Argumentative Behaviour

Argumentative behaviour occurs for a variety of reasons and understanding these reasons is crucial in effectively managing and addressing such behaviour.

Specialist Behaviour Support Services and Speech Pathology

Argumentative adolescent arguing with her peers

What is Argumentative Behaviour?

Argumentative behaviour refers to the tendency of individuals to engage in disputes, disagreements, or debates, often characterised by a combative or confrontational approach. This is sometimes called 'argumentative and defiant behaviour'. It involves expressing dissenting opinions, challenging others' viewpoints, and defending one's own perspective with intensity and persistence.

This exchange allows one to state their needs, concerns and views which creates the opportunity for the other person/s to become aware of what is causing the upset and for everyone involved to address the cause and move forward past the argument. Argumentative and defiant behaviour can manifest verbally, through spoken or written arguments, as well as non-verbally, through gestures, body language, and tone of voice.

Argumentative and defiant behaviour is closely linked to Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

Argumentative Behaviour as Part of Normal Development

Arguing in all relationships is normal, especially in family life. It is impossible for two or more people to agree on everything all the time, disagreements will happen from time to time. Disagreements can be caused by differences in views, opinions, beliefs, ideas, priorities and motivations, ways things are organised, carried out and completed, misunderstandings in communication, misinterpretations of expectations, and resistance to change and doing things differently, unreleased fear, anger and frustration.

Children develop this critical lifelong skill on how to construct and handle arguments as they mature and through guidance from adults in their environment and through family relationships.

Arguments are normal in family life.

Argumentative Behaviour of Concern

Argumentative behaviour becomes a concern when the following occur:

  • the frequency (i.e. how often the individual exhibits argumentative behaviour) becomes excessive.

  • the duration (i.e. how long each incident of the argumentative behaviour lasts) becomes excessive.

  • the intensity (i.e. the strength of the argumentative behaviour) escalates from minor behaviours into extreme behaviours.

  • the argumentative behaviour negatively impacts the individual's participation in activities, interaction with others, their day-to-day functioning and development.

    It is important to note that argumentative behaviour exists for a variety of reasons, and is particularly prominent in children with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety as well as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Conduct Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Read more about Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) at the end of this article.

What causes a person to be argumentative?

Here are some common causes of argumentative behaviour:

  1. Personality traits: Some individuals have personality traits that predispose them to engage in argumentative behaviour more frequently. Traits such as high assertiveness, competitiveness, or a need for control can contribute to a propensity for argumentation.
  2. Communication style: Differences in communication styles can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts that escalate into arguments. For example, individuals with direct and assertive communication styles may clash with those who prefer a more indirect or diplomatic approach.
  3. Emotional state: Strong emotions such as anger, frustration, or fear can fuel argumentative and defiant behaviour. When individuals feel threatened, challenged, or misunderstood, they may react defensively and engage in argumentation becoming easily annoyed as a way of expressing their emotions or protecting their ego.
  4. Cognitive biases: Cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias (seeking information that confirms preexisting beliefs) or anchoring bias (over-relying on initial information), can distort reasoning and contribute to argumentative behaviour by reinforcing existing viewpoints and dismissing contradictory evidence.
  5. Lack of understanding or empathy: Misunderstandings, misinterpretations, or a lack of empathy for others' perspectives can lead to argumentative behaviour. When individuals feel misunderstood or invalidated, they may become defensive and resort to arguing to assert their viewpoint. This affects a person's self esteem.
  6. Conflict of interests: Conflicting goals, interests, or values can fuel argumentative behaviour, particularly in situations where individuals perceive a threat to their own interests or beliefs. Competition for resources or status can also exacerbate conflicts and lead to argumentation.
  7. Cultural norms: Cultural differences in communication styles, conflict resolution strategies, and attitudes toward confrontation can influence the prevalence and acceptability of argumentative behaviour. In some cultures, argumentation may be seen as a sign of assertiveness or intellectual engagement, while in others, it may be viewed as disrespectful or disruptive.
  8. Power dynamics: Power imbalances in relationships or social hierarchies can contribute to argumentative behaviour, as individuals may use arguments as a means of asserting authority, challenging perceived injustices, or resisting control by others.
  9. Stress and fatigue: External stressors such as work pressure, financial difficulties, or personal problems can increase irritability and make individuals more prone to argumentative behaviour. Fatigue and exhaustion can also impair self-regulation and increase susceptibility to conflicts.
  10. Past experiences: Previous experiences of conflict, trauma, or interpersonal challenges can shape individuals' attitudes and behaviours, influencing their propensity for argumentation. Traumatic experiences or unresolved conflicts may lead to heightened sensitivity, defensiveness, or aggression in future interactions.
  11. Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a key factor that can cause a person to be argumentative, as it involves persistent defiant behaviour and a tendency to engage in frequent conflicts with authority figures.

What is Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

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Understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional Defiant Disorder is typically identified through a consistent display of at least four symptoms from any of these categories:

  • Angry/Irritable Mood: Frequent loss of temper, touchiness, or anger and resentment.
  • Argumentative/Defiant Behaviour: Regularly arguing with authority figures, actively defying or refusing to comply with requests or rules, deliberately annoying others, or blaming others for their mistakes or misbehavior.
  • Vindictiveness: Spitefulness or vindictiveness at least twice within the past six months.

These symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) must be present for at least six months and must be more severe than what is typically observed in peers of the same age and developmental level.

The Connection Between Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Argumentative Behaviour

Oppositional Defiant Disorder is closely related to the concept of argumentative behaviour. Individuals with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are often quick to engage in disputes and are prone to confrontational approaches in their interactions. Their defiant behaviour stems from an inherent need to assert control and challenge perceived injustices or authority. This defiant behaviour can severely disrupt family life, causing significant stress and strain for parents and siblings alike.

Impact on Family Life and Social Interactions

In family life, dealing with a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder can be incredibly challenging. Parents may feel as though they are constantly walking on eggshells, unsure of what might trigger an argument or confrontation. The constant defiance and argumentative behaviour can lead to frequent conflicts, making family life stressful and exhausting.

Mental health professionals play a crucial role in diagnosing and treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder. They can provide support and strategies for managing defiant behaviour and reducing the impact on family life. Early intervention by a mental health professional can help in developing effective coping strategies and reducing the frequency and intensity of argumentative incidents.

Strategies for Managing Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Managing Oppositional Defiant Disorder involves a multi-faceted approach, often including:

  1. Behavioural Therapy: Techniques like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help children with ODD develop better coping strategies and improve their social skills.
  2. Parent Training Programs: These programs teach parents effective ways to respond to defiant behaviour and reduce family conflicts.
  3. Social Skills Training: Helping children with ODD learn appropriate social interactions and improve their peer relationships.
  4. Consistent Discipline: Establishing clear, consistent rules and consequences can help manage defiant behaviour and reduce the frequency of argumentative interactions.
  5. Family Therapy: Involving the entire family in therapy can help improve communication, reduce conflict, and strengthen family bonds.

Role of Mental Health Professionals

Mental health professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, are essential in diagnosing and treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder. They work with families to create comprehensive treatment plans that address the unique needs of the child and family. This support is vital in helping families navigate the challenges posed by ODD and in fostering a more harmonious family life.

In conclusion, understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder and its impact on argumentative behaviour is crucial for effectively managing and supporting individuals with this condition. By recognising the signs and seeking early intervention from mental health professionals, families can better cope with the challenges and work towards creating a more positive and supportive environment for their children.

Understanding the underlying causes of argumentative behaviour is essential for effectively managing conflicts, promoting constructive communication, and fostering positive relationships.

Mother and son arguing.

What is the impact of argumentative behaviour?

Supporting an argumentative child is exhausting. It is as if you are walking on eggshells because you do not know what is going to upset them, and every demand you place on them results in an argument.

For example, what may seem to a be a simple instruction such as ‘sit on the mat’ or ‘join a group activity’ may result in a straight out ‘No’, and if the adult does not back down a heated argument results. Adults also become wary about confronting the child because the child sees themselves as definitely right and others definitely wrong, which means that it is hard to reason with the child or back down. It can leave everyone feeling at a loss because nobody knows how to set limits and get the child to do what they are supposed to be doing.

Interacting with an argumentative adolescent or adult can have various impacts depending on the dynamics of the interaction, the individuals involved, and how the situation is managed.

Here are some potential impacts:

  1. Emotional toll: Constantly engaging with an argumentative adolescent or adult can be emotionally draining and stressful. Their confrontational behaviour may trigger feelings of frustration, anger, or anxiety in others, leading to heightened tension and discomfort during interactions.
  2. Communication breakdown: Argumentative behaviour can hinder effective communication and problem-solving. Instead of engaging in constructive dialogue, interactions with argumentative adolescents or adults may devolve into heated debates or conflicts, making it challenging to address issues or reach mutually beneficial solutions.
  3. Strained relationships: Persistent argumentativeness can strain relationships and erode trust between individuals. Continual disagreements and conflicts may lead to resentment, distance, or avoidance in interpersonal interactions, weakening the foundation of the relationship over time.
  4. Impact on well-being: Interacting with argumentative adolescents or adults can negatively impact one's overall well-being and mental health. Constant exposure to conflict and hostility can contribute to feelings of stress, low self-esteem, and emotional exhaustion, potentially leading to burnout or psychological distress.
  5. Decreased productivity: In professional settings, dealing with argumentative coworkers or supervisors can impede productivity and teamwork. Constant disputes and power struggles may disrupt workflow, create a toxic work environment, and hinder collaboration on projects or tasks.
  6. Influence on behaviour: Interacting with argumentative adolescents or adults may influence one's own behaviour and communication style. Individuals may become more defensive, confrontational, or avoidant in response to the argumentative behaviour of others, perpetuating a cycle of conflict.
  7. Impact on decision-making: Argumentative behaviour can undermine effective decision-making processes. Instead of focusing on objective analysis and consensus-building, interactions with argumentative adolescents or adults may become mired in personal agendas, biases, or power struggles, leading to suboptimal outcomes.
  8. Modeling behaviour: Observing argumentative behaviour in others, particularly in influential roles or authority positions, can inadvertently normalise or reinforce similar behaviour in those around them. This can perpetuate a culture of confrontation and conflict within social or organisational contexts.
  9. Negative reputation: Consistently exhibiting argumentative behaviour can tarnish one's reputation and credibility in the eyes of others. Being known as argumentative may lead to alienation, social isolation, or professional repercussions, as individuals may be perceived as difficult to work with or unreliable.
  10. Missed opportunities for growth: Persistent argumentativeness may prevent constructive feedback, learning, and personal growth. Individuals who engage in argumentative behaviour may be less receptive to alternative viewpoints, constructive criticism, or opportunities for self-reflection and improvement.

Case Study - 1

John has been diagnosed with Oppositional defiant disorder. John wants a pen from the table where Paul is sitting. As Paul is in the way, John walks up to him and pushes him so he can get the pen. Paul, who fell off his chair when John pushed him, starts crying. The teacher comes over and tells John to apologise, but John looks confused and says, ‘Why do I need to apologise? If anyone should be apologising, it’s him.’ Stunned, the teacher asks why Paul needs to apologise. John says, ‘I wanted the pen off the table. Paul saw me coming. He should have moved out of the way. But because he was in my way, he left me no option. I had to move him. I didn’t even push him as hard as he says, it was just a tap. He’s being a drama queen and just likes to whinge. He should apologise for being in my way.’

Case Study - 2

Harry and his friend Timothy are caught running in the hallway during recess. The teacher who catches them says, ‘You know you shouldn’t be in here. Go outside.’ Harry, who has Conduct disorder, starts to swear and argue with the teacher. For everything she says, he has something to say. He has to have the final word. When the teacher realises that the situation is going to escalate, she tells the students to go outside; she returns to the staff room. Harry thinks he’s won. Now, whenever Harry sees that teacher, he smiles at her and swears just loud enough for her to hear.

When a child begins to persistently exhibit argumentative behaviour, the climate of the context (e.g. childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary school, disability support and youth services) can change dramatically. A considerable amount of time and energy can be spent on the child showing the argumentative behaviour, which can have a deleterious effect on the quality of the learning experience for all the children. Research consistently shows that managing behaviour is linked to staff experiencing high levels of stress, burnout and job dissatisfaction.

Hence, argumentative behaviour affects everyone involved and the child who is exhibiting argumentative behaviour requires necessary help to learn positive ways of behaving and managing their emotions.

Positive Behaviour Support and Argumentative Behaviour

Positive Behaviour Support review cycle for argumentative behaviour

Click here for more information on Positive Behaviour Support, how it works and articles relating to PBS.

Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) focuses on evidence-based strategies and person-centred supports that address the needs of the individual and the underlying causes of behaviours of concern, to enhance the quality of life for both the individual and those that support them.

PBS recognises that there is no single cause for argumentative behaviour. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.

Argumentative behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem.

Here's how PBS principles can be applied to manage argumentative behaviour:

  1. Functional assessment: Conduct a thorough functional behaviour assessment to understand the antecedents, triggers, and consequences of the argumentative behaviour. Identify the specific situations, emotions, or needs that may be contributing to the behaviour.
  2. Teaching alternative skills: Instead of solely focusing on reducing argumentative behaviour, teach the individual alternative, socially appropriate ways to express themselves and resolve conflicts. This may involve teaching communication skills, problem-solving strategies, and conflict resolution techniques.
  3. Reinforcement of positive behaviour: Reinforce and reward positive communication and conflict resolution skills. Provide praise, attention, or other rewards when the individual engages in constructive dialogue, listens actively, or demonstrates flexibility in their viewpoints.
  4. Modifying the environment: Adjust the environment to minimise triggers or stressors that may contribute to argumentative behaviour. Create structured routines, clear expectations, and supportive atmospheres that promote respectful communication and collaboration.
  5. Promoting self-regulation: Support the individual in developing self-regulation skills to manage emotions and impulses effectively. Teach strategies for calming down, taking perspective, and expressing oneself assertively yet respectfully.
  6. Encouraging collaboration: Foster a culture of collaboration and teamwork where differences of opinion are respected and valued. Encourage active listening, empathy, and open-mindedness in interpersonal interactions, promoting understanding and mutual respect.
  7. Consistent and predictable Responses: Provide consistent responses to argumentative behaviour, emphasising clear expectations and consequences. Avoid inadvertently reinforcing the behaviour by giving in to demands or engaging in power struggles.
  8. Building positive relationships: Cultivate positive relationships built on trust, empathy, and mutual support. Strengthen connections between individuals through shared interests, positive experiences, and collaborative problem-solving.
  9. Data collection and monitoring: Continuously collect data and monitor progress to assess the effectiveness of interventions. Adjust strategies as needed based on ongoing observations and feedback from the individual and their support network.
  10. Collaborative problem-solving: Involve the individual, their support network, and relevant professionals in collaborative problem-solving to address underlying issues contributing to argumentative behaviour. Encourage open communication, active listening, and shared decision-making.

By implementing positive behaviour support strategies tailored to the individual's needs and circumstances, it's possible to effectively address argumentative behaviour while promoting constructive communication, conflict resolution, and positive relationships.

Positive Behaviour Support Resource for Argumentative Behaviour

Front cover image for the book: A for Argumentative: Positive Behaviour Support

Based on the evidence-based Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) approach this user-friendly guide, A for Argumentative, will help you develop a comprehensive PBS plan step-by-step. You will learn how to do the following:

  1. Determine why your individual is argumentative (assess),
  2. Respond effectively when your individual is argumentative (manage), and
  3. Minimise or eliminate the occurrence of argumentative behaviour (prevent).

Use the practical tools (forms, checklists, and strategies) provided to develop PBS plans that can be used to support individuals of all ages consistently in all contexts. This invaluable resource is useful for parents, childcare educators, early childhood workers, primary and secondary school educators, supervisory, allied health professionals, and mental health professionals.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a mental health condition commonly diagnosed in childhood and adolescence, characterised by a persistent pattern of defiant, disobedient, and argumentative behaviour toward authority figures. Individuals with Oppositional Defiant Disorder often display a combination of angry or irritable mood, argumentative or defiant behaviour, and vindictiveness. These behaviours can significantly interfere with family life, academic performance, and social interactions.

Understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional Defiant Disorder is typically identified through a consistent display of at least four symptoms from any of these categories:

  • Angry/Irritable Mood: Frequent loss of temper, touchiness, or anger and resentment.
  • Argumentative/Defiant Behaviour: Regularly arguing with authority figures, actively defying or refusing to comply with requests or rules, deliberately annoying others, or blaming others for their mistakes or misbehaviour.
  • Vindictiveness: Spitefulness or vindictiveness at least twice within the past six months.

These symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) must be present for at least six months and must be more severe than what is typically observed in peers of the same age and developmental level.

The Connection Between Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Argumentative Behaviour

Oppositional Defiant Disorder is closely related to the concept of argumentative behaviour. Individuals with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are often quick to engage in disputes and are prone to confrontational approaches in their interactions. Their defiant behaviour stems from an inherent need to assert control and challenge perceived injustices or authority. This defiant behaviour can severely disrupt family life, causing significant stress and strain for parents and siblings alike.

Impact on Family Life and Social Interactions

In family life, dealing with a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder can be incredibly challenging. Parents may feel as though they are constantly walking on eggshells, unsure of what might trigger an argument or confrontation. The constant defiance and argumentative behaviour can lead to frequent conflicts, making family life stressful and exhausting.

Mental health professionals play a crucial role in diagnosing and treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder. They can provide support and strategies for managing defiant behaviour and reducing the impact on family life. Early intervention by a mental health professional can help in developing effective coping strategies and reducing the frequency and intensity of argumentative incidents.

Strategies for Managing Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Managing Oppositional Defiant Disorder involves a multi-faceted approach, often including:

  1. Behavioural Therapy: Techniques like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help children with ODD develop better coping strategies and improve their social skills.
  2. Parent Training Programs: These programs teach parents effective ways to respond to defiant behaviour and reduce family conflicts.
  3. Social Skills Training: Helping children with ODD learn appropriate social interactions and improve their peer relationships.
  4. Consistent Discipline: Establishing clear, consistent rules and consequences can help manage defiant behaviour and reduce the frequency of argumentative interactions.
  5. Family Therapy: Involving the entire family in therapy can help improve communication, reduce conflict, and strengthen family bonds.

Role of Mental Health Professionals

Mental health professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, are essential in diagnosing and treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder. They work with families to create comprehensive treatment plans that address the unique needs of the child and family. This support is vital in helping families navigate the challenges posed by ODD and in fostering a more harmonious family life.

In conclusion, understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder and its impact on argumentative behaviour is crucial for effectively managing and supporting individuals with this condition. By recognising the signs and seeking early intervention from mental health professionals, families can better cope with the challenges and work towards creating a more positive and supportive environment for their children.

A for Argumentative Behaviour - Forms cover image

Download this free PDF guide

The forms contained in this pdf booklet are from the A for Argumentative: Positive Behaviour Support guide that can be used as part of the process of developing a PBS plan.

Download A for Argumentative Behaviour - Forms