If you can negotiate with a teenager, you can negotiate with anyone

If you can negotiate with a teenager, you can negotiate with anyone

Making agreements that your kids will want to keep can make your life (a little) easier

When I was a teenager I was caught going to a party I wasn’t supposed to be going to. My parents had come home earlier than expected and found out that I had gone dancing in the city, which was definitely not OK with them. When I got home, very late, they let me slink into bed, but told me in no uncertain terms that we would have to have a serious talk in the morning. Waking up I had the blackest of consciences and I felt awful, and it didn’t help that my sister was looking at me with pity, quietly shaking her head. I knew that I had violated my parents’ trust and even my fuzzy teenage brain could work out that it had been rather foolish to go out in the middle of the night at my tender age. Sitting down at my bedside, I’m sure they saw how guilty I felt and how sorry I was to have lied to them. Perhaps they even laughed at my tragic expression and penitent look. At this point, my parents could have scolded me, grounded me for weeks and withdrawn all privileges as punishment. But instead they negotiated with me. Knowing that whatever restrictions they might lay on me, being a teenager chances were that my guilty conscience would eventually wear off, my sense of invulnerability resurface and I was very likely to then try to slip out of my bedroom (groundfloor) window again, reasoning that what they didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt them, right? So, instead we made a deal. I was allowed to go into town to party, if I promised to tell them about it, be back by a reasonable time and always being in the company of one of my best friends – a big gentle guy they trusted would keep me out of trouble.

It struck me even then, how my parents did a clever thing by involving me in the solving of a pressing problem: keeping their daughter safe but also dealing with fairly normal teenage rebelliousness and serious lack of judgment. They didn’t try to convince me that what I had done was wrong (I sort of knew this, but knowing it is not the same as making a teenage brain adjust). Instead, they tried to find a way forward that would also accommodate some of my wishes. It can’t have been easy for them, but I remember this as one of the first times I realized how lucky I was to have parents that really cared about me and who I was, that really could see me, even if what they saw was a ridiculously but also dangerously self-confident teenager who liked to go dancing.

My parents didn’t realise they were negotiating. They simply tried to solve a problem, but they did so with the right amount of respect for me, and this is the essence of genuine negotiation. They could have tried to convince me to behave in a different way, but anyone who has ever been in contact with teenagers will know, that this is as likely to happen as a teenager volunteering to do the laundry and cook dinner. They made their own lives easier and less stressful by making an agreement that I was likely to honour and give them a chance to sleep at night without worrying where I might be sneaking off to. They also didn’t have to spend a lot of time controlling me, telling me off and listing all the endless arguments for why I had to stay at home, knowing full well from the glazed-over expression on my face and my tightly crossed arms that I was probably not ‘taking it all in’. They avoided the most common mistake we make when we try to organize our lives with each other: to convince the other person that they are wrong, that they should stop doing what they are doing and become more like us. Don’t get me wrong; of course parents should educate their kids, show them what is right and wrong, having the courage to say an unequivocal ‘no’ to their children and set boundaries for their behavior. But if there is the slightest possibility to accommodate just a few of their ideas and urges when trying to find a way out of a dead-end, then chances are that everyone will be better off. It won’t eliminate rows or heated discussions about dirty clothes on the floor and half-eaten sandwiches under the bed, but for the important questions concerning their education and overall behaviour, negotiation will be a better way to move forward together than laying down the law.

If you are able to make agreements that actually work with your teenager, allowing them to have some say in what will happen however crazy it seems to you, then you will be able to negotiate with anyone. The essence of making balanced, respectful deals is being able to acknowledge how we all have different needs and wants, but also to see that the one thing we all must have is the possibility to influence the agreements, that affect our lives. Truly listening to others explaining how they see the world differently is always a challenge, and if the other is an ungrateful and hugely over-self-confident teenager as I was, it can feel almost impossible. But try. And make deals with them where you keep them safe, and they get to dance the night away.