Why you want your teen to talk back

For years I’ve been telling the exasperated fathers of mouthy teenage girls to relax. When she starts dating, I say, the ability to stand up to men will turn out to be a feature, not a bug — so you don’t want to discourage it too much.

new paper in the journal Child Development backs up my logic by demonstrating that teenagers who argue with their mothers are more likely to resist peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol. Almost all adolescents have friends who are doing something that their parents wouldn’t like if they knew about it, so parents are right to worry about the negative influences of peers. But not all teens are susceptible to bad influences. Indeed, some of them end up helping to straighten out their misbehaving friends.

What factors determine which teen is the influencer and which is the influenced partner in a friendship? Researchers showed earlier that teens whose parents are overly restrictive are more likely to be influenced by their peers. This type of research, though, is complicated by the fact that kids choose their friends, in part because they are similar to start with. Overbearing parents may produce rebellion in their teens, which then leads them to pick equally rebellious friends and copy their behavior.

To get around this problem, the authors of the new study tracked changes in the behavior of an economically diverse group of teens over several years. At age 13, the subjects were asked to talk with their mothers about an area of disagreement, and then at 15 and 16, their drug use was evaluated. Teens who had rapidly reversed their position when arguing with their mothers were substantially more likely to use drugs and alcohol later on, but only if their friends were users. Other factors that increased peer influence were low support from mothers, highly popular friends, and weak teen social skills.

So the next time your teenager is giving you lip, take a deep breath and remember that learning to say no effectively is an important social skill in its own right.

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