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.
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 a friend is a peer. 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 in charge.
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 essential, keep in mind that it should not be the only one you use. The other critical roles I’ve identified are the teacher role, where you help your child learn how to behave more appropriately, and the coach role, where you challenge your child to behave better—much like the coach of a sports team would do. All three roles—limit-setter, teacher, and coach—are needed for you to be a highly effective parent, particularly with adolescents.
I think when children are very young, it’s easy to see that the parents are in charge—parents 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 compliant most of the time. During those years, parents tend to develop a friendly relationship with their kids and, unless your kids have significant behavior problems, they listen to you, do what you ask, and want to spend time with you.
But when adolescence hits, the whole game changes. What often emerges is not only a lack of respect for parental authority but also a situation where your child wants to be the boss.
When this happens, many parents have a hard time reasserting their role as the person in charge. And if you’ve never clearly established yourself as being in control, it may seem as though it’s almost impossible for you to do it after your child becomes a teenager.
Why is it so difficult to assert control over your adolescent? One reason is that the developmental stage we call adolescence is a time for your child to individuate—that is, to create an identity separate from you. And the way children do this is by pushing adults away.
In the adolescent years, they lean more toward their peers, and they think their friends are the only ones who understand them. Indeed, 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.
Kids who are generally well-behaved will say to you they resent your authority in mostly appropriate or semi-appropriate ways. Their protests 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. These protests are incredibly annoying at times, and they test our patience as parents, but they’re generally harmless and to be expected from an adolescent.
But other kids will tell you they’re upset in wholly inappropriate ways. They act out and become verbally abusive, destructive, or aggressive.
Many parents encourage their kids to participate in family decisions, and I 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. The more independent kids are, the better chances they’ll have of making choices 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. As a result, it’s natural for kids to start thinking they have a say in everything unless you are clear about the choices you’re giving them.
Therefore, you need to be clear about which choices reside with you, the parent, and which choices your child can make. You can further explain that you may still want your child’s input on the choices that reside with you, but don’t expect him to like that arrangement. And that’s okay because being a good boss sometimes means making unpopular decisions.
In my opinion, parents have to have the final say in these four areas:
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.”
This means that you decide whether or not your daughter can go out until midnight. You decide whether or not your son is doing enough homework, if his grades are acceptable, and what chores he has to do. You make the decisions about what’s healthy and not healthy for all your kids. You make these decisions because you’re in charge of taking care of your family to the best of your ability. You make these decisions because you are the boss and that is your job.
By the way, I think it’s perfectly okay for kids to have a say about things that aren’t going to affect their safety, health, performance, or preparation for adulthood. You can conceptualize these issues as soft choices versus the hard choices that are reserved for you.
Soft choices might include what clothes they wear, which movie you watch as a family, 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. In other words, let your child wear what he picked out, as long as it’s appropriate.
It’s admittedly difficult for parents to walk the fine line between being the boss and giving your child enough independence. There’s a natural tension, and that’s why so much fighting goes on during this time. I think if you ask yourself, “Is this a soft choice or a hard choice?” then you’ll have a clearer understanding of how to proceed.
Why do many kids think their vote in the family is equal to that of their parents? I think part of the reason, besides what we’ve already mentioned, is that children, especially teens, want control. And they want independence. I’m not saying you should give it to them, but make no mistake, they want it. That’s a natural part of adolescence.
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 choice you’re discussing is soft or hard. For example, it’s good for your child to have a vote in the soft choice about which restaurant you’ll go to tonight. You may even want him to own the choice and decide for the family—that’s perfectly fine. But it isn’t fine for him to choose his curfew time because you, as the parent and boss, own that choice.
When your child says, “You do it. Why can’t I?” The best answer is as follows:
“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. You can say:
“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 think he’s ready. Your reasons should have to do with decision-making, choices, and responsibility.
In my opinion, kids can have a voice as long as they speak appropriately. But parents need to make the ultimate decision. And don’t negotiate with your child right after making a decision—wait at least a day. If you have made your decision and your child continues to try to negotiate, just say the following:
“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, and you have had some time to think about the issue some more.
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, your parents make the choice.”
I think there’s room to discuss choices as kids get older, so I would tell these kids, “If you don’t like the choice your parents made, your job is to ask them what you have to do to get a later curfew.”
Let’s say the teen’s parents gave him a nine o’clock curfew, but he wanted a ten o’clock curfew. I think it’s appropriate for him to say, “What do I have to do for you to trust me to stay out until ten o’clock?”
His parents should consider his request. A good 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 consistently or you have a hard time with it, you’re showing us that you’re not yet 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, let him know you are willing to discuss this later. You can say:
“If you want to talk more about this later when you’ve calmed down, let me know.”
“If you want to discuss this when you can talk to me more appropriately, I’ll be here.”
Your child may be angry, but as long as he is respectful, then you can have this conversation.
If there’s no structure and no parental authority, then the only tools parents have are yelling, arguing, and nagging—all the things you don’t want to do. Think of it this way: you don’t want to live with someone who yells, argues, and nags. And neither does your child.
When you fight with your child, you weaken your authority. He will start to perceive you as not being in control. Soon, you won’t have any way to guide him or enforce household rules.
Therefore, it’s important not to fight with your child because then there’s no parent—it’s just two individuals bickering. You quickly lose your status as the boss. Parents have a hard time establishing and maintaining status in our society anyway—the role of parenting is wholly undervalued today. So you don’t want to give away what you’ve got—you want to maintain your parental authority.
While I don’t think you should fight with your child, there’s nothing wrong with getting angry with your kids from time to time. That’s human, and it happens to every parent. But you need an outlet for your anger other than arguing and screaming.
Remember, the question is not, “Do we get angry with our kids?” The question is, “How do we handle the situation when we get angry with our kids?”
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 significant pushback from your children at first. Any change in the family dynamics where you reassert your authority 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 effective and caring family boss that every kid needs.
Power Struggles: Are You at War with a Defiant Child?
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, 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.