If you are the parent of a defiant teenager, you probably discovered a long time ago that whenever you tell him or her "no" – it automatically turns into a power-struggle. Even the most simplest of requests can often result in very stressful parent-child conflict. As a result, many parents (in an effort to reduce their stress) find themselves “over-negotiating” with their teenager ...anything to eliminate the drama and backtalk.
While negotiating is certainly an important parenting tool in many situations, if it is used to simply "keep the peace" and avoid arguments at all cost, the result is over-indulgent parenting. And unfortunately, there is nothing that feeds “defiance” more than over-indulgence.
Appropriate negotiation would look like this:
Your teenager feels like he should get a raise on his allowance. He recently turned 16, and feels that $15 per week is not enough. So he asks if you would be willing to go $20 per week. You come back with, "Yes I am willing to give you a five dollar raise if you will start taking responsibility for the yard work. That will include mowing, trimming, as well as raking leaves in the fall." If your son agrees to these terms, it's a win-win situation. If he doesn't, then he gets no raise in allowance - period!
Now let's look at an example of over-negotiation (used to avoid another tug-of-war):
Your teenager states that all of his friends are getting $20 a week for allowance, and he feels like you're a cheapskate. So he says, "You should start giving me $20 a week. I'm not a kid anymore." Then you state that you would be willing to go $20 per week if he would do the yard work. He contests that notion, stating that none of his friends have to do yard work. With an attitude of self-entitlement, he asserts that he shouldn't have to work for an allowance. You come back with, "Fine …if you don't want to do the yard work, then you only get $15 a week." An argument ensues, it goes back and forth for 5 minutes, and you finally say, "OKAY! I'll give you $20 a week if you’ll just stop arguing with me, but it wouldn't hurt you to start doing some chores around here."
In the example above, you did indeed avoid a lengthy power-struggle, but unfortunately you also fed defiance. Now you're teenager knows that all he has to do is pressure you and you will "wave the white flag" and let him have his way. So the next time he wants something, he won't be up for compromise or negotiation. Instead, he will push for a one-sided deal once again.
So how can parents avoid over-negotiating while at the same time lessen the risk of initiating a tug-of-war? Here are a few ideas that can help you with this issue:
1. As much as possible, involve your teenager in the decision-making process. Many (if not most) situations are negotiable to a certain extent. For example, if your teenage son wants to have some friends over on a Friday evening for pizza and watch a movie, you could say, "I might let you have your friends over. What are you going to do to earn that privilege? If I'm going to rent a movie and buy pizza, what do I get in return?" Then let your teenager come up with some ideas about what he can do to earn this privilege. If his proposal sounds reasonable, then you may want to accept it.
2. When you're teenager tells you that she wants something (e.g., your 16-year old daughter wants to go watch an R-rated movie with her friends), rather than simply saying "no," you could say, "Let me think about that and I'll give you an answer in a few minutes." In this case, you get on the computer or your smart phone to watch the trailer of the movie your daughter wants to watch. If it seems to be appropriate, then the answer can be "yes" (however, if you are paying for her movie ticket, she needs to do something in the way of chores to earn that money). If it appears that the movie has too much violence, profanity or nudity, then you can say, "I don't believe that is an appropriate movie. Are there any other ones that are playing that you might be interested in? I was just on the movie theater’s website – go check it out and see what else is playing?" In this way, you're not verbally saying "no" (even though the real answer is "no"), and you are offering an alternative. Of course, this doesn't guarantee that you will avoid a power-struggle, but at least you're engaging in proper negotiation as opposed to over-negotiation.
3. Sometimes your teen will want something, and your answer could be, “I’m saying ‘no’ to that for now, but my answer might be ‘yes’ if you change a few things.” For example, let’s say your teen wants to spend the night at a friend’s house on Friday night, but she has volley ball practice the following morning (Saturday) at 8:00 A.M. – and you know that she will likely miss that practice because she and her friend will probably stay up most of the night. So you could say, “The answer is ‘no’ for Friday night because you have to get up early for volley ball practice. However, I would not have a problem with you spending the night with your friend on Saturday.” In this way, you’re really saying “yes,” as long as the activity occurs on a different day. That’s good negotiation on your part.
4. If your teenager wants to do something and your answer is going to be "no" ...before saying "no," take a few minutes to think about why you don't want him or her to do this particular activity. Sometimes parents automatically say "no" without considering if the answer could really be "yes." For example, your teenager asks if he can go to Kings Island with his new friend and his friend’s parents, but you instinctively say, "No, I've never met your friend and I know nothing about his parents. Plus, I can't afford it right now." But after you said "no," you regret the decision because it was a missed opportunity for your son to have a really cool trip -- and he would be out of your hair for the day. So, after rethinking the situation, you tell your teenager that you will reconsider IF he brings his friend over so you can meet him, and you will also discuss this with the friend's parents. This is another example of proper negotiation.
5. Of course, there will be times when the answer is "no" and there is ZERO room for negotiation (e.g., your teenager wants to go to a party where beer will be available, but he promises not to drink any). So you will do one of two things: either you will stick with "no," or you will cave-in and over-negotiate just to stop an argument. Assuming that you're going to "stick to your guns," you can say, "I understand that you really want to go to that party. But I have thought about this long and hard, and I'm not willing to negotiate since there will be alcohol involved." In this way, you're not using the “N O” word, which may make it less likely that your teenager will pressure you into a power-struggle and your subsequent caving-in.
When we as parents over-negotiate, it usually creates a lose-win situation. Parents lose, teenagers win. While it's true that sometimes it's much easier just to give in, it's important to remember that once you "cave" to avoid an argument, you have also greatly increased the likelihood that your teenager will use pressure tactics in the future. In other words, with over-negotiation, you may avoid a power-struggle FOR NOW, but you inadvertently create more struggles for later.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents