Teen Curfews—Should You Ever Negotiate?

By James Lehman, MSW

There are times when your teen probably seems like a seasoned litigator and your kitchen feels like a courtroom. Kids are surprisingly adept at negotiating, and sometimes it’s hard to “beat them at their own game.” While it’s important to teach kids how to negotiate because it’s a necessary life skill, what they don’t need to learn is that they can negotiate with you to decrease your power as a parent.

In most negotiations, one person has more power than the other. In parenting situations, it’s the child who has less power, and he is looking to be empowered. In conflict situations, it’s really that he either wants to do something you don’t want him to do or he doesn’t want to do something you want him to do.

As parents, we don’t set out to over-negotiate. We mean well, and we “fall into it.” When our kids whine, argue or resist, we give in or back off because we see it as a shortcut to compliance. If we negotiate with him, he’ll comply more readily. We also do it because we’re haunted by ghosts from our own childhood: “My mother never listened to me, so I’m not going to do that to my kids.”

“If you want a later curfew, come home on time on your regular curfew three times in a row, and then we’ll talk about a changing it. But if you can’t come home on time on this one, why should I give you a later one?”

Parents who over-negotiate with their children usually have good motives at heart, but the outcome is unhealthy. Usually, they are responding to some sort of coercion. They do it to avoid a power struggle or a meltdown. Kids learn that they can negotiate away the structure you’ve put in place in the home and, as a result, they can negotiate away your power and authority within that structure. They learn that you’ll give it away or give up if they push hard enough.

Nearly every parent finds themselves negotiating around the issue of their child or teen’s curfew, whether it’s the time they’re expected home on a school night or on the weekends. When your child pushes you to extend the time by another half hour or hour, you can quickly find yourself in a pointless argument, or backing down to avoid one.

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When to Not Negotiate

Don’t negotiate predetermined rules. Parents should not negotiate predetermined agreements and responsibilities. You can say, “You agreed to be home by 6 o’clock on school nights. That’s what we agreed to when we talked about this. It’s your responsibility. We’re not going to talk about it anymore.”

Don’t negotiate with the child when he’s trying to wrangle a later curfew with you through force. If he’s calling you and getting into a power struggle about “I don’t wanna come home yet,” don’t attend the fight you’re being invited to. Tell him you expect him home at his normal curfew, remind him of the consequence for not being home on time, and hang up. If you’re dealing with a power struggle that goes deeper than this, The Total Transformation Program will give you a comprehensive plan for managing this.

Don’t negotiate your child’s curfew “on the spot.” Kids will do this to you all the time. They’ll bring up the issue of when they have to be home when you’re busy, stressed or distracted, thinking it will be easier to get you to give in. If your child wants to talk to you about his curfew while you’re making dinner, tell him you’ll talk about it after dinner at seven o’clock. Give yourself some time to think it through. When you meet at seven, both you and your child will likely have more of a clear head about the matter. Remember, just because your child asks you to talk about it doesn’t mean you have to give up the answer immediately. Take some time to think before you respond.

Don’t negotiate by phone. Parents should not negotiate extending their child’s curfew over the phone, whether it’s 15 minutes or an hour before they’re expected home. If the child wants a later curfew, he has to come home on time now. Then he can sit down with you at another time to discuss a later curfew. He can’t change it on the night he wants to break it. Or you can approach it this way: Sit down with him when things are calm and say, “If you want a later curfew, come home on time on your regular curfew three times in a row and then we’ll talk about changing it. But if you can’t come home on time on this one, why should I give you a later one?” Remember, keeping your curfew is a responsibility, and you don’t negotiate responsibilities.

When Your Child Is Ready for More Independence: The 4 Questions You Need to Ask

If you do decide your child has demonstrated that he or she can handle the responsibility and is ready for a later curfew, sit down and talk it over.Remember, with every increase in autonomy for your child, there should be an increase in responsibility and accountability. For instance, let’s say your teen wants to stay out till 12 o’clock at night instead of 11 o’clock. You decide that staying out an hour later isn’t going to interfere with your child’s health or safety and that he’s old enough to handle it.

Most parents will think the case is closed at this point—but if you leave it there, I don’t believe you’ve done enough to teach your kid how
to solve problems. You need to make clear to your child how you expect increased responsibility with increased autonomy. So I think the end of any conversation that centers around a change or an increase in power has to include these four questions:

1. How will we know it’s working?

We’ll know staying out later is working if you come home on time.

2. How do we know it’s not working?

If you aren’t able to stick to your curfew and/or abuse your privileges.

3. What will we do if it’s not working?

We’ll go back to the old time, 11:00 p.m.

4. What will we do if it is working?

We’ll continue with this new curfew.

Those four questions are really important, because what they’re saying is, “If you want to stay out later, how will we know that it’s okay? Because you’ll still meet your responsibilities.” What’s the accountability piece? “What are we going to do if it’s not working? We’re going to return to the earlier time.”

By the way, if it’s not working, just say, “It’s not working because you haven’t been making it home on time. No hard feelings. We’ll try it again in 30 days.” The chance to increase autonomy doesn’t stop forever for your child, so he or she is still able to earn more independence later. You can say, “We’re going back to curfew at 11 o’clock and then in 30 days, let’s sit down and talk about it again. Meanwhile in those 30 days, get your rest, practice what you need to do and then we’ll take another shot at it.”

That’s how negotiations are supposed to go. They are carried out through the use of proposals, compromises and ways of measuring outcomes to make sure everyone is doing what they agreed to do. Understand that all these gradual gains in power for your child are really rungs on a ladder that lead to independent functioning and adulthood. And what you want your child to know at the top of the ladder is how to solve social problems and functional problems, how to get along with other people and how to live the right values.

About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

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