By Meghan Vivo
An Interview with Robbi O'Kelley, MSW, LCSW, CADCII
“Okay, okay, I’ll let you go to the party if you stop bugging me about it.”
“I already told you John couldn’t come over, but I’ll let it go this one time.”
“If you do your homework on time, I’ll let you spend the night at Rachel’s house, even though I don’t approve of co-ed sleepovers.”
Do these scenarios sound familiar? Does your teen beg and plead to get his way until you finally just give in? Does “no” really mean “maybe” in your household?
Parents often fall into the trap of bargaining with their child, 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.
According to Robbi O'Kelley, MSW, LCSW, CADCII, the Executive Director at New Leaf Academy of Oregon, an all-girls therapeutic boarding school for 10- to 14-year-olds, parents often fall into the bargaining trap when they are unclear about which rules are negotiable and which are non-negotiable. After years of working with parents and their children, she warns that 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 child, particularly when they begin bargaining about rules that are, or should be, “hard lines in the sand,” says O’Kelley. Teens 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,” explains O’Kelley. “When parents repeatedly let their child 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 child’s belief in her ability to affect the outcome of events.”
Power is given to parents – not children – for good reason. Parents have the experience, knowledge, and wisdom to keep their kids safe and make good decisions for their child. Of course, there are times when it is fair and appropriate to negotiate and compromise with teens. Power can certainly be shared, but only when the outcome does not have the potential to harm the child.
Rather than bargaining with your child, O’Kelley recommends empowering her to influence the outcome of decisions that truly are negotiable and drawing clear boundaries in areas that are not up for debate.
“For example,” says O’Kelley, “parents may share power with a child around some of the TV programs the child 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 child 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 child to do so allows the child to usurp the parent’s authority on matters that should be non-negotiable because they are in the child’s best interest,” says O’Kelley.
Reclaiming Personal Power
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 his personal power when he allows a child to speak disrespectfully to adults without any consequences. The parent may feel powerless to stop the child from treating him in a manner that goes against his personal values.
The way to regain personal power, says O’Kelley, 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 child, 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 with Your Teen
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 O’Kelley offers for avoiding power struggles with your teen:
1. 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 teen.
2. Inform your child that these particular items are no longer up for negotiation and that when you, the parent, says “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 child.
3. Inform your child which areas are open for discussion and possible negotiation.
4. Recognize that a child 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 :
• “Nevertheless, you will not be going to Susan’s house for an overnight.”
• “I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but that is my final word.”
• “This is not negotiable. I am not comfortable with you going to Mike’s house for the reasons we have already discussed.”
• “If you continue to push this, I will have to … (ground you for the evening for not accepting my decision, take away your cell phone for 24 hours, etc.).”
5. Understand that if you have allowed your child 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.”
6. 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 teen feels she can change your mind.
7. Always listen to your children. 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.”
Next time your child tries to spark a debate on a non-negotiable issue or “win” in a bargaining exchange, remember these parenting 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 child continues to struggle with respect, rules, and authority, it may be time for a professional intervention.
New Leaf Academy of Oregon specializes in working with middle school-aged girls who need help developing the skills to successfully navigate adolescence and family relationships. For more information, call (877) 820-5050 or visit www.newleafacademy.com/index2.html.