Q: There are times when I have to say no to something my child wants, but I’m not sure how to handle it when my child gets upset. Sometimes I just give in and let her have what she wants, but that doesn’t feel right and it makes it harder the next time I need to say no. I hate seeing her so mad. My parents always used to say, “Because I said so!” after they used the word no with me, but I’d like to do things differently. Any suggestions?
A: First of all, I want to validate that limits and boundaries are very important to help our children feel safe. There are going to be times when we need to say no to something our children want. We can use the times we say no as an opportunity for family growth and a time of learning for our children, rather than a time of disconnection.
That said, recognize that, in our society, many parents say no just out of habit. When you find yourself saying no, stop and think about what your child is really asking you. Are you just saying no because it is messy or inconvenient for you, but not really something that ultimately matters? Many parents find that this is the case when they really explore what they are saying to their children.
I would encourage you to say yes as much as possible.
Why, you may ask? According to a recent study, by the time we are about 7 or 8 years old we have heard, “No, you can’t,” about 50,000 times and “Yes, you can,” or positive affirmations about our abilities about 7,000 times. What does that do to our ability to try new things, to learn and grow? How does that affect what we believe about ourselves? Strive to reverse those numbers in your own family and see what amazing things will happen!
Even with the numbers reversed, we are still theoretically saying no about 7,000 times by the time our child is 8, so knowing how to handle this with love is very important. You have the ability to make those 7,000 positive interactions or 7,000 negative interactions. So how do we connect with our children when we are telling them no?
The most important thing to remember is that children have a right to how they feel in all situations, including those when we are setting a limit.
Many parents become flustered when the child begins to get upset, because the parent feels uncomfortable with the strong feelings the child is expressing and, of course, this wouldn’t be happening now if you hadn’t set the limit. That is about YOU. Take a moment and think about why this bothers you. Are you comfortable with your own feelings? How was it handled in your own family growing up when you were upset about something? If you heard, “because I said so!” it doesn’t sound like there was much room for you to have feelings about what was happening in your life.
Some parents feel that they are doing something wrong if the child becomes upset at a boundary, or that they are somehow a bad parent. Perhaps the blame goes back onto the parent with thoughts such as, “If I had only been more consistent in the past,” or “I just need to be tough and they just need to learn that when I say no, I mean no.” These thoughts do not create connection. Remember, children always have the right to feel what they feel.
If I knew that saying no to my own child was going to bring up feelings in myself that I didn’t want to feel, it would make saying no very difficult. But if I look at it as an opportunity to connect, things can turn out very differently.
Here’s an example of what this might look like with a younger child
Billy is 3 years old, and wants to have ice cream right now.
Billy: I want ice cream.
Mom: (Pausing before speaking to consider the request…) Billy, I know ice cream is really yummy (connecting first), but we’re about to eat dinner. You may have some dessert after dinner. (Letting him know what he CAN do and when.) If you’re hungry now, there are carrots and cucumbers on the table just for you.
Billy: (Starting to get upset that he can’t have the ice cream) But I want ice cream now!
Mom: I know, Billy. I love ice cream, too. (Getting down to his level to look him in the eyes. If he looks away, respect it and lower your gaze to wherever he is looking.)
Billy: But I want some NOW!
Mom: (Who is remembering to breathe because Billy is allowed to have his feelings and this isn’t about her…) I know you want ice cream now. You are feeling mad right now. I’d be mad, too. (Naming and validating the feelings, using her voice to match his intensity.)
Billy: I just want ice cream. (Intensity is lower now and he is starting to show some tears and sadness.)
Mom: I know it is hard when you can’t have what you want. (Mom is validating the shift in feelings and giving him words that express how he is feeling.) I’d love a hug when you’re ready to give me one. (Mom holds out arms toward child.)
Billy: No, I don’t want a hug.
Mom: That’s okay. Whenever you’re ready. (Allowing Billy to have his emotional space, knowing he isn’t rejecting her, but is still just having his own feelings.) I’ll be right here when you’re ready. (Mom stays there, quietly providing the space for Billy to move close when he is ready.)
Billy: (After a few minutes) Okay, I’m ready. (He moves toward her and gives mom a hug.) I really needed a hug!
When mom is completely open to his feelings, it allows all the frustrations of the day to come out and the result is connection, along with the opportunity for Billy to talk about other things that may have happened that day.
That all sounds fine on paper, but does it really work like this in real life? Absolutely. It takes shifting the way you, as a parent, look at your child’s feelings and your role in this scenario. It is important to truly put yourself in the shoes of your child and feel what they are feeling, too. In this way, they are not alone with their feelings and you are creating connection. Using the same words in a patronizing way would not yield the same results. They must reflect understanding and empathy, remaining in a state of calm, which is also called being regulated. This can be a challenge sometimes!
Let’s look at a scenario with a teenager.
In this situation, Abbie, who is 13, made plans last week with her mom to go shopping. Mom has hired a babysitter to watch her younger children so they can spend this time together. Jasmine calls and wants Abbie to go shopping with her instead.
Abbie: (Getting off the phone with her friend, Jasmine, who just called) Can I go shopping with Jasmine tomorrow?
Mom: (Pausing to think about the question before speaking) Abbie, tomorrow we are going to go shopping together, as we agreed last week. I have really been looking forward to spending that time with you.
Abbie: (Getting louder) But can’t I go?
Mom: No, honey. I have a babysitter set up and this is really important.
Abbie: (Yelling now, crying, and kicking the floor, much like a 2 year old) WHY can’t I go?
Mom: (Who now realizes she isn’t dealing with a 13 year old, but a child who is too stressed out to act more than about 2) I can see that you’re very upset about this. I’d be upset, too. (Connecting with what it was like to be a teen herself and that strong desire to spend time with friends.) You may go later this week with Jasmine. (Letting her know when she CAN do what she is asking.)
Abbie: WHY can’t I go?? You’re so unfair.
Mom: (Matching Abbie’s intensity, breathing, remembering this is not about mom.) That feels really unfair!
Abbie: (Who has realized that mom isn’t arguing with her) Yes, it is unfair! You never listen to me and you don’t care what I want. (Core issue coming up… pay attention!)
Mom: You feel like I don’t listen. You know, you’re right. In the past, I haven’t always done a good job of listening to you. But I’m going to make that different.
Abbie: Yeah right.
Mom: You have every right to feel exactly how you feel. (Mom remembers that listening is the most important thing to do in this moment, so she pauses to allow space for Abbie to say what is really bothering her.)
After Abbie has expressed her feelings and feels heard, she will be able to return to her chronological age and discuss plans. When she is upset, she cannot hear anything mom is saying. If mom can really hear Abbie, without justifying, defending, or explaining, Abbie will feel heard and be able to calm down. When she is calm, mom can discuss the limit again, along with what it means to make commitments and other cognitive life lessons. It may be an hour later, several hours later that same day, or perhaps even the next day when both people are calm and regulated.
The most important thing for mom to look at is the relationship.
Abbie not wanting to spend time with mom could be a sign that they aren’t connecting in the best possible way. Ironically, mom is working toward connecting to repair the disconnect in the relationship by spending time together. By accepting Abbie’s feelings in the moment, mom is working toward creating connection and repairing their relationship, rather than creating more disconnection.
Each of these situations could have gone many different ways, including coming up with a compromise, or even with the parent changing her mind. Parenting requires flexibility and deciding what is going to work best for your situation in your own family. These situations were simply meant to show how feelings could still be validated even when “no” was required.
Saying no is an inevitable part of parenthood, so embrace this as an opportunity to connect with your child.