When Negotiation Becomes Meaningless

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 207 · Duration: 00:20:05

When Negotiation Becomes Meaningless

What do you do when your cooperative, precocious child, becomes an argumentative untrustworthy teenager?Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, When Negotiation Becomes Meaningless.

Today we’re hearing from Fiona from Indianapolis, Indiana.  And Fiona writes:

Dear Neil,

Is this something you’ve run into before?  My son’s father and I didn’t stay together, and he was never involved with raising our son. My son and I have always been close, and he’s been a good student and a cooperative engaging child, a pleasure to raise.  Things went reasonably well in middle school, a bit testier as a freshman with him insisting on doing things his way and his priorities were certainly different from what I expected, and we would get into some arguments. We generally compromised but I was never completely satisfied that he was doing his best.  Now in his sophomore year, he falls way behind, tells me it’s no problem. When I set limits and give consequences, he screams bloody murder. Now I’m realizing that I need to hold the line with him. Compromising just means he gets another chance, and he does some work, his grades improve slightly for a short while, and then we’re back to square one.  I don’t like being on this merry-go-round with him and need things to change.  Here’s my problem, he is so used to me compromising and working things out with him, that when I simply set the limit and don’t give in, he rages and badgers me until I soften my position.  I’m not as intense as he is, and he can overpower me.  If I just stick to my guns, I’m afraid he’ll get violent, harm himself, simply give up and refuse to do his work, and otherwise up the ante.  I have two questions:  How did my precocious cooperative little boy turn into such a difficult teenager?  And what can I do to change out of the Control Battle now that we’re deep into it and he has taken the upper hand?

Fiona from Indianapolis, Indiana

Now to Fiona’s question:

Yes indeed Fiona, a not uncommon dilemma for a single parent / only child family.  Your precocious son and you have been very close, and in his eyes, you and he were equals.  He was used to getting his way.  All he needed to do was follow the rules, essentially be a good kid, which he happily did, and the rewards flowed in.  Then as he entered his adolescence, and pleasing Mom was less important than pleasing peers, he still held onto the notion of Mom and I working things out together, but the performance part of the deal got lost.  He’s still expecting that being precocious or at least charming, should get him what he wants.  

You’ve tried being reasonable, but he takes advantage of reasonableness and doesn’t learn from it.  The appreciation for the flexibility isn’t there, just the manipulation and the emotional intimidation. 

So now, how do you get the message across to him if he rages when you try to communicate? 

Your son is clearly not engaged in communication.  He is using the opportunity for engagement with you to bully you, to rage and imply an emotional breakdown, that if you own your parental authority, your rather benevolent parental authority as in setting and enforcing limits that are in his best interests, he loses it emotionally, so much so that you worry what he will do if you stick to your guns.  So where does this leave us Fiona?

  1. He isn’t accepting accountability to you and to your benevolent parental authority 
  2. He isn’t his prioritizing or successfully managing his schoolwork
  3. He is demonstrating some very troubling behavioral traits that indicate a critical lack of social /emotional maturity.

It’s because of the maturity issue that it tells me that one intervention isn’t going to turn this thing around. However, we can definitely get started helping your son get on the right path so that he can start doing the maturing he needs to do.  

Since your son doesn’t listen when you talk, at least not yet, we’ll start by writing.  You can send your message as a long text or texts, or email, but there should also be a hard copy as well.  I know you’re thinking he isn’t going to read it, but that’s fine because you are going to withdraw all his privileges and one of the conditions that needs to be met to reclaim those lost privileges, is reading what you wrote and then having a calm respectful conversation with you about it as well as anything else you need to talk with him about.

Before I go on and offer an example of the communication Fiona, let’s talk about you and the change you are going to need to make.  You’ve been a single parent to your son his whole life and for the past 15 or so years, it’s been just the two of you.  For whatever reason, you haven’t partnered, and you have been so positive, flexible and offered your son lots of ways to get what he wants, apparently without having to set clear limits that he would be accountable to.  Always a compromise.  You have to ask yourself, why have I been such an accommodator?  Why have I protected my son from having to deal with clear limits, from feeling disappointed or God forbid, unhappy? Perhaps because you wanted to give him what you didn’t receive as a child, understanding and support.  Something like that?  So now Fiona, the cure is going to require you to get out of your comfort zone, and allow your son to be unhappy, unhappy with you, and adjust to a very new reality, a reality he’s going to fight like hell to resist.  Not that you are going to stop caring about him or his feelings, but that you are going to give him the gift of learning accountability and how to manage his frustrations, and how to manage his emotions.

You are going to need to give him the gift of learning that his mother has limits, her own needs and standards, limits and standards to which he needs to be accountable.Click To Tweet

Here is the kind of communication you might write, and I’ll call your son Devin.

Dear Devin,

I owe you an apology.  For some reason, I expected you to do the right thing, manage your responsibilities, be respectful and cooperative through your teen years just as you did throughout your childhood; all without me having to set clear non-negotiable limits and standards of behavior.  As a result, here we are in an ongoing battle over responsibilities and privileges. I apologize for the confusion this has caused you and the turbulence this has caused us. I’ve led you to believe that you can argue and negotiate to get what you want instead of listening to what the requirements are and meeting them.

Believe it or not, Devin, the expectations that I have for you and that the school has for you, actually are in your best interest.  They aren’t arbitrary and while you might not think of them as having value, you are young and have a mother and teachers who know that the standards and requirements do in fact hold significant value.  Even learning to be accountable without arguing and negotiating has value for you. 

You are a smart (and we’ve been told) gifted young man.  You have the ability to get A’s and B’s and probably all A’s if you put your mind to it.  You have musical talent, you are a decent athlete, and are good at making friends.  

That you are not embracing your talents, developing and investing in your talents shows I’ve missed the boat with you.  I haven’t taught you to work hard and delay getting what you want to do, in order to take care of what you need to do.  I’ve negotiated way too much and now negotiation has no meaning because you don’t live up to your agreements.  “I promise to do it later, if I can just have what I want now” only leads to you falling further and further behind with lots more excuses and false promises.

Devin, now the time has come for you to learn some critical lessons, lessons I can only ask your forgiveness for not having given to you earlier.

  1.  School is your number one priority and until you are doing your work, are completely caught up, and are committed to doing your best, video gaming and all screens other than your school issued Chromebook are off limits.  I will need verification from your teachers that you are current and working hard.
  2. Arguing, badgering, raging and threatening are unacceptable behaviors.  I’m your mother and as much as I’d like you to be happy, I can’t give you happiness and once again, I apologize for working too hard and bending too far to keep you from being upset and unhappy.  When I set a limit, and when I tell you what is required, “Okay Mom” is the only acceptable response.  And then of course that needs to be followed up with appropriate action.
  3. This is the only way to earn privileges yet ironically, I don’t want you to manage your responsibilities or be respectful just to earn privileges, even though when you do those things you will earn privileges.  I would hope you would do your best and be respectful and cooperative, because you are committed to being your best self. And when you make this transition and do your best, I would hope you would be proud of yourself and feel good about yourself.  That’s the foundation for true happiness. 
  4. If all this causes you great distress and you feel angry, frustrated, hopeless, controlled, or suicidal, we can get you some counseling.  Counseling can help you learn to manage your feelings in an appropriate way. If I need to be part of the counseling, I’ll do my part. But just to be clear, counseling is not a mediation about privileges and responsibilities. That isn’t going to change.  The counselor doesn’t decide what privileges you get and when.  I’m quite clear and now that I’m clear with you, the privileges you get are entirely up to you.  By the way, I’m happy for you to have these privileges; that’s why I gave them to you in the first place. 
  5. Devin, if you can’t manage this new arrangement without becoming physically destructive to me, the house or yourself, we can call 911 to get the support we need.

What do you think Fiona? Quite a sea change, right?  But one that’s better made now to avert a disaster later.  You would benefit from your own therapy to focus on the unmet needs of your childhood and how that relates to your fear of allowing your son to be disappointed or unhappy and why you are so vulnerable to his being angry with you.

So parents, therapists and folks who work with families, more important than making our kids happy, is giving them the ability to make themselves happy. And for our kids to be happy, they need the intention and skills to manage their responsibilities.

In only child families and particularly in single parent / only child families, it’s very common for a child and then teenager to be treated more as an adult and often as if they have adult judgement. And while that isn’t always a disaster, it can lead to where it led Fiona and Devin, into an adolescent attitude of entitlement and a Parent-Teen Control Battle.

The sooner we as parents get started teaching our kids that the road to independence is through responsible decision making, the better off they’ll be.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and special thanks to Fiona for sharing her question with us. Well all this talking and thinking about our family challenges can get our anxiety up and our blood pressure up so, before we close, let’s do this together. We’ll take a slow deep breath, hold and then exhale very slowly, ready?  Inhale through your nose, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, good, now hold, 1,2,3,4,5 and exhale very slowly 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.  One more time, inhale, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, good now hold, 1,2,3,4,5, and now exhale and send your stress away, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7.  Are you remembering to slow down and breathe and do other easy positive things for yourself? They’re important because as I’ve said many times and I’ll say it again, this parenting business ain’t easy so self-care is essential; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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