When to Say No To Your Child

2:23 pmin Articles Rosemary Strembicki

We’ve all had that feeling,  “Who’s in charge, me or this child?”  How do we know if we’re being sensitive to our child’s needs or giving in too much?  When is it time to step in and tell these kids how it’s going to be?

NOYour toddler is whining, demanding and won’t take a nap.  You’ve got your day planned and he’s just not cooperating.  Your third grader is insisting on buying lunch today even though you’ve just spent 15 minutes putting together her favorite sandwich and snacks.  Or your teenager is heading out the door telling you he’ll be late coming home from school because he’s meeting friends for a quick game of basketball.  In each instance things are not going as planned and conflict is inevitable.  But conflict is also an opportunity to reflect and learn.

As parents we are constantly guiding and making decisions, sometimes we’re right on target and sometimes we’re far from the mark.  We really don’t know what that toddler is thinking or feeling, what has prompted the eight year old to change her mind or the teenager to change his plans.  But each child is exercising their autonomy and communicating that they think they’re ready to make their own decision.  But are they?  At each stage the stakes are higher but if we know our children we can help them become autonomous by setting them up for success.

Here are the factors to consider:

What are the risks in letting them decide?

Is the child ready to meet the consequences that may arise?

Is the child being respectful of the rules that are currently in place?

Is it a problem of letting go on our part?

Is it just too inconvenient right now to deal with this?

We don’t always have the time to answer all those questions and, being a parent, it’s often important to say “no” and keep the structure in place, especially if our children aren’t considering anyone else but themselves.  Sometimes saying no is the only option because of time constraints or circumstances regardless of it being an opportunity for growth or discussion.  Practicality often trumps developmental growth when raising a family.  And if our children feel secure in their relationship with us they will be able to tolerate the “no’s” and know that the opportunity for discussion can follow, even if we don’t change our minds.

Sometimes that “no” is a relief to hear when the child isn’t sure about the decision.  No matter how much they complain, children feel much more secure within a predictable structure that they can push against.  It reinforces values and teaches confidence that you will guide them and support them when they make mistakes.  And if it turns out that we are off the mark it teaches them that we all make mistakes, readjust and move forward.

Here are some additional things to consider in deciding when to say “no”.

  • How important is it to stand firm in this instance?
  • Is your child challenging basic family values or rules?
  • Does your child have a good understanding of those rules and why they are in place?
  • Are there any alternatives or compromises that can be considered?
  • Are you ready to have your child make a step towards independence?
  • Are there underlying issues that your child is trying to communicate like trying to fit in, difficulty making friends, or feeling insecure at school?
  • What might be prompting this push at autonomy now and is it appropriate?

It’s always a good idea to reflect on the situation once the crisis is over, with or without your child depending on their age.  Our children aren’t the only ones learning and growing throughout this process.  And every child is different so there isn’t one strategy that’s always going to work.  But if we’re intentional, keep communication open and learn about ourselves and our children along the way, our chances of raising happy, emotional healthy individuals is that much greater.

Questions to consider:

  • Are you comfortable saying “no” to your child?
  • Do you ever avoid saying “no” so your child won’t get upset with you or because it’s just easier in the moment to give in?
  • Would you rather say “yes” even when it doesn’t feel right or goes against your values because you want to avoid conflict and tension in your house?
  • Do you ever say “no” because of your own fear – either that your child might make a mistake and suffer a negative consequence or that you’re not ready to let go as your child grows?
  • Are you and your co-parent usually on the same page when it comes to saying “no” or does your child know how to play off each of you in order to get the answer he/she wants?
  • What small steps would you like to set for yourself regarding how often you say “yes” and “no” to your child?

Conversation starters:

  • The answer is no.  I’m sorry if that is upsetting to you but let me explain the reasons why I have to say no right now.
  • We’ve put these rules and limits in place in order to keep you safe.  It may be hard to understand that and when I was your age, I wouldn’t have liked that answer either.  But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized . . .
  • At this moment, the answer is no.  But I will be happy to sit down when we have more time and listen to your perspective.  Do you want to make a plan for when we can have that conversation?


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