Giving Ultimatums to Teens – A Word of Caution


In the heat of the moment an ultimatum seems the way to deal with a child's rebellion - be careful

Parents often struggle with how to draw and enforce boundaries for their teenage child.

For example, consider the following situation:

Imagine your 16 year-old daughter wants to go to a party on a school night – something that you are totally opposed to.

On the night of the party, she walks out the door so you tell her to think about what she is doing. She gives you a look. In reply, you tell her that if she can’t obey the rules then she can’t stay in the house.

She responds angrily to you, and you tell her to not come home if she walks out now.

Not only does she walk out but she doesn’t come home that night nor the next day.

You are worried about her.

She’s been a discipline problem and now you feel boxed in.

Feeling Boxed In
If you don’t enforce your threat, how can you protect her from bad choices anymore?
How can you avoid being disrespected by her?
Is there still a way to not ask her to leave and still get her to change her behavior?
Making threats, especially when angry, is not generally a good idea. This is especially the case when trying to parent a teen.

The problem in this particular situation is that you created a "no win" situation:

Neither you nor your daughter are getting an outcome that is really a win. You find yourself in a situation of having to choose between equally unacceptable options. You are now left not being able to provide the basic care that is a responsibility of parenting; yet you want to do this while also providing reasonable structure.

Avoiding Ultimatum Situations
Here's a suggestion for situations like the one described above:

Avoid giving teens an A or 'not A' with consequences type of choice.

Many parents give this type of choice to children. If they chose A (the desired outcome), all is well. If they chose 'not A' then either the consequences kick in or it weakens the parenting.
This is especially problematic when the consequences are broad and not really likely or able to be enforced (such as NEVER coming home).
A Better Idea

A better solution in such situations is to offer the child (especially a teenager) a range of choices, preferably with all of them being acceptable to you as the parent.
A Failed Ultimatum - The Aftermath
However, back to the situation described at the start of this article. You would have a range of options available to you:

  • If your teenager is truly out of control, in a dangerous way, you could talk to your local child welfare office about them being identified as "a child in need of services".
  • You could see how your child does in another environment - spending the summer with an out of town relative is an opportunity that may be appropriate, especially if it is timely.
  • You could entertain the idea of the teenager returning home conditionally upon discussing boundaries for that - and to be most effective this does need to be a discussion. With as difficult as the relationship may have become, you may want to use a marriage and family therapist to help facilitate that conversation.

Considering a Marriage & Family Therapist
If you decide to seek out a marriage & family therapist, that person may even prove helpful over the longer term.

Going this route is not just giving in, it still expresses love and caring, and it has the possibility of laying groundwork for the future.
With everyone working at it and developing new ways of relating, it is possible to get through these times and establish ways for peace and wholeness in your child's life as well as in your lives.
This does not mean that you will be free of the challenges that occur during the teenage years, but you will be able to navigate these in a way that is better for everyone involved and can result in “win-win situations”. 

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.