Spring Break: Is it Okay to Say No?

This is our second spring break post of this season. In our first spring break post, we discussed spring break in general and offered some ideas to keep your teen busy this time around, in case you don’t have a family trip or anything else planned already. In this post, we’re going to expand on a question we addressed very briefly in our first post:

Should I let my teenager go on an unsupervised trip with their friends?

We offered a quick, definitive answer – no – but qualified it by saying “If you know your teenager has been drinking and experimenting with drugs, then the answer is…” The real answer, of course, depends on more than just that. It depends on circumstances unique to every family and every teen. Drinking and drugs aren’t the only things that might keep your teen from going on an unsupervised trip with their friends. Most families have sets of rules and consequences they form through trial and error over the years. While those words – rules and consequences – are perfectly valid, in our work as mental health professionals, we use different words for the same things: behavioral expectations and outcomes. We won’t debate the semantics here, but we will use this terminology for the rest of this post.

What does this have to do with the spring break question?

It’s all about you, as a parent, owning your ability and right to say no to your teen when it’s both necessary and appropriate.

The Importance of Saying No to Teens

Some of the defining characteristics of adolescence are risk-taking, novelty-seeking, and boundary-testing. We’ve written before on how the adolescent brain develops: the emotional brain grows ahead of the rational brain, which means that while teens are following their natural, emotional drives to seek and exceed limits, the decision-making and risk/reward-analyzing parts of their brain – mainly the prefrontal cortex and associated areas – have a hard time keeping up.

Which means, to put it simply, parents often act as an external prefrontal cortex for their adolescent children. In practice that means, as a parent, you’ll often have to say no in the face of heartfelt, passionate, and emotional pleas from your teenager. You’ll also have to say no when your teen breaks household rules and needs to experience the consequences of breaking those rules. Or, as we might say in behavioral health, you may have to stand firm when your teenager needs to experience the outcome of failing to meet the behavioral expectations unique to your family.

With regards to spring break, and that unsupervised trip with friends, your “No” might not be related to alcohol or drug use at all. It may be related to grades, it may be related to household chores, it may be related to the way your teen interacts with you – think respect – or it may be related to something else entirely.

It all depends on you. But understand this: although they may beg, cry, throw tantrums the likes of which you haven’t seen in years, it’s very important for you to form an maintain firm boundaries for your teenager. It may be counterintuitive, but one way to look at it is that your teen is not begging you to say yes. In some cases, they’re actually begging you to say no.

What Hearing “No” Teaches Teens

Let’s back up: begging you to say no?

Yes, you read that right. Since seeking boundaries is a defining characteristic of adolescence, part of your job is to show them exactly where those boundaries are. Not every boundary needs to be discovered experientially. Sure, touching a hot stove is the best way to learn never to touch a hot stove again, but does your teen need to experience a car accident in order to know that getting in a car with a drunk friend is not a good choice?

We think you’d agree they don’t need to experience that in order to understand that boundary. You can assess that risk for them and teach them – by saying no – that some things are safe and some things aren’t. So that’s the first thing they learn when you say no: boundaries exist. And most boundaries exist to keep them safe. A corollary to that is they also learn they can count on you to keep them safe – and one way you keep them safe is by saying no.

What else do teens learn when you say no – and stick to it?

Here’s a short list.

1. They learn their behavior has predictable outcomes.

Let’s take the spring break trip, for example. If they asked you in January about the trip, and you said something like “Show me straight A’s and it’s a yes,” then if they didn’t get those A’s, the answer should still be no. We’re not debating whether that’s a fair arrangement or not – the point here is that when a favorable outcome is dependent on their behavior, they need to meet the behavioral expectation to experience the favorable outcome.

2. They learn the intensity of their emotion cannot change an outcome.

When you stick to your no in the face of tears, door slamming, and variations of “I hate you,” your teenager learns to take responsibility for their actions. Parents melt when toddlers cry – and that’s okay, but only sometimes. If parents melt every time their toddler melts down and continue to do so when their toddler becomes a teen, then the teen will likely experience difficulties later in life when facing tough professors in college, a demanding boss in the workplace, or – to take an extreme example – a judge in a courtroom.

3. They learn that all the rules – or behavioral expectations, or boundaries, or laws – apply to them, just like they apply to everyone else.

This is self-explanatory. We live in a society where, by consensus, we agree to live by a set of agreed upon rules. Some are called laws, some are called norms, some are called traditions, and some are called common sense. Whatever they’re called, each person – teens included – needs to learn that these consensus conventions apply to them, too. The first time they learn that is when they hear no as a toddler. The time when it’s reinforced most powerfully is when they hear your firm no as a teen.

4. They learn to trust you.

This point may not seem as important as the first three, but it’s crucial. Teens take risk, seek novelty, and test boundaries. They need you – strong emphasis on need – to be there to help them along the way. You can show them what risks are worth taking. You can show them what new thing is better to avoid, and you can show them what boundaries not to cross.

Remember: you’re their external prefrontal cortex. They may not behave like it, but in many cases, teens both want and need you to define those boundaries, analyze those novelties, and assess those risks for them. When you say no, you prove yourself capable of doing all three of things. You prove you’re there for them. You prove they can rely on you. When you make a hard decision they can’t, you show them what being a mature, responsible adult is about – and sometimes being an adult is about saying no when you really, really want to say yes.