negotiating with teen

The push for freedom and self-discovery is a huge part of the tween and teens years. As
we all know from our own adolescent years this is fraught with an almost constant battle with the self and with parents and carers as they try to negotiate their way to independence.

As parents we are often the people who are they are in negotiation with the most. This can feel overwhelming for us and for them. It’s hard to remain calm in the face of your young person either arguing back, crying, hurling abuse at you or telling you to go away. So many buttons are being pushed in you and it can be incredibly difficult to create space for that kind of emotional interaction. It can be hard work negotiating with your tween or teen.

As tweens and teens get older the instance of arguments increase as does the power
struggle which often leads to disconnection and dishonesty and of course of missed
opportunity to support your tween or teen in this journey of self-discovery and freedom with safety! But it doesn’t need to.

It’s hugely unfair and also the biggest understatement to say preteens and teenagers are ‘emotional’. here is so much going on internally for them. Anger can be explosive, and sadness can be heavy, or intense sobbing. But why? In terms of brain development, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for a range of things including decision making (analysis of potential outcomes, deciding what is right or wrong, processing conflicting thoughts and feelings) and regulating or moderating social behaviour. While we all have this lobe in the brain, it can take up until the age of 30 to mature completely. This means that you will likely have a fully-fledged normal processing adult by the time they are 30!

While your young person is maturing their prefrontal cortex they are still communicating and trying to make sense of the world. But how are they doing it?? They are using two other parts of the brain. The Amygdala and Hippocampus. These parts of the brain are in charge of emotions (think anger, jealously, fear, grief etc.), stress regulation and memory. These parts of the brain are why you may remember your teenage years as full of intense emotions too.

Every interaction you have with your tween or teen involves you speaking and listening from your prefrontal cortex with your developed capacity to use judgement and manage difficult emotions (on a good day), and while they are speaking (and maybe listening) from their amygdala and hippocampus with a lot of emotion, fear, and stress. Adults read, process, and respond to other people’s emotions with the analytical parts of their brains. Your tween or teen read, process, and respond to other people’s emotions with the parts of their brain which are already full to the top with their own emotions. Because of these, teenagers can easily misinterpret other people’s emotions as threatening to them.

Instead of seeing you as being worried about them, they can see it as you are being angry at them. This misinterpretation which is completely physiological in basis can kick off the mother of all fights on a Friday night after a long week at work and school.

What does it feel like to be a teenager? I don’t believe we can actually remember it fully as our brain has protected us a little bit by making the memory fuzzy. But next time you are late for an important meeting and your new boss is expecting you to bring a presentation that is now missing (that you would have sworn was on your desk), and you have gone to try and print it again but can’t find it on your computer anywhere, that panic you feel is your amygdala starting to kick in. That is the feeling your tween or teem is experiencing when they blow up due to what you see and consider as a simple misunderstanding.

So, what do we do with this information (apart from lots of self-care for you living with a prickly little
porcupine) I suggest five steps with as little words as possible: to support this your tween and teen to learn how to negotiate.

Make negotiating simple and create a solid foundation for open communication, honest
conversations, and a deeper understanding of self- for both of you in just five steps.


  1. Remain calm. If you are also starting to get hot under the collar buy yourself some
    time and go to the toilet. Hopefully nobody will follow you.
  2. Acknowledge their emotions first e.g. ‘Am I right that you are annoyed and angry
    because of xyz?’
  3. Help them think about what you might be feeling e.g. ‘I think you think I am angry
    at you. I am not, I’m worried. I’m worried that … might happen’.
  4. Think of a plan together (if possible and it’s not always possible) to respect
    everyone’s feelings e.g. ‘I am worried about you going to the movies in the city at
    8:30pm at night. You’re angry about me having hesitation about this. How can we
    make this work for both of us?’

    At this point one of two things will likely happen. Your tween or teen will be able to, in a prickly and a still highly sensitive way come to the table and negotiate with you, or they will shut you down and say something like ‘what’s the point you always say no’. If this does happen don’t engage any further beyond being present (as anything you say will only provide more fuel to the fire). Stay sat and just wait. They may stay or they may walk away. If they walk away, they will more than likely approach you once the high emotion has calmed in their brain and you can try again.

    Sometimes you can’t make it work for both of you. On these occasions your tween or teen will want an explanation and will develop great debating skills that will enable them to pick apart any reason
    that you may have. On these occasions it can be helpful to understand your own reasons about why
    you are saying yes or no, or what information you may need or what terms can be negotiable for you.

  5. So, ask for information or time to gain some clarity. Say to your tween or teen ‘Can you give me some more information so I can decide?’ (Ask about the details, the who, what, where and when etc.) while they answer, and you are listening see if you can also pinpoint what it is that is making you feel undecided. Or say ‘I feel uncomfortable about this but unsure why. I need time to work this out so I can discuss this with you fairly. Can you give me until …. to work this out please?’ Then spend sometimes working out why you feel the way you do and get back to your tween or teen within the set timeframe.

Like everything it takes practise, self-care, regulating yourself and leading the conversation with as few words as possible from you. They will also need time to grow and mature. In the short term, the more you take these five steps with each interaction and negotiation, the more they will learn and trust the process of the five steps too. The more you use them on the small stuff, the easier it will be to have it as an established framework for future negotiations over the harder trickier stuff as they get older.

For the parents and carers, as hard as it maybe, the adolescent years are full of opportunities to teach our tween’s and teen’s the art of knowing themselves, decision making and of course negotiating for themselves around this, a life skill that can really make a difference in all areas of life.

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