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Parenting Adolescents and the Power of Saying "Yes"

"Yes" can be both permissive and also affirmative of growth.

Key points

  • When saying "yes," it helps to take predictive responsibility.
  • Answering questions on a "yes-test" can affirm capacity.
  • There is supportive power in the parental "yes."
 Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

While saying “no” is the power to set limits, saying “yes” is the power to create opportunity. While saying “no” can resist what is not wanted, saying “yes” can seek what is desired.

In different ways, saying “yes” and saying “no” can both take daring—saying “yes” to challenge and adventure, saying “no” to peers and parents. Either way, adolescence often requires courage as one navigates the challenges of growing up.

Yes and no

Compare some general uses of saying “yes” and saying “no,” each valuable in its own way. Where yes starts, no stops; where yes attends, no ignores; where yes is open, no is closed; where yes increases, no reduces; where yes welcomes, no rejects; where yes engages, no disengages; where yes cooperates, no resists; where yes consents, no refuses; where yes commits, no declines; where yes complicates, no simplifies.

While everyone makes a mix of these decisions throughout their lives, sometimes a very rough distinction can hold between folks who are more prone to saying “yes” in life (often positive and expansive) and others who are more prone to saying “no” (often negative and cautious). This difference can create some incompatibility between the anxious parent and the adventurous adolescent. For example, you might see the more “yes”-saying child become a more “no”-saying adolescent in the family, while formerly “yes”-saying parents can become more “no”-saying than they used to be with a teenager who is more drawn to “yes”-saying with liberated peers.

Permission and predictive responsibility

Saying “yes” to new experiences by a teenager opens up the reality of risk, the play of chance, and the possibility of harm—like starting to date or drive a car or go to a party or get a job or play online or take a trip. Even for a careful teenager, it’s always easier to control choice than the outcome of that decision.

For parents, giving an adolescent a “yes” (permission) can feel scary: “Our daughter never met a risk she didn’t like!” However, freedom is the breath of adolescent life; one can’t grow without it. And every “yes” opens the door to a new experience. Thus, it’s worth advising the teenager to treat freedom risks as mindfully as possible by taking a minute’s worth of reflection to think before they agree or go along or try something new.

Parents can encourage the teenager to take predictive responsibility by asking themselves four quick questions before deciding:

  1. What are the rewards?
  2. What are the risks?
  3. Are the risks worth the rewards?
  4. If they are, and things go wrong, what is the backup plan?

Sometimes parents complain that their teenager can’t think, but that’s not true. What is true is that the young person may not take the time to think ahead. This is what parents need to encourage when the next freedom temptation occurs.

The “yes” test

As their teenager approaches the end of adolescence and departure into independence, parents can ask themselves: “What self-management questions do we want our adolescents to be able to say ‘yes’ to?”

Consider what a few such questions (varying from parent to parent) might be. And remember that no young person gets a yes on every one or all the time and that’s OK. Individual variation rules, as it should, and some is often going to have to be enough.

  • “Can I finish what I start?” (Completion)
  • “Can I treat myself well during hard times?” (Nurturance)
  • “Can I get and hold a job?” (Employment)
  • “Can I keep promises and agreements?” (Commitment)
  • “Can I tell myself and others the truth?” (Honesty)
  • “Can I speak up about what matters?” (Communication)
  • “Can I get along and work with others?” (Cooperation)
  • “Can I keep the larger picture in mind?” (Perspective)
  • “Can I own the consequences of my choices?” (Responsibility)
  • “Can I can make myself work?” (Industry)
  • “Can I follow basic rules and laws?” (Obedience)
  • “Can I find companions to enjoy?” (Friendship)
  • “Can I recover from adversity?” (Resilience)
  • “Can I care for those in need?” (Empathy)

Obviously, there are an infinite number of ‘yes-test’ questions; but creating their priority 10 or 15 can be a productive value-clarifying exercise for parents and be helpful to their teenager: “My parents wanted these for me, and I did too.” “Yes” can attest to capacity.

The affirmative parental “yes”

Finally, even though the disaffected teenager may proudly declare to parents, “I don’t care what you think of me!” that defiant statement is a lie: Continuing expressions of parental affirmation, “yes”-saying in many forms, still mean a lot. They provide ongoing encouragement when inevitable hardships and discouragements occur.

At times of normal insecurity and doubt, the parental “yes” can boost youthful confidence in many ways. “Yes, you can!” “Yes, you are!” “Yes, you will!” “Yes, you did!” “Yes, you have!” “Yes, you know!” “Yes, you’ve learned!” “Yes, you’ve grown!” “Yes, you’ve tried!” “Yes, you’ve proved!” “Yes, you’ve accomplished!” “Yes, you’re right!” “Yes, you’re ready!”

It’s important that parents don’t let normal adolescent struggles get in the way of providing affirmation that is continually needed. Their saying “yes” can truly matter.

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