Bargaining with Your Adolescent

Negotiating disagreements with your teenager can teach skills of lasting value

Posted May 06, 2013

“Every time I ask my daughter for anything, she tries to cut a deal. If she does what I want, then will I do something for her? If I need her help, she wants to horse-trade about when. Whatever job I have for her, she wants to talk about just doing part. At age fourteen, she haggles about everything! How can I stop her endless bargaining with me?”

But my response was: “Why would you want to?”

Aggravating though he may find it, how she takes her father on, asserts her own self-interest, speaks up for what she wants, and strives to work out an accommodation seemed to me a fundamentally healthy thing to do. Consider a couple of less desirable alternatives.

Suppose he had a daughter who didn’t dare take up for herself, who was intimidated by his authority, who shied away from disagreement, and who would rather give in than get involved in conflict? Or suppose he had a daughter who couldn’t be bothered with speaking up, tuned out whatever he said, ignored what he asked, dismissed his request, and went about her own business any way she liked?

At least when she bargains, she’s taking what he says seriously, she’s giving it value, she’s buying into the idea of doing it, and she’s willing to work to modify her involvement or compliance if she can. Since she’s just an adult in training, wouldn’t he want her to have this bargaining skill in place to protect her self-interest in the years ahead? Parents who demand and get silent subservience in their adolescent are in danger of raising a young person who is mostly practiced in living on other people’s terms.

As for the dad, he doesn’t always have to accept her invitation to the bargaining table. He can reply: “I hear what you are saying, but there’s no room for an exchange on this. It’s something that I simply need for you to do.” He can be as open or closed to bargaining as he chooses. However, I believe some degree of openness to teenage bargaining is generally well advised.

There are two values in her bargaining not to be discounted – first, how her becoming accustomed to bargaining in their relationship can actually come to serve him well; and second, how developing bargaining skills provides a positive preparation for defining and conducting later relationships in her life.

Start with how her bargaining can work for him. As she grows older and increasingly brings more wants to him, each request for some new provision (like money), permission (like going out), or possession (like technology) entails an additional measure of freedom, of independent choice and attendant risk. Now securing some exchange from his daughter for safety’s sake becomes something he may want his daughter to do. Now it’s handy for him to have an established system of bargaining between them in place. So he says, “In return for what you are asking, this is what I ask of you.”

For example, she wants a later curfew, and in exchange he wants more information about her company, destination, and plans. She wants a cell phone, and in exchange he wants her to answer it any time he calls. She wants to drive the family car, and in exchange he wants assurance of no substance use when driving and no driving of substance using friends. (No designated driving of designated drinkers, because that’s not safe for anyone.) Unconditional as his love is, allowing her more freedom is decidedly not. And bargaining is the process used to put these conditions in place.

Secondly, bargaining is a life skill that has enormous utility in the conduct of significant relationships to come. During the more complicated adolescent years when the relationship with parents is redefining and when there are more differences to be resolved, is when this skill can be practiced if parents are willing partners in this education.

The components of effective bargaining that an adolescent can learn include Explanation (clearly expressing and advocating for one’s position), Negotiation (using the give and take of compromise and concession to reach mutually acceptable terms), and Contracting (committing to abide whatever agreement is made.) In this instruction, parents hold the teenager to hard bargaining account. “We don’t bargain with someone who is unable to state their case. We don’t bargain with someone who is unwilling to bargain with us. We don’t bargain with someone who doesn’t keep their word.”

What happens when an adolescent is not given the benefit of learning bargaining skills with parents? The answer is that later relationships may suffer until he does. For example, sometimes a young couple will come in for counseling where one party never developed bargaining skills growing up in their family and so when it comes to working through inevitable disagreements to strengthen a marriage, constructive experience is lacking. Maybe in adolescence, this young person did what he was authoritatively told by domineering parents, or maybe he dominated deferent parents, or maybe he declined to address differences because he had conflict avoidant parents.

“When it came to disagreements in my family” explained the young man, “the only solutions were My way, Your way, or No way. One person lost, the other person lost, or they both lost because nothing was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. No one could win without somebody losing; that’s what I learned. Somebody always ended up unhappy. So I learned to hate disagreements. What’s to like?”

That’s when I suggested he might want to consider a fourth option, the bargaining alternative -- the collaborative process of finding “Our way.” It would take more time by demanding more conversation and the give-and-take of trading proposals, I admitted, but it could yield more rewarding results. And this turned out be a liberating experience for a young man who had never learned to declare and discuss and make deals to settle differences in significant relationships on mutually acceptable terms.

Bargaining with your adolescent is no bargain. It’s expensive. It takes a lot of time, energy, and patience. However, for parents and young person, it is well worth the investment in an education that can have lasting value. To create a parental presence that can encourage adolescent bargaining, parents can say something like this: "We will be flexible where we can and work with you on these occasions; and we will be firm where we have to, willing to explain why this is so, and we hope on these occasions that you will work with us."

 For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at:

 I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

 Next week’s entry: Adolescents, Parents, and the Problems of Later and Later