I am constantly butting heads with my 14 year-old daughter. Yesterday, she asked if she could go to a concert with a group of kids that I don’t know. With her friend’s 16 year-old brother as the driver! I said “no” to that idea before she even finished talking! She’s been pouting ever since. She complains that I have too many “arbitrary” rules and don’t explain myself. I tell her the fact that I’m her dad is the only explanation she needs. Any advice on how to get her to comply without complaining?
–Dad of a Complainer
Dear Dad of a Complainer,
Since I’ve got a daughter who is about to turn 14, I’m hearing you!
The problem is… I’m not sure you’re hearing the main issue your daughter is trying to express.
What she’s complaining about isn’t just the rules but about the fact that she doesn’t understand the reason for the rules. We have all fallen back on the line “because I said so” or “because I’m the dad (or mom)” at one time or another. And that is important when kids are smaller and have to learn to obey without question.
Even with a teenager, it is easy to think to yourself that “because I said so” IS in fact the reason she has to comply. Yes, you’re the authority and what you say, goes. But truly, that isn’t the reason. The reason you are “saying so” is that with your greater experience and wisdom, you understood the variables in a way that she didn’t. With your greater experience and wisdom, you then made the judgment that this situation isn’t safe. Ultimately, that is the reason.
When I was doing the research for For Parents Only: Getting Inside the Head of Your Kid, I interviewed and surveyed thousands of teens and pre-teens. And I heard the phrase “arbitrary rules” a lot. It turned out that what they meant by that was “I don’t understand the reason for the rules.” When teens couldn’t see a connection, they felt their parents were simply trying to control them. In other words: control them for no reason other than controlling them. I’m willing to bet that what your daughter is trying to say (in her imperfect, disrespectful and emotional way!) is that she doesn’t “get” your reasoning yet, doesn’t understand your rationale, and feels like you are saying no just to say no.
By no means should you apologize for exerting your parental authority. That’s your job, and believe it or not, on the anonymous survey the teens said they secretly knew they needed a parent who enforced rules. But give it a try and see what happens with your daughter when you explain in multiple ways over time where your rules are coming from and the reasoning behind them in a way she can grasp. For example, walk her through the scenario of going to the concert and the possible snafus that might arise. Use this to work with her to discuss, “When the situation is such-and-such, what are our family rules (and the consequences for breaking them)?”
She may not show it but she’ll appreciate you letting her in on your reasoning. And she’ll definitely appreciate being involved in setting the rules ahead of time so they don’t seem “arbitrary.” Over time (not necessarily right away!) you’ll most likely get less pushback and more cooperation.
Sometimes, as we all know, that is a pipe dream. When a teenager is upset and wants “Yes” instead of “No,” sometimes nothing you say can get through. But keep at it. Since our teens will be making their own decisions in just a few short years, it is critical that they not only respect and obey our rules but come – as much as possible – to understand and internalize them for themselves.
Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and teens, including For Women Only, For Men Only and her newest, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. A Harvard-trained social researcher and speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Shaunti speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and corporate events. Learn more about speaking inquiries here.