It’s a true story.  Eighteen-year old high school senior, Jen, wants her own car because:

a) mom’s car isn’t often available to her.
b) taking the bus is not cool and takes longer.
c) she and her boyfriend broke up, so there goes that ride, too.

We talked about Jen’s needs versus her wants, her participation in the search and purchase of the car, and her contribution towards maintenance and insurance.  The car isn’t in the budget.  Even if it was, Traci, a single mom, wouldn’t give it to her outright, and at some level, Jen already knew that.

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The biggest hurdle for Traci was overreacting when her daughter was demanding.  Her buttons were pushed, big time.  She wanted to stay calm, but what she felt was anger and defensiveness.  Traci just wanted to explain to her, reasonably and rationally, the reasons why it couldn’t happen the way Jen wanted:  the cost of an additional car, the right safety features, high insurance cost, etc.  Unfortunately, a demanding and unreasonable 18-year old won’t respond well to not getting her way, and it all came out sounding like a lecture.

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A key to any healthy and respectful relationship is in how you communicate.  Too often what you say is impacted by your emotions.  When they are strong, difficult emotions, watch out!  Traci was living proof of that during the ‘car’ episode.  So how did we work with that?

1)  Be prepared. I suggested that Traci have a cheat sheet, an essential tool for parents to say what they mean without being hijacked by their emotions and their kids. In it are the talking points, as well as any words and phrases that help her introduce the subject and avoid drama. 

Although Jen gave her the silent treatment for a few days, the subject of the car would come up again.  Traci’s going to have a plan and the words she needs to be calm and neutral, while getting her point across.  And, if necessary, she will excuse herself to find her cheat sheet and use it.

2)  The facts. Just the facts. This is Traci’s opportunity to teach, to give information without lecturing and defending.  She wrote down what Jen needs to know, from how to choose a car, to routine expenses, to how much she, Traci, was willing to subsidize.

3)  The words and the tone. How she says it is just as important as what she says.  And this includes the ever-important acknowledging feelings.  Here’s a sample script.  “Jen, I hear how important it is to you to have a car. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m willing to look at the possibility with you. There are some things you should know to help you make an informed decision.  When you’re ready, I’d like you to look at these points, and add to them if I missed something.”

4)  It’s a collaboration, not an ultimatum (unless you’re planning to give your child a car, no strings attached. Traci has to be clear that this will happen only with Jen’s participation and financial contribution.  It’s up to Jen to choose.  Jen needs to know how much she earns, how far it will go, and how she wants to spend it.  She must prioritize.  Will she use the money she earns from her part-time job to finance the car and its expenses? Or will she opt to find other ways to go from point A to point B, and spend her earnings on other wants and needs?

5)  Time to process and make choices. Decisions can be made at a later date.  Ideally, Jen will take some time to do the math and figure out what’s most important to her.  In the meantime, Traci has given her opportunity, information and choices.

This is a process, one that most teens and young adults take years to learn:  how to think through a problem, gather information, make a choice and make a plan.  You have myriad opportunities to guide your children through the problem-solving process.  Along the way, you are also modeling how people can communicate about subjects they don’t agree on, with respect and love.  I encourage you to seek out these opportunities, and improve the odds of success by being prepared.


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