As a fifteen-year-old teenager John knows that he needs permission from his parents to go out with his friends. On this Friday night he delays until it’s almost time for his friends to pick him up for the outing. At the last possible minute he goes into the living room where his Dad and Mom are engrossed in their favorite television sitcom. As he has done many times before he interrupts their activity and mumbles his request: “I want to go out tonight. Okay?” They do not understand his mumbling so they don’t respond. John speaks louder and repeats his request but with an added tone of frustration. Finally, they look up and answer the same way they have done many times before:  “No. We cannot say yes. We have to have more information.” Upon hearing their response John gets angry and complains that they are being unfair. With that interchange another quarrel is begun and a peaceful evening is replaced with turmoil and tension.  Unfortunately, the scenario is nothing new to either John or his parents.

John is a teenager who is very frustrated with his parents. At age fifteen he is still very dependent upon his parents but he wants the independence of full adulthood. He wants to make his own decisions and to live life by his own standards, but his parents are not cooperating with his style. At the same time his Dad and Mom are typical parents of teenagers who love their son and are trying both to protect him and to prepare him for adulthood. However, their travels along the Parenting Highway are often complicated by their son’s inadequate approach to getting permission or to request changes in basic family rules.

John feels the stress. His complaint makes sense to him.  “My parents are so unfair! Every time I ask them for permission to do something special, they automatically say ‘No’ to me. Why do they always have to say ‘no’ to stuff I want to do? My life stinks!”
John’s parents feel the stress and their complaint makes good sense to them.  “Why is John so unfair? We get so tired of having to say ‘no’ to him. Why can’t he give us the information we have to have so we can say ‘yes’ more often? Why does parenting have to be so hard?”

Sound familiar? If you’re a teenager or the parent of a teen, you can probably connect with the frustration expressed by John and his parents. Indeed, the issue of permission is usually an ongoing struggle between most teenagers and their parents. Admittedly, the teen years are tough times for most adolescents and their parents. This seven-year period between childhood and adulthood is often filled with struggles about rules, roles, and responsibilities. Teenagers make mistakes in their efforts to gain too much independence much too soon through too many inappropriate behaviors. Parents make mistakes in their responses to their teenagers, perhaps by being too rigid in one direction or else too flexible in the opposite direction.  The resulting stress is hard on the entire family.

I have some questions for parents of teenagers. Does your teen understand what you expect of him and what the consequences will be for his behavior? How clear have you been with your teenager in regard to rules and responsibilities? Does your teen trust you to enforce the family rules in a fair and consistent manner? When your teenager needs permission from you to do something, what process should be followed for getting that permission? If your teen is unhappy about a particular policy or rule, what process is he to follow to request a change in the policy or rule? In terms of that process how open are you to the use of negotiation with your teenager?
I have some questions for teenagers. How clear are you about the basic rules and responsibilities your parents have set forth for you? What is your understanding of the positive and negative consequences when you fulfill or violate the parents’ policies and rules? How successful are you in getting permission to do things you want to do, or in getting a rule or policy changed? What specific process do you use for getting permission or requesting change? In other words, how do you negotiate with your parents about issues of permission and policy?
Family negotiation is a topic that is often ignored or misunderstood by parents and teenagers. By definition the term “negotiation” suggests a process in which the key parties (the parents and the teenager) consider an issue and through positive discussion and problem-solving reach a solution that is appropriate and acceptable. Some parents resist the notion of negotiation because they are afraid that the teenager will see himself as having the same authority or power that the parents have. However, there can be a meaningful type of negotiation between teens and parents that poses no threat to the authority of the parents.

I’ve seen two extreme styles practiced by parents in regard to teenagers. Some parents function as “dictators” in that they “lay down the law” regarding rules and responsibilities with no input from the teenager. There is no discussion and total compliance is required. The teenager is never allowed to request a change in any rule, responsibility, or policy. This parenting system is quite rigid and unyielding. The opposite approach includes parents who function as “abdicators” in that they relinquish leadership and allow the teenager to set his own limits and chart his own course with little or no supervision from the parents. With this parenting style the teen does not need permission from his parents; he simply makes his own choice without parental involvement. While appearing to be the “easy way out” this parenting system is too uninvolved, unstructured, and unsupervised for the well-being of the teenager.  The “dictator” and the “abdicator” parents represent extremes that are inherently unsuccessful and unhealthy.  

Clearly, the parents—not the teenager—have the authority and should be in control of the family system. That responsibility must never be compromised or neglected. However, while maintaining their authority and leadership the parents could invite and encourage input from the teenager, especially in regard to specific issues that affect his movement toward adult independence and decision-making. This approach involves a positive type of family negotiation.

Let’s consider in more detail how negotiation could be used between parents and their teenagers in regard to the issue of permission. Over the period of adolescence a typical teenager will request permission from the parents hundreds of times. For illustration purposes let’s pick a figure, perhaps 1,000 times over a seven-year period. Out of 1,000 requests how many times does the teenager get a “Yes” answer and how many “No” responses are given? The “Yes” answers suggest a type of “batting average” that could be used to determine the success of the teen for getting permission. For example, a .300 average means that permission is granted 300 times out 1,000 attempts, indicating that the other 700 times involve a “No” response. If you’re a teenager, what’s your current “batting average?” If you’re a parent, what is your teen’s current “batting average?” How satisfied are you with the current average? Would you like to raise the average to .500 or even to .750? Why not aim for a 1.000 average?
Frankly, I’ve never talked with a teenager or a parent who preferred a low batting average in regard to permission. Everyone wants the highest average available. On numerous occasions in Family Therapy I’ve asked parents if they really loved their teenager who is sitting in the session. The usual answer is “Yes—of course!” My follow-up response is, “Okay, because you love your teenager how often would you prefer to say ‘Yes’ to his requests for permission? Suppose during this year he asks permission one hundred times. How many times would you prefer to say ‘Yes’ and grant permission?” Typically, the parent answers quickly, “Oh, every time. I always want to say ‘Yes.’” At this point the teenager’s mouth drops open in shock as he tries to digest this information. His question is predictable: “If you always want to say ‘Yes,’ then why do you usually say ‘No’?” Their reasons for saying “No” usually relate to the process or style used by the teenager when he is requesting permission. The bad news is obvious:  the teenager is failing to negotiate effectively and his batting average is predictably pitiful. But there is also good news for the teenager. The parents’ preference to say “Yes” can give hope to the teenager that he can indeed raise his “batting average” significantly.

If I were a teenager, I would be asking a very important question: “How can I raise my batting average?” One answer involves the development of a workable negotiation process that the teenager can use with his parents. Since any negotiation process starts with Dad and Mom, let’s explore first some tips that parents need to consider. After that I’ll present a sample process and some helpful tips for the teenager.
                                                                       Negotiation Tips for Parents
Teenagers are not born with the knowledge and skills that equip them to negotiate effectively with parents. It is clearly the parents’ responsibility to teach and to train their children in family negotiation. Therefore, the parents must decide upon the specific process they want the child to use whenever permission or a rule change is requested, and that process must be instilled within the child beginning at the earliest age possible. The child who has learned the process and knows how to use it effectively will enter adolescence much better equipped for negotiation than the teenager who lacks the skills. If your teenager does not currently have a workable process to use, it’s up to you as the parents to provide one. The material presented in the remainder of this article describes a process that you could modify and adapt for usage with your teenager.
Be Approachable and Available . . .

Let your teen know that you as the parent are open to requests and negotiations while making it clear that you are the parent and must assume ultimate responsibility for what you allow the teen to do. Tell your teen clearly that you will consider every serious request which you receive. 

It’s extremely important to be available to your teen.  Obviously, some times are better than other times for discussing requests.  Let your teen know what times are usually “bad” times or “good” times for approaching you.  If your teen approaches at a bad time, offer a specific time later when your teen can return to talk.  If you have to postpone the discussion, try to appear thankful and pleased that your teen did choose to approach you.
Clarify your Preferences . . .

Try to assure your teens that you want them to be able to do everything they want to do and that you want to grant permission as often as possible.  If you have to say “No,” you’ll have a good reason, even if you choose not to share that reason with them.
It is important to clarify that you’ll definitely say “No” when a request fits into certain categories that you as parents have identified. For example, you will say “No” when the request relates to any of the following situations.
           *Illegal or in violation of the family’s moral/ethical values
           *Puts the teenager’s health or safety in jeopardy
           *Interferes with other priorities (individual or family)
           *Violates specific restrictions when the teen is already “grounded”
           *Other possibilities: ______________________________ 
Respect your Teen . . .

As parents we always want our teens to show respect toward us.  As adults it is our responsibility to model that respect when we relate to our teens.  We train our teenagers to show respect by modeling respectful behavior toward them. Belittling or “putting down” the child does not show respect toward them.  It is very important that our teens feel listened to and understood.  Therefore, we need to listen to the teen’s request without premature responses, numerous interruptions, excessive emotionality, or inappropriate language. 

How can you reassure your teen that you did understand his/her request?  One sure way is to take time to paraphrase the request back to the teen, asking for clarification if necessary, before giving your final answer.  Teens are more likely to accept a “No” response if they think the parent actually understood their request.
Stay in Control . . .

As the parent you need to stay in control of yourself and the situation.  Getting angry with your teen will not help.  You can reschedule the discussion for a later time if you feel yourself getting too emotional for productive problem-solving.  Sometimes a “time-out” for a parent is necessary!

Listen carefully and respectfully to your teen’s request, but do not allow yourself to be manipulated into saying “Yes” when you need to say “No.”  If your final answer has to be a “No,” do not allow the teen to continue the discussion with some type of inappropriate or disrespectful behavior. Stand your ground and assertively end the discussion, and, if necessary, hold the teenager accountable by providing consequences for his misbehavior. Hopefully, your teen will learn through appropriate suffering that effective negotiation requires respect and cooperation.
Build a Relationship . . .

Regardless of your response (“Yes” or “No”), let your teens know that you appreciate their coming to you with requests.  Compliment them on the positive ways they handled the situation.  You might suggest ways they can improve the negotiation process, or you might ask them for their suggestions about changes you could make.  The important thing is that you work together to build a positive relationship and that you help your teens move consistently toward responsible adulthood.

                                                                      Negotiation Tips for Teens

Now I’d like to share some thoughts with the teenagers who are interested in this issue of family negotiation. There are many times when you as a teenager have to get permission from your parents to do something you want to do. There are also times when you want to get a family rule changed or modified in some way. The process you choose to use will determine your success rate (or “batting average”) at getting a “Yes” answer from your parents. The steps described below can help you to improve your efforts and to increase the potential for a positive response. 
Step #1: Prepare your Case!
Your success rate for “getting permission” is closely tied to the preparations you make before you ever approach your parents. If you’ve ever played chess you understand the importance of wise planning. The impulsive player moves a chess piece quickly with little thought given to strategy and consequences. In fact, it’s quite easy to move a piece from one square to another. The hard part is making a smart move that helps you to achieve your goal. The truth is that impulsive players lose quickly! If you want a quick “No” from your parents regarding permission, you can always get it simply by being impulsive and demanding with no thought to planning and process. You’ve been around your parents for a number of years. You’ve requested permission hundreds of times. You’ve learned what works and what does not work. You’ve learned that certain information must be available to them before a “Yes” can even be considered. So, think and be smart! Don’t make the mistake that John made by waiting until the last minute. Start your preparations early enough so that you’ll have adequate time for gathering the necessary information. Here’s the bottom line: prepare your case well!

Know what you want.  Describe as clearly and specifically as you can what it is that you want from your parents (permission to do something, getting a rule changed, etc.)
Get it together.  Gather all the information you predict your parents will need to hear from you.  Pretend that you’re the parent and ask yourself what information you would have to hear before being able to say “Yes” to your teen’s request.  (Examples:  Where? When? With whom? Transportation? Alcohol/Drugs?  Activities? Emergency plans?  Telephone numbers? Financial costs? Adult supervision? Etc…)
Know your goal.  Your goal is to provide everything your parents need to know so that they will have no questions to ask you about details.  If they have to ask questions to get more information from you, then you’ve not prepared effectively.  Your success rate goes down with every question you make them ask. If they have no follow-up questions, then you know that you were successful in your prep work.
Plan for health and safety.  If you were the parent you would never let your teen do something or go somewhere if you had any doubt about his/her health or safety.  So, if you cannot reassure your parents with solid information about your personal health and safety, expect them to deny permission.  (That’s what you’d do if you were the parent, right?)
Choose your requests wisely. As you think through the request process you’ll know that there are times when your parents will have to say “No” because of unique circumstances. For example, you will get a denial when you are asking to do something that is illegal or is in violation of your family’s moral/ethical values. Your parents must say “No” if your request will place your health or safety in jeopardy. They have to say “No” if your request violates specific restrictions because you are already “grounded” for a prior offense. They could also say “No” when your request interferes with family plans already made or with family priorities. You might be able to negotiate about these last two circumstances but you’ll want to be very careful to show proper respect and consideration.
Step #2: Set the Scene!

Approach both parents.  It will be to your long-term advantage to talk with both of your parents at the same time, if at all possible.  You want them to think that you’re not trying to divide and conquer.  Also, you want them both to hear your request from you personally.  That way you’ll know that they both hear all the details correctly. From experience you know what will probably happen if you approach only one parent with your request. That parent will want to consult with the other parent before giving an answer. What if some of the important information is forgotten or is not shared with the other parent? Then the other parent will have to say “No” due to insufficient information. It is definitely to your ultimate advantage to present your case to both parents at the same time.
Choose your timing.  If you barge in and interrupt your parents when it’s a “bad time” for them, you can expect to get a negative response. Remember, they are human just as you are. Timing can be critical to your cause. Consider the best time to approach your parents (when they’re not too busy, preoccupied, overly tired, etc.).  Ask them for a few minutes to talk now, or you can work out a time to talk later when it’s more convenient for them. Nail down a specific time and be sure to show up at the designated time. Keep your request and any discussion that develops to a minimum of time. How much time? The least amount necessary but enough to get the job done!
Step #3: State your Request!

Speak up.  Talk clearly and loudly enough for your parents to hear and understand your request.  If they cannot hear you, expect them to say “No.”  An unheard request is an unsuccessful request. Try to be considerate and respectful in your tone.  A demanding and disrespectful style will definitely hurt your case.
Acknowledge your parents’ authority. Let your parents know that you understand that they have the final say.  Reassure them that you will accept their answer, even it’s a “no” and you’re very disappointed.
Make your request. State your request briefly and clearly.  Share the key information about details, health, safety, etc.  Remember, your case is much stronger if your parents do not have to ask you questions to gain necessary information.
Check for understanding.  Ask them if they understood your request.  Perhaps they will paraphrase back to you what they heard.  Then you’ll know that they “got it.” If they are able to “feed back” your request accurately and they have no questions to ask, then you will know that you laid out your case clearly and successfully. Congratulations! 
Step #4: Accept the Response!

If they say “Yes”. . .
Thank them for the permission granted. Remember to fulfill your agreement with them. Let them know if changes occur which may require renegotiation.

If they say “No”. . .
Keep your “cool” and be respectful! You might ask, “Is there any other information I could get for you which may help you change your mind?” You could offer trades or compromises.  (“Is there anything I could do to earn your permission? Wash your car? Clean the house? Complete some job?” Or, “What if I come home a little earlier?”) If they still say “No,” accept it positively and respectfully (like you promised you would).  Remember, you’re building a process for many other requests in the future.  It’s possible that your parents may deny your request just to see your reaction.  If you handle things maturely, they’ll respect you and may even change their minds.  At least your positive reaction will help them say “Yes” to future requests.
Thank your parents . . .
Regardless of which response you get, be sure to thank your parents for listening to you and considering your wants.  Keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to build for the future with your parents. If you’ve done a good job in this negotiation process, you will increase your success rate (or your “batting average”) for future permission requests and, more importantly, your overall relationship with your parents will be stronger and healthier.

Concluding Thoughts . . .

In discussing the issue of family negotiation I’ve intentionally focused in this article on the “getting permission” struggle that usually causes a great deal of frustration and stress between teenagers and their parents. However, the basic approach and the specific tools can be adapted to other negotiation issues, such as a teenager’s request that a particular house rule be modified. When applied appropriately the approach can be used in a variety of parent/teenage situations.

Family negotiation is an important but “tricky” issue for both the teenager and the parents. Parents would do well to allow and encourage their teenagers to negotiate with them, always remembering that they must not relinquish or compromise their authority or their responsibility. Teenagers would do well to learn the skills of effective negotiation with parents, always remembering the importance of proper respect and cooperation. The negotiation process described in this article is a tool that parents and teenagers can use, perhaps with their own preferred modifications, to improve the overall parent/teen relationship. Learning and practicing these skills will require work and patience, but the long-term outcome will make the effort worthwhile.

If you are currently traveling the Parenting Highway, I wish you the very best as you strive to journey safely and successfully toward your destination. Likewise, if you’re a teenager who is growing and maturing, I wish you the very best in your efforts to launch successfully into the challenging world of adulthood.

As always, best wishes in all of your relationship journeys.

Thanks: Some of the material in this article has been adapted from Doub, George T. and Scott, Virginia Morgan (1987).  Survival Skills for Healthy Families:  Family Wellness Workbook.

Referenced Resources:  To read or print Dr. Baker’s guidelines for Parent/Teen Negotiation described in this article please click on the titles below. (The material is inPDF format.)

“Tools for Teens: Negotiating with your Parents”

 “Tools for Parents: Helping Your Teen Negotiate with You” 

Worksheet:  Dr. Baker has developed a worksheet that teenagers can use in their preparation work to get permission from their parents. To see this worksheet that can be printed for your usage (PDF format) please click on the title below.
“Permission Preparation Worksheet

Related Articles: Dr. Baker has written several other articles about parenting that are available on this website. To view a particular article just click on the title below.
           “The PRO-Parent:  Promoting Our Children” (PC#406)
           “The PRO-Parent:  Providing for Our Children” (PC#405)
            “The PRO-Parent:  Protecting Our Children” (B) (PC#404)
            “The PRO-Parent:  Protecting Our Children” (A) (PC#403)
           “The PRO-Parent:  Producing Our Children” (PC#402)  

             “Parents and Homework Stress” (PC #401)

Video Resource: To view a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses how parents and teenagers can use a form of negotiation to help with "getting permission" issues, click on the title below or the image to the right.




(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



                 (Blog PC#407)


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