When your teen makes a request and your answer is “No,” you really don’t need to give any further explanation. “No” is a complete sentence. Although they almost always ask “Why?”, they really don’t care about your answer. Their only purpose in asking is to create a conversational transition into an argument on their level where they can wear you down and get their own way. This is a universal experience for parents with kids. If you take the bait, you’ll begin trying to justify your decision and perhaps feel a little guilty because it might not be so bad if they did it “just this once.” From there it’s a very short leap to where they get their way.
When you give in and change your answer, you have given them practice and success in the skill of manipulating you and winning. Small wonder so many kids use this technique and their parents feel powerless.
Teens need to know that you mean what you say. Many times they test to see whether you really care about them and what they do. They already know that many of their requests should be denied because what they want to do isn’t in their best interest, but they don’t want to tell their friends, “No, I don’t want to.”
Even college students will look to an authority figure to pull them back from something they really don’t want to do. I witnessed this when I worked in the freshman girls’ dormitory on a Christian college campus some years ago. They would bitterly complain to the world about the unreasonable curfew rules, but privately many came to me saying they were relieved that we had those rules, because their boyfriends wanted them to stay out until the last minute. Although the girls had studying to do and knew they didn’t have that much time to spend with their boyfriends, it was much easier to hide behind the “stupid” rules than it was to tell their boyfriend, “No. I have to go study now.”
Setting boundaries is not a well-developed skill for most adults and without it people feel vulnerable. If adults have problems setting boundaries, it’s very understandable that children and teens are even more deficient in this area.
Now I don’t expect you’ll very often hear your teen thank you for making them miss a party that “everyone is going to,” but there be times when they are actually relieved to be able to blame you because they can’t go.
When my daughter was a teen, we had a dangerous dichotomy concerning her activities. I tended to be conservative and cautious while my husband didn’t want to have to tell her “No.” He wanted to be her friend, not her guide and protector.
I don’t recall when it first happened, but I discovered that she was coming to me first for permission and after I told her “No” she would go to her Dad and he would give her the permission I had denied. When I realized this wasn’t an occasional mistake, but a carefully plotted plan, I put my foot down and informed her that she could not go to her Dad for a reversal of my decisions. I even instituted a specific penalty that would be invoked any time it happened.
It would have been much better if my husband and I could have worked out a mutual agreement on this issue, but he felt it was crucial that he choose her side. Unfortunately, there were times when he realized too late that I had been right and that only widened the gap between us.
I strongly encourage parents to start early presenting a united front to the kids on most things. If the parents aren’t on the same page and in agreement about child rearing, they will have far more difficulties in their marriage and increase the likelihood that their children will end up in dangerous situations that they aren’t prepared to handle.
My own child is grown now and has told me on occasion that even though she didn’t always like my decisions, she always appreciated the fact that I was consistent in dealing with her. Personally I like the idea of being known as a person who is consistent.