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The art of the deal: Six tips for negotiating with kids

Rebecca Cheung

If every interaction with your kids feels like a negotiation lately, you are not alone.

When emotions run high at home, it’s difficult for parents to come up with peaceful resolutions. Even the most experienced business negotiators might find themselves at a loss.

“Some of the difficult discussions we have with our kids can become emotional, repetitive and unpredictable,” explains Sonia Kang, an associate professor with the Department of Management at UTM with a cross-appointment to the Organizational Behaviour and HR Management area at the Rotman School of Management.

“Our kids might be the toughest negotiators we ever face.”

That said, parents shouldn’t lose hope just yet. There are things they can do to get through to their kids during this difficult time, says Kang, who has devoted much of her academic work to studying and understanding negotiations, power and behaviour.

As Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Kang’s research identifies strategies to disrupt systems, processes and structures that block diversity and inclusion within organizations. She also explores how employees can navigate challenges that arise on the job with her popular podcast, For the Love of Work. As well, she coaches students in her negotiations courses on how to execute difficult deals, persuade others or negotiate raises or promotions.

Her experiences during the global pandemic have made her a true expert when it comes to negotiating with kids. In addition to juggling work and other commitments during lockdown, Kang and her partner have been brokering deals with their two energetic — and very clever — young sons.

Here are Kang’s six tips for navigating difficult parenting situations.

Prioritize your relationship with your child.

“As a parent, your top priority never changes. Your child should always feel safe and secure with you,” says Kang.

Parents need to maintain a healthy, secure attachment relationship with their kids. This puts children on the path to becoming confident adults who are comfortable taking risks and pursuing healthy relationships later in life.

Know what is negotiable.

When kids feel a sense of control, they are less likely to act out and more likely to abide by the few rules that their parents establish.

Kang encourages parents to re-examine their daily parenting decisions and consider whether they are non-negotiable issues, negotiable issues or issues to forget for now.

“I think most parents will see that very few issues are non-negotiable, and that leaves a lot of room to involve kids in decision-making,” she says.

Parents can empower their kids by having them suggest a few meal ideas for the week or ideas on how they want to spend their free time.

Adults should also know when to walk away.

“There are battles that just aren't worth the energy right now,” says Kang. “For example, if your child refuses to sleep in her bed and insists on sleeping on the floor, think about whether it’s worth the fight. If the end goal is to get her to go to sleep and she’s doing that, don’t fixate on details.”

Coach kids on their emotions.

“In parenting, all emotions get a ‘yes,’ even if your child is expressing something that you disagree with,” says Kang. She recommends four steps for helping kids process their emotions, derived from the theory and practice of emotion-focused parenting.

1. Attend to the emotions that your kids are expressing. Resist the urge to refute your child’s claims. “For most parents, it’s hard to hear that your children feel hopeless or bad about themselves, but we need to instill the idea that they can trust their feelings,” says Kang. “It’s important to take a moment and listen.”

2. Put a label on their emotions. Help your kids define exactly what they are feeling. For instance, for kids who feel unpopular or isolated from their peers, parents can use phrases like ‘I understand why you’re feeling this way because everyone wants to have friends’ or ‘I understand why you’re sad because it feels bad to be left out.’

3. Validate their emotions. You might disagree with the assumptions underlying your child’s emotions, but you need to show them that you empathize with them.

4. Meet the need. Once you’ve put the emotions in context, jump into action. Soothe, offer hugs and reassure. Set boundaries if your child acts out.

Coach kids on their behaviours.

Once parents have helped kids understand their emotions, they need to be firm about expected behaviours. Kang offers parents four steps for guiding kids towards productive behaviours.

1. Describe what you’re seeing. State the facts and don’t be judgmental. For instance, when you see a fight escalating between your kids, describe what you’re seeing with ‘I see two kids who aren’t getting along.’

2. Remind. Emphasize the rules and expectations. (For example, ‘In our home everyone's body is safe’ or ‘In our family, we discuss things calmly when we disagree.’)

3. Inspire and expect. Remind your kids of times when they did the right thing. (‘I've seen how responsible you can be and helpful you’ve been to your sister in the past’ or ‘I remember times when you showed so much kindness and caring towards your brother.’)

4. Give opportunities. Speak slowly, take deep breaths, and be patient. Give your kids time to process what you’ve told them and the opportunity to do the right thing. If they act out, be firm and provide loving consequences, which will be unique from family to family based on what works and feels right for them.

Know your role and responsibilities

“As parents, your job is to empathize, validate and set boundaries. Your kids are simply responsible for experiencing and expressing their feelings,” says Kang. “If you can manage those things, that’s enough. You’re doing your job well. Aside from that, remember that you’re not a bad parent if you don’t love every moment you spend with your children. You need breaks and space for yourself too.”

With parenting, you’re playing the long game.

“We’re doing the hard work now to make sure our kids become teenagers and adults who can trust their own emotions, stick up for themselves and do what they feel is right,” says Kang. “Everything we teach them now about regulating their emotions and behaviours will pay off much later, and it will be worth it.”

This article first appeared on Rotman School of Management's Insights Hub.