Jennifer (14) asked her mom if her boyfriend could sleep over with her. Jennifer reasoned that since they were having sex anyway, it would be much safer to be able to do this in the comfort of her own bedroom.
Cam (17) was planning a grad party for a bunch of friends. He planned to use the basement family room and asked his dad if it was okay if they drank a few beers. Maybe dad would even agree to buy a few cases for them.
Tyler (15) wanted to attend an upcoming rave party. All his friends were going and he promised to not drink alcohol or use any drugs.
Melissa (16) wanted to stay the weekend with a girlfriend whose parents were away. The girlfriend was staying alone to care for the dog and the house and had asked Melissa to keep her company.
These are true-case scenarios that are not uncommon. Parents are often faced with having to make unpopular decisions and then having to inform their teen that the answer is “No”. Many teens will not accept this decision gracefully and some become defensive, argumentative, or even belligerent. Others may push your guilt-button or try to hurt and punish you for what they see is an unfair, irrational decision. Learning how to give bad news in a sensitive and diplomatic manner is an important skill for parents to develop.
Consider the following suggestions:
(1) Be crystal clear
A statement like “Gee, I’m not sure that is a good idea” sounds like you are prepared to be convinced and, if you’re not, you are in for a long debate. If you are truly uncertain, listen to your teen’s position and, if necessary, say you need some time to think about it. Otherwise, be clear that you have made a definite decision. “No, Cam, I will not permit alcohol to be served to underage teens.” “I’m sorry, Tyler, but you’ll not be attending a rave.” A clear decision may not end the debate but your teen will eventually find it easier to accept than a wishy-washy decision.
(2) Seek first to understand
Listen carefully to what your teen has to say and if you are convinced to change your mind then do so. Otherwise, summarize and reflect what you hear so you teen has no doubt that their message has been received. “I know your friends are going and that you are responsible enough not to use alcohol or drugs. I also know you think nothing bad can happen.”
(3) Then be understood
Reasons for your decision should be sound and reasonable, not simply “Because I said so.” And your decision should be delivered in an empathic manner. “I know my position is disappointing and maybe even embarrassing for you, however, what you want to do is still illegal (dangerous, immoral, unsafe) and I cannot in good conscience permit you to go.”
(4) Keep the tone down
Since your decision is unpopular your teen may become emotional and even make some mean, disrespectful comments. Do not try to match this emotionality or allow yourself to be provoked. Lower both the tone of your voice and the rate of your speaking. You want to demonstrate that you are thinking clearly and logically – the calm, quiet voice of reason. Any form of emotional reaction infers you are being irrational or punitive. Don’t get sidetracked by your teen’s hurtful comments. Deal with these at a later time when everyone is calm.
(5) Consider alternatives
If there is a viable alternative there is a chance you can both win. “Melissa, your girlfriend and her dog are welcome to spend the weekend with us. And we’ll drive over to check on her house each day.” Sometimes no alternative will be acceptable to either party but it’s worth a try. “Cam, I’m pleased to buy all the pop or juice you guys can drink.”
(6) Shorten the debate
A disappointed, angry teen will not give up easily. An extension of the debate will usually erode into an emotional, hurtful interaction. If you’ve listened well and have clearly explained your position, calmly indicate that the discussion is over and your decision will stand. “I’m sorry you disagree with me but I will not discuss this any further.” Refuse to be drawn into reacting to your teen’s anger.
It’s natural for a teen to be disappointed or angry when they don’t get the permission they want. Parents who understand this will be less likely to respond in an emotional manner. A calm, cool parent eases the situation for all concerned.