Your Child is Not Your Equal: Why You Have to Be the Boss

by James Lehman, MSW
Your Child is Not Your Equal: Why You Have to Be the Boss

As a parent, if you aren’t the boss in your family, the lines of authority can become blurred very quickly. When your children are unsure about who's really in charge, they often act out, engage in risky behavior, or become extremely bossy and patronizing as a result. And eventually you start to resent them because you don't have a way to tell them what to do. You’ve effectively lost control.

One of the ways you can lose your status as a parent very quickly is to act like a child.

Many parents also want to be their child's friend—they don’t like the idea of being the boss at all. The major problem with this approach is that a friend is non-judgmental, and friendships are egalitarian. In my opinion, your child’s role simply isn’t equal to yours—as a parent, you have to make judgments and be in charge because otherwise, no one will be.

By the way, I want to be clear about what I mean by the “boss.” I often define this as the “Limit Setter” role when I’m talking to parents. I firmly believe parents need to set limits on their kids and maintain the rules of their household using consequences and accountability. While the Limit Setter role is extremely important, keep in mind that it should not be the only one you use. The other critical roles I’ve identified are those of the “Teacher”, where you help your child learn how to behave more appropriately, and the “Coach”, where you challenge your child to behave better—much like the coach of a sports team would do. While being in charge and setting limits is vital, all three roles need to be utilized if you want to be at your most effective as a parent.

You Were in Charge When Your Child Was Young—So What Happened?
I think when children are very young, it’s easy to see that the parents are in charge. In other words, they make the decisions, direct their children in their day-to-day activities, and organize things for their household. They also supervise their children’s behavior and decide what’s appropriate and what's not. And you'll often see children from the age of about six to ten being fairly compliant. During those years, parents tend to develop a friendly relationship with their kids. This is a time in life when many children, unless they have behavioral problems, will listen to you, do what you ask, and spend as much time with you as you'll let them.

When adolescence hits, the whole game changes. What emerges is not only a lack of respect for parental authority, but also a situation where your child wants to be the boss. Many parents have a hard time reasserting their role as the person in charge when this happens. And if you've never established yourself clearly as being in control, it may seem as though it's almost impossible for you to do it after your child becomes a teen—or even a pre-teen.

Why is that? One reason is because the developmental stage we call adolescence is really a time for your child to individuate, and the way children do this is by pushing adults away. They lean more toward their peers, and they think their friends are the only ones who understand them. In fact, they don't like being around adults much—and they certainly don't like being around the adults who are telling them what to do!

Healthier kids will tell you they resent your authority in various appropriate and semi-appropriate ways. This might range from saying “Stop telling me what to do all the time!” to eye rolling and loud sighs each time you make a request. But there are other children who will tell you they’re upset in inappropriate ways: by acting out, being verbally abusive, destructive, or aggressive.

Soft Choices and Hard Choices: 4 Areas Where Parents Need to Have the Ultimate Decision
Many parents encourage their kids to participate in family decisions, and I personally think that’s a good thing to do. Don't forget, when you're raising your child, one of the things you want them to learn is how to be independent. In fact, studies have shown that the more independent kids are, the better chances they’ll have of making choices in their lives in ways that increase the likelihood of success in life.

So the way you develop independence in your children is by letting them make choices and encouraging their participation. It’s natural for kids to start thinking they have a say in everything when you parent this way, unless you are clear about the choices you’re giving them.

I think knowing which issues to assert your authority over—or in which to let your child have a vote—is a very tricky line for parents to walk. Just remember, there are things kids can have a voice in, but not the final choice of.

In my opinion, parents have the ultimate say-so on these 4 things:

  • Safety
  • Health Issues
  • Performance
  • Preparation for Adulthood

You can say to your child, “Listen, these are the areas where I'm in charge—it’s not a subject of debate. We can talk about things, but I have the final say-so and that's the way it has to be. That's my role; I'm the parent.”

So you make the decision on whether or not your daughter can go out until midnight. You make the decision whether or not your son is doing enough homework and chores, and if his grades are acceptable. You make the decisions about what's healthy and not healthy for all your kids. You make these decisions because you’re in charge taking care of your family to the best of your ability.

By the way, I think it’s perfectly okay for kids to have a vote on things that aren’t going to affect their safety, health, performance, or preparation for adulthood. You can conceptualize these issues as “soft choices” and “hard choices.” Soft choices might include what clothes they’ll wear, which video you’ll rent for family movie night, how long their hair is, or what color nail polish your teen daughter chooses. Encourage your child to make those soft decisions—and then honor them. So let your child wear what he picked out, as long as it's not inappropriate.

It's very hard when your child is an adolescent for parents to dance between giving your child enough independence and being the boss. It’s difficult for almost everyone, and that's why so much fighting goes on during this time. There are a lot of traps you can fall into, but you've got that line you're trying to walk: knowing when to let your child be independent and when you have to be the boss. I think if you ask yourself, “Is this a soft choice or is it a hard one?” you’ll have a clearer understanding of how to navigate those decisions.

When Kids Think Their “Vote” is Equal to Yours
Why do many kids think their vote in the family is equal to their parents’ vote? I think part of the reason, besides what we’ve already mentioned, is that children, especially teens, want control. I’m not saying you should give it to them, but make no mistake, they want it. That's a legitimate interest of their developmental stage. Kids also think they should have a vote in everything because they want to be equal to their parents—and they’ll try to argue with you until they’re blue in the face to convince you of that fact.

Again, ask yourself if the question you’re discussing is soft or hard: It's good for your child to have a say-so in the debate about which restaurant you’ll go to tonight; it's not good for him to have the ultimate say-so about what his curfew will be.

“You Do It. Why Can’t I?”
When your child says, “You do it. Why can’t I?” The best answer is, “We're not talking about me. We're talking about you.” Keep the focus on your child. That way you won't get distracted and defensive. Make your statements black and white: “Don’t turn this around on me. I don't think you're ready to go to the late movie yet.” And then back it up. Tell your child why you don't you think he's ready. Your reasons should have to do with decision-making, choices and responsibility.

A Word about Negotiating…
In my opinion, kids can have a voice as long as they speak appropriately, but parents need to make the ultimate decision. Don't negotiate with your child right after a decision is made. I think it’s often effective for parents to say, “If you want to talk about this decision more, you have to wait 24 hours.” That way, everybody is calmed down once you do talk.

I used to tell the kids I worked with, “You have the right to make a statement to your parents as long as you express what you want appropriately. Your parents have the right and a responsibility to challenge the points of your statement if it doesn't sit right with them. But ultimately, they make the choice.” I think there’s room to discuss choices as kids get older, so I would tell them, “If you don't like the choice your parents made, your job is to say, for example, ‘What do I have to do in order to get a later curfew?’” Let's say the teen’s parents gave him a curfew of nine o'clock, but he wanted a ten o'clock curfew. I think it’s all right for him to say, “What do I have to do in order for you to trust me to stay out until ten o'clock?” His parents would have to consider his request. Their answer might be, “Well, we'd like you to keep a nine o'clock curfew for one month, and see how that works out. We want to see you meet this responsibility first. If you come home late on curfew consistently or you have a hard time with it, you’re showing us that you're not responsible. If we let you stay out later, that's because we think you're responsible enough to make good choices and manage your time.”

Try to keep communication open. If your child gets heated or shuts down, always keep your hand out at the end of the conversation. You can say something like, “If you want to talk more about this later when you’ve calmed down, let me know.” Or “If you want to discuss this when you can talk to me more appropriately, I'll be here.” Always leave your hand out there.

Why You Should Never Fight on Your Child’s Level
When you get resentful and fight on your child's level, I think your position can actually become weaker than your child's. He will start to perceive you as not being in control. Soon, you won't have any way to really guide him or enforce household rules. If there's no structure there—no parental authority—then the only “tools” you’re left with are yelling, complaining, badgering, whining, bickering, arguing and nagging—all the things you don't want to do. Besides, think of it this way: you don't want to live with somebody like that and neither does your child.

It's important not to fight with your child on that level, because then there's no parent—it's just two individuals bickering. One of the ways you can lose your status as a parent very quickly is to act like a child. Parents have a hard time establishing and maintaining status in our society anyway—the role of parenting is completely undervalued today. So you don't want to give away what you’ve got —you really want to try to maintain your parental authority.

While I don’t think you should fight with your child, there's nothing wrong with getting angry at your kids from time to time. That’s human and it happens to every parent. But it’s important to have an outlet for that anger other than arguing and screaming. Remember, the question is not, “Do we get angry at our kids,” it’s “How do we handle the situation when we’re angry?” So when your child pushes your limits, make sure you have a plan to deal with that ahead of time: try to have other outlets where you can share your thoughts and feelings, like with your spouse, friends, relatives or a support group.

If you realize you haven’t been acting like the boss, but you want to begin to assert your authority now, be prepared for some extreme pushback from your children at first. Any change like this in family dynamics is not going to be dealt with coolly by your kids. Expect them to fight because they’re going to feel like they’re losing something they want to hold onto—power and control. But hold firm, and know that you’re doing the best thing for your family. Remember, the more tools you have as a parent, the better equipped you’ll be to raise your child—and to be the boss in a positive, effective way.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


My oldest boy I see is experimenting with who's in control and your article has made me aware of the "battle" that is going on. The sighs and the eye rolling is a common response, but after reading your article, and I'll read a few more time, I'll work on staying in control, with choices and if he wants to discuss more, than the 24 hour rule will come into play. thanks and mahalo for the advice. Keep the emails coming, their good therapy for me.

Comment By : henry

Perfect timing! My 13-year-old daughter is making me crazy in this regard. Everytime I tighten the reigns she's great and follows the rules. As soon as I start to relax and be more "friendly" with her she starts with the rude, snotty, eye-rolling, etc., and I get mad! It's great to know this is normal and I just need to stick to the rules.

Comment By : mom4life

I love this article. I have been having some tough times with my 13 year old daughter. When asked to get things done with in a time fram she said she does it and then does't. When i confront her its a big fight. She tells me she has no respect for me and that she hates veryone in the house.Then there are times were she is so kind and then when she gets what she wants she gets mean again. My 2 other kids see what she does and it makes them very upset. I sure hope this helps. I love my daughter very much. Im going to start doing implementing whats in your article. Thanks Mom3

Comment By : Mom3

This is a very painful topic for me. I wish I had these advises long time ago .My daughter is 39 years old. She was a difficult child. I tried hard but her will was much stronger than my and often I just did not know how to get right results. Now she has two daughters: 11 years old from a husband she divorced long time ago (who does not work and does not pay child support) and 9 months old from a man she was in love with who refuse to give his name to this child. We support her financially 100% and otherwise. When I see from time to time how she can waste our money buying things she shouldn’t buy and talk to her bossy she says that I do not have right to talk to her like this. I am confused.

Comment By : Lucy

I have a seventeen year old daughter who I let get the upper hand a long time ago. She has always been very strong willed and hard-headed and I am too easy going. She started at age 16 saying she was moving out as soon as she turned 17. Sure enough, less than 3 weeks after she hit 17, she packed her clothes and out she went. Unfortunately it was to move in with a 19 year old boy and his parents. We have dis-approved of this boy for over a year and would not let him on our property which was a big part of the problem. Now I feel I have lost her and don't know what to do! I had just been informed of your website and wish I had it years ago. Do you have help for my situation????

Comment By : Desperate in Texas

* Dear ‘Desperate in Texas’: I’m sorry to hear your family is going through this difficult emotional time. Keep in mind that in some states you remain legally responsible for your child and her behavior until she is of legal age, so we would recommend discussing this situation with an attorney. You mentioned that you disapprove of her boyfriend and have not allowed him on your property. If you feel your daughter is unsafe with him and his parents, you should contact your police department. If her boyfriend is not dangerous and your daughter is not unsafe, then you would handle her choice of dating him somewhat differently. Instead of forbidding him to come to your home in an effort to control who she dates, you would focus on her behavior—what she is allowed to do. As you said, your daughter left home because she felt the problem of dating who she wanted to date was unsolvable. In this article by James Lehman, he addresses parents concerns regarding our kid’s friends: Does Your Child Have "Toxic" Friends? 6 Ways to Deal with the Wrong Crowd Please remember you can call the Support Line for someone to talk to and give you more ideas on how to proceed using the techniques in the Total Transformation program. Keep in touch.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I too, began getting James Lehman Empowering ... newsletters too late. Now I have a 22 year old son who runs our house. He is heavily into drugs and we believe is selling them too. He is in control and we are devastated by our apparent lack of parenting skills. His life is a tragedy and now so is ours. On Monday we hope to finally have the strength to legally evict him, he has no job, no $, no place to go, no car, and we feel we have no other choice, at the same time it's going to be gut wrenching. I wish I'd learned James Lehman's methods in time to save our son and ourselves.

Comment By : sandie

Article is inspiring hope for a more peaceful home base for my 4 teenaged girls, husband and dogs!

Comment By : nan

Thank you for reaffirming my parenting style and reminding me to give some freedom and yet maintain the final say on larger issues. This article also comments about the parenting style of my husband and therefore, he will learn that he has to work on areas of being more the parent and not the freind. He worries that his children will hate him and he hates confrontation. Who does like it? Anyway, this was great! Thank you and I am sure we will read it again.

Comment By : parent with an over the top teenage boy

Its great advice and helpfull to every parent, no matter what age their child is. Thank you.

Comment By : mina

Thank you for this very helpful website! I want to share with you a big concern I have with my 17 years old boy .The last five months he refuses everything I cook for him, everything what I buy for him. I cook the food that he likes ,he refuses that and he starts cooking the same thing on his own. I buy cookies that he really likes and he brings this back without saying anything...He refuses everything what I give him. He started a sport and he never told me. My husband told me that he started basketball. Unfortunately my husband gets home only on the weekend, so I have to deal with my teenage boy.I took away his I-Pod with the hope that he could change. He never asked for the I-Pod, even I know he really needs it. Do you think this behavior will change and what are your suggestions and avices Mr Lehman ? Thank you

Comment By : Linda

* Dear Linda: Tell your son you would like to set aside some time to talk to him about what is bothering him. When he talks to you, try to hear all of what he has to say before you say anything in response. Often we get into habits during tense conversations where we interrupt the other person before they’re finished speaking, or we’re not very focused on what they’re saying but instead on what we want to say in response--waiting for a break in the conversation to defend ourselves. Hearing your son out does not mean you are agreeing with him. Hearing him out will let him know you are interested in his opinions and ideas. As a teenager, he may think that if you don’t agree with him, it’s because you don’t understand what he’s saying. But of course, that’s not so. If you need to stick to a house rule he has been objecting to, let him know you understand that following the rules can feel frustrating. You may also enjoy reading this article by James Lehman: Do You Feel Like Your Child's Behavior is Your Fault? We appreciate your question and invite you to keep in touch with us.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Hello. I am a military mom and work long hours, sometimes I work 19 hours straight sometimes 36 straight and on a slow day the times are generally 12 hours. I have a 15 year old, who has been troubling. She ran away from home, and she fell for her friends way of life, losing her virginity at age 13. She and I had orked out things by going to counseling, sending her to adsicipliary school an also talking about things. But it is back the same way again, since I am a single parent. I come home, and if it is not a weekday I work, and I have been up all day and night, she takes advantage of me being tired and just leaves. I put out the rules clearly, she has to ask me first, no matter if i am awake or aseep. It is getting to the point that she is violent and disrespectful, and I am really tired by now to deal with it. I have to drive around and look for her. She had a cell phone, and i cancelled the service, because she had a lot of sexual explicit language to her friends. We have moved also, so I can make things better in her life. I bought her a pre-paid cell phone, but she ran up in a day 1500 min credit. I am ready to throw the towel and sent her to the state for good.

Comment By : Joyce

Me & my wife are currently going through a lot of stress. We have a 22 year old son (our only child)who insisted on staying back in NZ because of his friends when we moved to Australia about 4 years back. Since our son was studying at that time, we agreed to support his decision and financially support him 100% which we are still doing. We made arrangements for our sons board with a nice family whom we knew and they had children of similar age. However after we left NZ our son on some pretext made alternate boarding arrangements and that is when he started behaving strangely. The situation is that he gets violent if we visit him in NZ and he makes a lot of excuses to visit us in Sydney. He does not even picks up the phone when we try to call him and we sometimes get extremely worried about his safety. The situation is nearly making us mentally wreck. The only time we hear from our son is when we sometime get late to transfer his money. We suspect that he has moved out with a girl and has possibly even changed his name? Our situation is that we do not know a) where our son is living/ b)who he is living with ? c) where he is working d) not sure whether or not he is going to Uni?. All this in spite of our regularly and continually supporting him 100% financially & otherwise. My son hates if we try & talk to his friends and he has distanced himself to an extent where we hardly know his friends. He is even inaccessible to us on social media sites. If try to find about our son from the Uni?, they will not talk to us because of Privacy restrictions, which I find laughable as being parents we are only enquiring about our son and it's a natural concern for us to find out about the welfare of our child specially when we are obligated to financially support him. We are totally in darkness if our son is studying or not, whether or not he's in a serious relationship with someone and the background of other person?, whether our son is not into drugs and so on.......? Pl advise what we should do in the situation?

Comment By : warrick

* To “warrick”: Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. It sounds like you are dealing with a challenging situation. I am sorry you and your wife are going through this much stress. It can be upsetting for parents when their adult child continues to make choices that are counter to what you believe is best. When we coach parents of adult children on the Parental Support Line, we advise focusing on what you can control, namely, how you respond to your child and how you let his behavior and choices affect you. It’s going to be most helpful at this point to set clear limits and firm boundaries around your son’s behavior and how much support you continue to give him. Ultimately, your son is an adult, and, as such, it’s his choice where and how he lives. However, as a parent of an adult child, you have the choice as to how much support you continue to provide for him. What this means is your son can choose to live with his girlfriend in NZ but you don’t have to continue to give him 100% financial support. It may be helpful to talk with a family counselor in your area to decide what limits and boundaries are going to work best for you and your family and also to decide how best to maintain those limits. Here are a couple of articles you may find useful for your situation: Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices, Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy & Anxious Parenting: Do You Worry about Your Child's Behavior?. We hope this information is useful for your situation. Good luck as you move forward through this stressful situation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I believe that parents and kids are equals. We are both people and we have the same rights!

Comment By : abby

Have a 19 yr old son who has gone thru drug use and cost thousands of $$'s to our family. Along with a 22 yr old daughter who has finally reached a mile stone of financial independance. Multiple cars wasted (not taken care of) or totaled for each of these children. Court costs for attorney's for the son ($7,000) in the last 8 months. Parenting is a problem where I (father) have always wanted the children to be held accountable but my wife befriends them to purchase things or state to them NOT to listen to me as I do not know what I am talking about! Just recently my youngest son (17) was caught drinking and this statement: 'Do not listen to your father because I rule this household!' was made to this son. I may be a little eccentric at times but I have our childrens safety and growing up to be independent in view. My wife seems to want to be in control of them for ever and so is still apparent. Oldest son moved out but his mother still pays for his cigarettes and his rent. At a loss here for I now am the villian and not listened to at all. Funny thing oldest son states that his councelors say things that my son says that 'you would like my councelors Dad...they talk to me the same way you do and Mom is my enabler!' Here is a young man who has almost died 3 times from drug over dose and I am the one who shouldn't be listened to!!!

Comment By : At a Loss and parenting on his own!

My husband and I are raising my two grandson, 17 and 15 years old. The eldest has matured and is responsible and is focused on his future and hasn't been in any serious trouble. Now the 15 year old, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, very intelligent, and social, has been in trouble with the law already. He has used mariguana, alcohol. I recently found a container in his room that smelled like mariguana. I took him to a local drug testing business and he tested positive. So I enrolled him in a non-criminal program with the Juvenile System. He will have a probation officer, who will monitor him and give him random drug tests. I have been the main person to deal with him due to the fact that my husband works offshore and is away from home two weeks at a time. My grandson and I have a continual power struggle. He is argumentative, disrespectful, and down right defiant with me. My husband hasn't engaged in the discipline until this week. He has told him he expects him to be dressed for school and ready to eat and take his meds by 6:30 am. He has done well until this morning. He pushed the limit. I went into his room 3 times and told him it was time to get up..he ever responded..but didn't get up, until 6:30. My husband came unglued..he took his iPad from him and went into a rant about what is expected of him. I didn't say anything, but I do believe that the rant was extreme. My husband sounded like a 'drill sergeant'. I don't like this style, but what I am doing isn't working either. What advise can you give to get it through to our grandson that he needs to stop fighting against what is expected from him and that in doing that he is taking away priviledges with his behavior.

Comment By : Grandma

* To “Grandma”: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. I can hear you are dealing with some challenging behaviors from your grandson. I’m glad to hear you have involved the court system with the drug issues. As James Lehman advises, sometimes it becomes necessary to bring in a higher authority when your authority isn’t enough. You ask a great question about consequences. Many parents we speak to on the Parental Support Line want to know how to make their child understand the consequences of their choices. Ultimately, that may not be possible. Many kids who “fight” against consequences do it as a way to have some control over what happens to them. As Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner advise in their article Your Defiant Child’s Behavior: 5 Things You Can—and Can’t—Control as a Parent for defiant kids “being controlled feels as if they’re drowning.” Instead of trying to make your child understand, we coach parents to focus on holding their child accountable for the choices he makes by implementing consequences. It’s also going to be important to problem solve with your grandson what he can do differently. From our perspective, one of the biggest reasons kids act out and make bad choices is because they lack effective problem-solving skills to help them make better choices. Here are a couple of articles that address problem solving that you may find helpful: Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill The Three Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior & The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems". We hope this has been informative and wish you and your family the best as you work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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