As important as it is to respect our child's choices and personal boundaries, it can be challenging when a choice conflicts with what is important to us. Autonomy-supportive parenting offers a road map for how to respond when our child doesn't want to do something we want them to do, preserving their agency and our values at the same time.
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Illustration of sulking child in doorway at family gathering
Credit: Illustration by Kailey Whitman

We have come a long way in our contemporary parenting culture from the days of "because I said so." We now know our children learn so much more, and we form closer relationships when we can better appreciate their perspectives. However, your dilemma captures the tension many of us feel: what do we do when we really want our child to do something they just don't want to do? Not just when it comes to picking up their dirty socks, but when making important choices and decisions.

Fortunately, a well-researched approach that has finally started to make its way from journal articles to the real world, autonomy-supportive parenting, can give us a helpful framework. A few key components of autonomy-supportive parenting that can be applied here (and to many, many parenting dilemmas): using empathy and perspective-taking, approaching a problem with curiosity, encouraging behaviors to align with values, and involving a child in problem-solving and decision-making to increase their sense of choice and agency.

First Step: Find Out Why

Your 10-year-old has shown you through sulking and dragging her feet that she does not want to go visit family, but why? In my life as a combo therapist and mom, I have learned even when we think we know why our child is behaving a certain way, the truth can surprise us.

On the surface, it appears your daughter does not want to see family, which conflicts with what is important to you. I do not know details of her life, but some other possible reasons I can think of based on working with so many families in my practice include: being tired from feeling over-scheduled and wanting down time; thinking she might miss out on something social; having a negative experience with a family member that maybe she hasn't shared with you.

Be Curious Not Critical

If you can approach your daughter with curiosity instead of criticism, you have a better chance of getting more out of her. I have had to work very intentionally on this myself as a mother since criticism often takes less energy! Using curiosity can require us to first settle down our own emotions so we come to our children with genuine openness, and then we may have to bite our tongues so they actually keep talking. An example of a critical response that might feel more natural and automatic: "I can't believe you don't want to see our family. That's so disrespectful!"

Since you are seeking guidance and even mentioning respecting her personal boundaries, it seems like you are already curious, but may not know what to do with it. One way to open a conversation about why she doesn't want to go: "I notice you act like you really don't want to go see our family, and I'm interested in what's going on with that. I really want to understand it instead of get upset with you for it." Not only does this convey interest in her experience, but includes your own struggle in an honest way, which is great modeling for positive communication about difficult topics.

Talk Values

With no psychic powers to speak of, I cannot predict what your daughter's reasons are, so that will affect how you specifically address your dilemma. In general, however, we can pair our expectations of certain behavior with personal and family values. Although you want to respect her personal boundaries, the choice to not spend time with family sacrifices the value of strong relationships with extended family. You can frame your expectation for her to see family in the context of how important it is to stay connected with loved ones, and to invest time and energy into these relationships.

Find Solutions Together

The next steps are where you can demonstrate respect for your daughter's agency and personal boundaries. Once you identify why she doesn't want to spend time with family, you two can brainstorm solutions to address the reasons, within the expectation that she will spend at least some time with family. For example, if it's every weekend, maybe she feels like it takes too much time away from relaxing or being with friends. One solution would be to agree on a "freebie" once a month, or some way that she feels a sense of choice within the expectation. Important note: make sure you allow her to generate ideas first, instead of doing all the problem-solving for her.

If she has a problem with a specific family member (maybe an annoying younger cousin?), this opens up an even richer opportunity to practice managing interpersonal problems in ways other than avoiding that person! Speaking of boundaries, if there is a family member who she experiences as crossing boundaries, whether it's giving unwanted hugs or asking intrusive questions, she may need your back-up for support. Example: When grandma starts peppering her with questions about whether she's gone through puberty yet, you can speak up and say: "I don't think she wants to answer those questions. Let's talk about something else."

The Bottom Line

The more information you can gather in the first steps of using curiosity to show empathy and take your daughter's perspective, the more effective the next steps will be when you move to solving the problem. I hope it makes sense how this approach balances your expectation that she spends time with family, with her own autonomy and personal boundaries. Our growing children need the structure and limits of expectations or many would take the easier paths of NOT doing hard things or things they just don't like, but the way we relate to them about these expectations is what preserves or risks their sense of autonomy.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.