Creating Exchanges Between Teens and Parents

AexchangeA mother called me one afternoon all angry and confused. She got my name from her friend, one of my counseling clients. She agreed to meet me so she could discuss how to handle a disagreement between she and her daughter.

“Mike, I went into my daughter’s room and looked through all of her drawers. When she figured out I had done this, she became livid and won’t talk to me. It seems all year we’ve had this deteriorating relationship. I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Maria, can I ask you some questions to help you work this through?”

“Sure”.

“Why were you looking through your daughter’s private dresser?”

“Well, first, I don’t consider her dresser as her private space. I bought it, I brought it home, I own the house, I set the rules.” I let this one slip for the moment. She continued.

“But the real reason I was doing it was because her best friend Nicole’s mom called me concerned the girls were doing Ecstasy at a party last week. I wanted to find out if she was hiding drugs in her room.”

“To your knowledge, has your daughter ever used recreational drugs?”

“I smelled pot on her earlier this year, but she denied it.” I also wanted to bring up the issue of acting upon unwarranted suspicions without having dialogue first, but I left that issue to another time. “I didn’t find any drugs, but there was some stuff that really scared me. I found condoms in the bottom drawer. I found “Fifty Shades of Grey” in there as well. It just makes me sick to think about it.”

“Do you and your husband own your house outright or do you have a mortgage?”

“I don’t know why that’s important, but yes, we have a mortgage.”

“And Maria, if the bank sent over tellers and loan officers and began ransacking your house, looking through your financial statements and searching in all your drawers, how would you react?”

“Listen Mike, I know where you’re going with this. It’s not the same thing. My house is still mine, even if I have a mortgage. I’m protected by basic rights.”

“Of course you are. But don’t you think the attitude should be the same even if the laws governing our teens does not explicitly recognize their rights to the space they call their own? Shouldn’t we afford them certain levels of respect and dignity?” Maria didn’t know what to say to this, so I continued.

“Maria, the basic idea behind Respectful Parenting is that teens must be afforded the same level of respect we give other adults. And it teaches that they must be allowed to make mistakes and be held accountable for those mistakes without parents always jumping in to save them or head off the problems. Most of that overseer attitude is reserved for the time before children become teens. As they reach 13 or so, we must change the rules and recognize their rights as adults.”

This was a lot for Maria to take in. Since she had never really recognized her daughter’s adult status, she was still operating as if she was a taller more mouthy child. The daughter knew this and resented it. And the daughter was correct in resenting it. It is not appropriate.

If you treat a teen as an adult, there is a greater chance they will act like an adult sooner than their peers. And if they don’t, they were never going to act that way in the first place.

“Mike, what should I have done?”

“First, you start with some agreements between you and your daughter. I call these agreements “Exchanges” because they are not really rules. They are negotiated understandings and both sides have input on how they are to be worked out.

In the case of your daughter’s room, an Exchange might look like this: The room is her space even though you own the house The room is locked but parents have permission to enter it if they feel it is warranted. If the teen does not keep the room to a minimum level of tidiness, there would be consequences (these must be negotiated and agreed upon). The only exception to this is if a teen has a weapon in the room or if the parent suspects the teen is in trouble or is hurting themselves. If these exceptions occur then the parent must tell the teen either right before going in or immediately after.

I asked Maria if she could live with this kind of Exchange. She thought about it for awhile and said there were a few modifications she would like, but that it sounded fair. She brought it home to her daughter who made a few more modifications than Maria and I had worked out. By the end, they were both satisfied it was a workable Exchange.

The next time we met, Maria and I went into the deeper issue. I asked her why the condoms and the copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” upset her so much. “She’s only 17. She shouldn’t be sexually active yet. And I certainly don’t think she should be fooling around with that Bondage crap!” Maria’s complexion was a deeply disturbed umber by this point. “Tell me about your discussions with your daughter about sex.”

Maria shared that they had talked twice about sex and sexuality. The first time she had reviewed the basics of her daughter’s monthly cycle and how to care for that part of her life. The second time, she explained how intercourse worked and how petting almost always led up to it. That conversation took place two years before and they had not talked about sex since.

“Then Maria, I don’t think you should be surprised that your daughter has decided to find out more about sexuality without consulting you. I am not trying to make you feel bad, but the information you gave your daughter, though moderately helpful, is less than minimal. Think about this; you found condoms in her drawer. What does that tell you?”

“That she is sexually active.”

“Not necessarily. She may be, or she may just want to make sure she’s prepared if she does have sex. She owns these condoms herself, which means she is not relying on a boyfriend to have them. She is taking responsibility for her own life. If you had been having these conversations regularly, you would know her motivation for having the condom.”

I wasn’t trying to make Maria feel badly. I wanted her to wake up to the most important aspect of Respectful Parenting: There must be continual dialogue over issues both parties feel strongly about.

In the end, Maria went home and began the first of many discussions about sexuality with her daughter. She and her daughter read through several chapters of Fifty Shades and talked over what it meant. In the end, the daughter concluded on her own that this was not that interesting to her. And mom and daughter talked more about their own ideas of sexuality and what it implied to them.

Lo and behold, they stopped fighting.

It’s not rocket science.

In this article, I am outlining how any parents and teens can get to this place. It is all facilitated by Exchanges. An Exchange is an agreement a parent and teen enter into on a specific subject where certain compromises are made by both sides until everyone is satisfied about the issue.

To arrive at a successful Exchange, these are the basic understandings:

  1. This is not a contest. It is not a win-lose zero sum game. Either both parties get enough of what they want or you keep working at it.
  2. This is a compromise. Everyone needs to give up something. That is why it is called an Exchange
  3. This is negotiated. Parents can’t unilaterally determine all the parameters of the exchange. Neither can the teen.
  4. An Exchange is always open to change if it is not working for everyone concerned.

 

With these guidelines up front as the basis, let’s look at 7 common Exchanges and how a parent and teen can arrive at them.

Schoolwork Exchange

This is very complex concept. How well someone does in high school often determines what they will do with the rest of their lives. Parents often understand this better than teens. So parents come at the issue more intensely than their teens. Unfortunately, for teens, high school is a complex tangle of relationships, changing goals, victories and defeats, pressures, and competing allegiances. It is not as simple as just getting good grades.

A parent wants a teen to work hard. That is reasonable to expect. In a schoolwork exchange, the parent and the teen must decide what is expected by both parties. Most teens want their parents to give advice about school, provide resources, guidance and help. But they really resent being harped upon, criticized for doing poorly, checked up on, punished for bad grades.

I have told parents that good grades should be praised but not rewarded. Bad grades should be discussed but not punished. It is a very difficult thing to negotiate. But in this exchange, clearly spell out what a teen is responsible for and what the discussions will look like if the teen does not live up to their agreements.

The teen may want the parent to do certain things to help them. Teens with learning disabilities may want parents to attend 504 hearings or IEP meetings. Or the teen may want the parent to withdraw from scoping their grades for a quarter, just to see if the teen can manage it themselves.

In the end, the agreement must be revisited regularly to see if it is working. I warn parents that the teen ultimately has to care about achieving some success in schoolwork without being pushed. No one is going to push them when they’re at college or in the workforce, so teen years are a good place to start with self-motivation.

Future Predictions Exchange

The second most common complaint I hear from teens in counseling is their parents make continual dire predictions about their future.

If they experiment with marijuana, parents assume the teens are on the road to addiction. If the teen is sexually active they are going to get STD’s, AIDS, pregnant or will be living on the streets soon. If they get bad grades, they will have to work at Walmart.

The teen already fears an unknown future. They don’t need a parent to add gloom and doom to the picture. In this Exchange, the parent and the teen must negotiate how a parent can express concern about current actions. How much is the parent allowed to express their fears and how deeply can they analyze the current trends. Teens need to specify what issues can be discussed and which ones are off-limits. In the end, all parties need to be satisfied they have not given up more than they are comfortable with.

Solutions Exchange

Teens have problems. By definition, teens are beginning to face issues that never came up when they were children. And, they lack enough experience as adults to know how to act in every situation.

For example, teens don’t know how to manage money very well. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally they don’t spend money wisely. This often means they don’t have the money they need when they need it. At one point should a parent jump in with a solution? It is not as easy as it sounds. You are trying to balance respect with caring.

In this exchange, the parents and teens decide when and how a parent will enter into a problem the teen is having. This exchange must cover when parents must stay out and when they can enter in.

I have friends whose son had extremely bad body odor. They asked me if they should say something. I told them only one of them should approach this issue and should give solutions like showers, deodorant and laundry hampers. Unfortunately, dad went beyond these and constantly lectured his son every time the smell was slightly off. Dad and son reached a point of yelling because of this.

I helped them draw up an exchange about how often parents could suggest solutions to their son. On his side, the son agreed to ask more often (at least once a week) if his body odor was offensive. All sides agreed that parents would help by buying whatever the son needed to smell better. After agreeing upon this, there was no more yelling. And even though the smells did not get hugely better, they were tolerable.

Communication Exchange

We had a rule in our house “Nothing is not an answer”. We made that rule because two of our teens loved to give that as an answer to most questions. “What happened in your life today?” “Nothing”. “What’s bothering you?” “Nothing”. Is there anything you want to talk about?” “Nothing”.

Because we are seeking to parent with respect, we must respect the teen’s right to their own information. But the teen must also stretch and realize that a certain level of communication with others in the household is also respectful. In this exchange, parents and teens decide on some simple guidelines.

A teen is allowed to say “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” But if they say that, the parent has a right to ask “Why” and “Can you give me a time we can talk about it?” In this exchange, parents and teens spell out exactly how to handle situations where teens want to keep some information to themselves. But in the Exchange it should be spelled out the teen should come back to some of these issues when they’re ready.

Personal Space Exchange

This is the one we mentioned above. Every teen needs to have a space they can call their own. This is not just to protect the emotional center of their lives. They also need a break from younger siblings and nosy parents. We all need that. They need a place they can crash and contemplate where their life is going. If they choose to use that place as a storage unit and the mess offends others, they must be responsible for that.

Just as the owner of a house is allowed, with notice, to inspect their house when renters are present, so too a parent needs to specify in the contract how often inspections will be done. Consequences for messy bedrooms and toxic waste should be spelled out.

For the most part, parents are often concerned about drugs and alcohol in the room. This must be written into the exchange as well. Leave nothing out of the agreement.

At the very least, the teen’s room should have a lock on the door. They must have a key and so should the parent. But the parent must agree only to use it in the most dire situations.

Trust Exchanges

Few things hurt as badly as being accused of lying. We want our loved ones to trust us and when they do not, it causes us to doubt their love. At the same time, we all fail. And when we fail, it is harder for others to trust us.

This conundrum is experienced often between parents and teens. Teens often complain their parents do not believe them. Teens hate being told “you’re lying to me”.

Frequently, I have proposed an Exchange to solve this. In this agreement, the parent says they will not use the phrase “you’re lying”. Rather, they must tell the teen, “I have trouble believing that, and here is why.” The parent needs to take ownership of their skepticism without immediately jumping to a conclusion.

At the same time, the teen should not demand a parent believe everything they say. There must be a certain level of skepticism by all parties. At the heart of this Exchange is the agreement that no one will call anyone else a liar. It is no coincidence that in the British Parliamentary system, you can call other members of Parliament just about any name you want as long as it isn’t “Liar”.

Interrogation Exchange

Teens also want parents to leave an issue alone when all has been said. Most often, this doesn’t need to have a full Exchange. Parents and teens should just allow each other to say “we’ve talked about this enough. Let’s leave it alone”.

Russ and his girlfriend had unprotected sex and she thought she might be pregnant. At 7 weeks gestation, she miscarried. But they had already both told their parents about the pregnancy. During those early weeks, Russ’s parents had mercilessly lectured Russ on his irresponsible actions. A week before his girlfriend lost the baby, Russ ran away from home. They didn’t seem him for five years.

I know the parents very well and we have dissected all that happened. I have talked to Russ about it and asked him what would have helped in the situation. All of them agreed the best solution would have been to set a limit on how much discussion they could have on the issue. Russ needed a time-out from being interrogated. From the first discussion, he knew how foolish he had been to have unprotected sex. But mom and dad would not drop the issue. They saw it as a microcosm of all his other failures.

Soon, they were no longer talking about sex, but about grades, smoking, laziness and siblings. This one issue became the lightning rod for all their frustration.

In this Exchange, all parties have the right to say “You have ten more minutes to make your point and then we’re done for at least a _______ (a specified period of time). It is always appropriate to negotiate how long a time has to pass before discussing the issue again. At one point, all parties have to have the right to say “enough is enough” on certain issues.

 

One more thing about Exchanges. Write them down and have all parties agree to them and sign their names. My kids didn’t think this was funny…when they signed their names to our Exchanges, they also looked dead serious. i believe they knew I was both treating them like adults but also expecting they would now act like adults.