Moms and dads often fall into the trap of bargaining with their youngster, sometimes to make their own lives easier or because they want to be “friends” with their child, and sometimes because they feel guilt or shame about issues from the past such as getting a divorce, moving the family, or working too many hours.
Moms and dads often fall into the bargaining trap when they are unclear about which rules are negotiable and which are non-negotiable. Although bargaining with your child may resolve the immediate conflict, a pattern of bargaining could indicate an unhealthy disruption in the balance of power in the parent-child relationship.
Bargaining is often a sign that parents are losing authority over their youngster, particularly when they begin bargaining about rules that are, or should be, hard lines in the sand. Teenagers and preteens may feel a misplaced sense of entitlement that begins to wear away at a parent’s authority.
Entitlement is when someone believes they have a right to make a choice that is outside of their power. When moms and dads repeatedly let their youngster make decisions that are outside of the child’s power, the child becomes inflated with a sense of self that is inaccurate in terms of the youngster’s belief in her ability to affect the outcome of events.
Power is given to parents – not kids – for good reason. Moms and dads have the experience, knowledge, and wisdom to keep their kids safe and make good decisions for their youngster. Of course, there are times when it is fair and appropriate to negotiate and compromise with teenagers. Power can certainly be shared, but only when the outcome does not have the potential to harm the child.
Rather than bargaining with your youngster, empower him to influence the outcome of decisions that truly are negotiable and draw clear boundaries in areas that are not up for debate. For example, moms and dads may share power with a child around some of the TV programs the youngster watches. However, the parent should not share decision-making power with the child if a program has content that is too advanced for the child’s age and maturity level. This is an example of a non-negotiable item – there is no discussion or negotiation. Similarly, a middle school-aged youngster should not be allowed to negotiate about which friends she has sleepovers with, what parties she can attend, or how late she can stay out at night. Nor should a middle school child be allowed to choose not to go to school. Permitting a youngster to do so allows him to usurp the parent’s authority on matters that should be non-negotiable because they are in the child’s best interest.
Not only do parents give up their authority in the bargaining process, but they also surrender their personal power – their power to make choices that align with their personal values. For example, a parent gives away personal power when she allows a youngster to speak disrespectfully to adults without any consequences. The parent may feel powerless to stop the child from treating her in a manner that goes against her personal values.
The way to regain personal power is by maintaining boundaries. Knowing which rules are negotiable and which are non-negotiable and sticking to it is the first step. It’s also important for parents to take care of their own mental and physical health by making time for themselves. In doing so, you become a role model to your youngster, showing her how to get her needs met in a healthy way. Knowing what your values and morals are and living by them is another way to set clear guidelines for your child.
Tips for Avoiding Power Struggles—
While the occasional power struggle is a natural part of parenting, setting up a pattern of bargaining can set the stage for a contentious parent-child relationship during high school and beyond. The following are a few suggestions for avoiding power struggles with your teenager:
1. Always listen to your kids. You can validate their feelings without necessarily agreeing. For example, you may want to say, “I understand that you feel left out because everyone else is going to the party. Nevertheless, I am not comfortable with you going.”
2. Decide which rules or topics are non-negotiable. Talk with your spouse to make sure both of you are on the same page and are prepared to present a united front to your teenager.
3. Do not get stuck in an argument. Too many words are usually a sign that you are negotiating. The longer the conversation continues, the more your teenager feels she can change your mind.
4. Inform your youngster that these particular items are no longer up for negotiation and that when you, the parent, say “no” or that a topic is not up for discussion, you are exercising your legal authority to make decisions in the best interest of your youngster.
5. Inform your child which areas are open for discussion and possible negotiation.
6. Understand that if you have allowed your youngster to negotiate in the past and are trying to regain your personal power in the relationship, the process takes time. You may have to set multiple boundaries and have the same discussion several times. Teenagers will test every rule. For example, “Can I go to Jenny’s house?” “No.” “Can I go to the mall with Jenny?” “No.” “Can I study with Jenny and Sarah?” “No.”
7. Recognize that a youngster who has negotiated before will try to negotiate again – and this time, she’ll press even harder, hoping that you will give in. Parental responses to these pleas for negotiation should be neutral but firm, such as:
- “I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but that is my final word.”
- “If you continue to push this, I will have to _____ (e.g., ground you for the evening for not accepting my decision, take away your cell phone for 24 hours, etc.).”
- “Nevertheless, you will not be going to Susan’s house for an overnight.”
- “This is not negotiable. I am not comfortable with you going to Mike’s house for the reasons we have already discussed.”
The next time your youngster tries to spark a debate on a non-negotiable issue or “win” in a bargaining exchange, remember these tips and do yourself and your child a favor by drawing a clear, but fair boundary. If you have used these strategies in the past and your youngster continues to struggle with respect, rules, and authority, it may be time for a professional intervention.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents