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Parents who just can’t say “no”

My sister-in-law attended one of my presentations a few years ago and when we met up afterwards her first comment to me was “it’s so easy for you to say all that, you don’t have children!” That is perfectly true (and to be quite honest sometimes I’m extremely glad I don’t!) but I think not having children actually enables me to look at the research that exists in this area and provide what we do know about effective parenting reasonably objectively. Regardless of that, it was after that night that I always make sure I tell audiences at my Parent Information Evenings that I do not have teenagers of my own, just to make it absolutely clear!

One of the more disturbing trends I am seeing across the country is the growing number of parents that just don’t want, or know how, to say “no” to their child. Really there are four words that a parent should say to their child as often as possible – the first three are “I love you” and the fourth is “no”. A child learns so much from hearing ‘no’ from their parents, they get a sense of boundaries and ‘right and wrong’. They also get a better understanding of your values and where you stand on particular issues. I certainly acknowledge that it’s not going to be easy – a child has in-built skills to know how to get what they want, whether it’s by acting out, manipulation or straight-out negotiation. It takes a strong parent to stand firm on a decision they have made and around the issue of alcohol and parties it can be an absolute nightmare!

I often use an example of an email I received early last year from a parent to illustrate this trend of ‘parents not wanting to be parents’. I went and found it last night and have included it below. I have changed the content slightly to disguise any identifying features but I am sure you’ll get the general drift of my concern ….

You visited my daughter’s school a few weeks ago and I attended your Parent Evening. Thank you for the information you presented – it certainly caused lots of discussion at home. She is in Year 10 and we are having a few problems at the moment, particularly with regard to parties. I was wondering if you could do me a favour as we have a bit of an issue with a party that is coming up in a couple of weeks. I really don’t want my daughter to go and I really don’t know how to handle it. If you have the time could you possibly call the principal and get him to contact the parents who are hosting the party and try to have it cancelled? I’m pretty sure there will be alcohol provided at the event and I do not feel comfortable with my daughter going ….

Can you believe this? The mother had two options, she could either simply turn to her 15 year old daughter and say “no”, or, as she actually chose to do, contact a complete stranger to ask them to call a school principal and get them to cancel a party put on by other parents! Are you kidding? When I first received this email I honestly thought someone was pulling my leg – I really didn’t think that anyone would ever believe that contacting me about a party held on a Saturday night could ever be a viable option but I was wrong. My response to the woman was short and sweet and I didn’t hold back!

No child likes being told that they can’t do or have something they want. This gets worse when they become adolescents as in their minds they are now far more grown up and should be able to take part in adult activity that they observe all around them. Parties (or ‘gatherings’) are where they learn how to socialize and it is no surprise that some teens want to take part in this activity as most adults do, i.e., with alcohol. Most parents who have a problem with saying “no” talk of their dread as to how their child may react, i.e., screaming, name-calling, throwing things or the like. Others just give up and end up saying “yes” because of the constant badgering, with their teen following them around begging and pleading or cleverly setting up one parent against another.

The ones that really get to me though are those that put simply just don’t want to parent and would rather be their child’s best friend. This one I don’t get. Why would anyone want to be their adolescent child’s best friend? I totally get wanting to have a positive and open relationship – but really, a best friend? Your son or daughter has lots of best friends, they only have one set of parents, be the best ones you can damn well be!

The most important thing a parent needs to keep in mind at all times is what is your long-term goal as far as your son or daughter is concerned? Before you answer a request from your child ask yourself, “How do I want my child to be as they grow older? What do I want them to learn here?” Think about this before you respond and it will always make the aftermath a little easier to cope with.

An adolescent needs limits to push against so that they can work out where they fit in the world. Your job as a parent is to set these limits. “No” provides limits and sets boundaries. You cannot control how your child feels about these limits or how they react to them so don’t even bother to try. You are only able to control yourself and your behaviour. Remember that the only reason you have rules is because you love them – make that clear and then walk away. Trying to reason with an adolescent who is not getting their own way is not going to work. Their brain responds to everything emotionally, it will be extremely difficult to discuss your reasons for doing anything logically and practically so don’t bother. Walk away, give yourself a bit of breathing space and do something nice for yourself or call a friend who has similar values to you and air your frustrations there. No matter how you cope, make sure you stick to your guns and don’t turn around five minutes later and ‘cave-in’ – do that one time and your teen will never forget and future parenting, particularly in this area, will become so much more difficult.

One thing that most adolescents are brilliant at is the art of manipulation. A few weeks ago I met a mother who was being manipulated by her 15 year old daughter to such an extent that it was almost abuse …

The mother wanted my advice regarding her daughter, parties and the provision of alcohol. Her daughter had told her that all her friends drank alcohol, their parents provided this without question and that all of the parties she attended alcohol was at the very least tolerated and sometimes even provided. She also told her mother that she believed that they had a great relationship – she could tell her everything and she did, nothing was kept hidden, unlike other girls and their mothers she knew. Unfortunately for the girl, her mother did not feel comfortable about giving her alcohol to take to these parties and this was causing heated discussion at home. The daughter then informed the mother that if alcohol was not provided then she would have to resort to finding it elsewhere and going behind her back. This, she threatened, would mean the end of their open relationship.

When questioned the mother had not spoken to any of her daughter’s friends’ parents. She had not called one parent who had hosted a party her daughter had attended. Every bit of information she was using to make decisions was based on what her daughter told her. This 15 year old had successfully ‘siloed’ her mother, ensuring that she spoke to no-one and found out nothing about what was really going on – she was feeding her the information she wanted her to hear. To top it off, she then threatened (there is no other word for it) her mother and told her that their ‘wonderful’ relationship would be jeopardised if she didn’t get want she wanted. As I said to the mother at the time, this is not a positive relationship and some work needed to be done pretty quickly to fix it before it gets completely out of control.

Most teens who hear “no” from their parents don’t like it very much, respond in an emotional way and, as a result, it isn’t very pleasant around the house for a day or two. There are cases, however, where it gets much worse – adolescents running away to a party on a Saturday night and not returning home, physical violence and a range of other unacceptable behaviour. It is vital that parents understand that if this sort of behaviour occurs they must seek professional help as soon as they possibly can. Don’t try to deal with this by yourself.

The first port of call could be the school counsellor or your GP. If you have the money an adolescent psychologist could be helpful. Be aware that in the first instance it is most probably you and your partner who will need to meet with the health professional to talk through the issue and for you to build up some skills on how to talk with your teen more effectively. Targeting the teen before you are fully prepared is not necessarily the best way to go. It’s certainly not going to be easy, but making that call and asking for professional help is certainly the first step.

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