What Can I Do When My Teen Claps Back With: 'You Can't Make Me'?

"I’m trying to avoid the whole physical punishment thing. I don’t really believe in it and I also don’t have the stomach for it," says one parent. So, how should they respond to this phrase?
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“You can’t make me.”

It’s the phrase teens – and sometimes even younger kids and tweens – love to retaliate with during a disagreement. And have done since the dawn of time.

But how is best to respond when they do come out with this phrase. Because often they’re right. We really can’t make them. So, now what?

This is the oh-so-relatable dilemma one parent shared on Reddit this week:

“Has your kid ever responded ‘you can’t make me’ and how do you usually respond? What has worked the best for you? My parents just used to beat us or whip us whenever me and my siblings were disobedient. So a lot of the time, yes they could ‘make us’ do something.

“Personally I’m trying to avoid the whole physical punishment thing. I don’t really believe in it and I also don’t have the stomach for it. Any help or advice would be great.”

*The above post has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The good people of Reddit were quick to share their own experiences of how their parents had responded to their use of the phrase growing up.

One recalled how their dad simply said: “You can choose not to but I can choose not too either. We all have choices and consequences in life. Think hard on what you are willing to lose in life by not doing.”

They added that when their brother once said ‘no, make me’ to something, their dad played the long game and, when the weekend came and their brother wanted to take the family car to see some friends, their dad simply said: “No, make me. Doesn’t feel good does it?”

Another person said their mum would respond to “you can’t make me” with: “No I can’t, but I sure can make you wish you had.” Ooof.

So, what can parents in this position do (or say)?

Dr Jenna Vyas-Lee, clinical psychologist and co-founder of mental healthcare clinic Kove, says the parent is “spot on” in their approach.

“We are trying to be more validating as parents these days, therefore our children feel able to voice their opinions and they expect to be heard and respected,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“This is a fabulous place to be. However, we still need compliance to get through the day.”

Get back on the same side

Dr Vyas-Lee recommends reconnecting with your child and trying to get back on the same side.

“If a child says ‘you can’t make me’ they feel you are against them. Let’s start with ‘you are right, and also I would never want to force you to do something you are uncomfortable with’,” she advises.

After that, she recommends stepping back and trying to connect with them on an emotional level – this could be as simple as having a quick chat about something you both have in common.

Stay calm and try to understand where your child is coming from

Donna Morgan, a therapist specialising in teens and conflict resolution, urges parents to remain calm and ask their child: “what’s going on?” in order to gain understanding of their perspective during the disagreement.

Counselling Directory member Selina Speight agrees that parents in this position need to try and better understand what is happening in the child’s world.

“Meet your child at their level, offer them a safe space to talk and disagree. You may find with this open approach your child responds in a more positive way to your requests and your role as a parent/caregiver becomes slightly easier and more enriched,” Speight adds.

Solve it together

Once you’re back on the same(ish) side, Dr Vyas-Lee recommends acknowledging two truths with your child. Firstly, they don’t want to do [whatever it is].

And secondly, you both need to do [whatever it is] because of [whatever the reason is].

“I would then propose it as a joint problem: ‘I wonder what we can do to move forward with this?’,” she advises.

You could even say something like: “We are on the same team, can we think of how to solve it together?”

Admittedly, your teen might tell you where to go, but offering choices (within reasonable limits) can help adolescents feel more in control and less resistant, adds Morgan.

Remember to offer credit when it’s due

Even for teens, positive reinforcement through praise and rewards can motivate cooperation in the long-run.

“When it comes to offering praise to older children and adolescents, the principles of authenticity and specificity remain vital,” says Morgan.

“Genuine and constructive feedback resonates most deeply and descriptive praise can provide clarity about what precisely was commendable. For instance, recognising their initiative in tasks like organising their study space or taking responsibility for a group project can be impactful.”

The therapist suggests these conversations respect their growing autonomy and acknowledge the complex tasks and challenges they are beginning to undertake.

She adds: “As adolescents seek validation and a sense of identity, tailored and sincere praise can boost their confidence and self-worth, laying the foundation for a positive self-concept in their adult lives.”

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