emotions, flee, then find ways to calm yourself down.
5) Reflect on whether you’re an “argumentative parent” yourself
An argumentative child challenges your authority, and that’s a big part of the problem. When they start to argue, it is normal to feel like you know better, and that it is they that should listen to you because, after all, you’re right! And you’re the parent, the adult! But that attitude will only exasperate you and make your child behavior worse.
One of the biggest challenges of intentional parenting is knowing what matters and what doesn’t. It is knowing what your negotiable values are and what is completely non-negotiable. It is knowing what normal child behavior is even if it kills you (eye rolling, some amount of back talk), and what it is not (disrespectful talk, crossing set boundaries, etc.).
If your child won’t stop arguing, think about your parenting style and about your priorities:
- Are your expectations reasonable?
- Do you practice inductive discipline which involves explaining rules and expectations, or do you impose those on your child?
- What are your priorities? In which areas can you be more flexible?
Honestly assess your perception of parenting and decide whether you need to change how you view your child and your role as a parent.
Last thoughts on an argumentative child
It is normal to want to “block out” argumentative children, but you mustn’t. It is important for your child to feel that they can always express themselves, and that they can always come to you with their issues.
Also, your child’s venting about a “stupid kid” or a “stupid teacher” may be the sign of more serious issues that you need to address. It may reveal problems that they might be having at school or perhaps with friends. Before you choose how to react to your argumentative child’s behavior, first listen to what they have to say.
Frequent arguments may also be the sign that you and your child need to reconnect. It may be a sign that you need to spend more time together, either with that specific child, or with your entire family.
Scheduling even 10 minutes of family time every day and spending that time with your child can help reduce conflict. Have every family member select activities that you would like to do together and do at least one of them every day. If you need short and fun ideas to do as a family, download the free 30-day challenge and get started reconnecting with your child!