Parents often tell me they feel as if they’re walking on eggshells around their children. Even kids as young as four and five seem to yield the power to prevent their parents from saying no. Parents fear if they don’t give in to their child’s demands, a meltdown will occur or they will be unable to get their cooperation. In essence, many parents are held hostage by their child’s behaviour. Consciously or not, a child takes advantage of that.
Most children (and adults) don’t like to be told no or to wait patiently, but if you’re tentative when setting limits, kids will pick up on this and run with it. This becomes a vicious cycle. It’s normal to feel apprehensive, therefore, about putting your foot down (so to speak), opting instead to either give in or pacify your child before a tantrum is in full swing.
Here are some tips for working towards becoming more confident and less afraid when saying “no” to your child:
Save no for when you really mean it
If no is your default response, then consider why. Perhaps you were raised in a home where that’s all you heard. Today, the pendulum may have swung to the other extreme, but still we are affected by the messages we heard when growing up. Parenting is not about automatically saying no, unless there is a good reason. So, when your child asks for an ice cream and there’s no good reason to say no, why not say yes, and at the same time, treat yourself!
If you don’t always automatically say no, your child will appreciate that your no’s are reserved for when you really mean it and that there is good reason for the way in which you have responded.
Say no in other ways
There is a time and a place for saying no and sticking to it. When, for example, your 10-year-old wants a sleepover at a friend’s whom you’ve never met, you are entitled to say no, but may choose to throw in a disclaimer. Instead of an emphatic “no” which may sound like a “never”, you might say “Not tonight. But after I’ve had a chance to meet your friend and her parents, I’d be happy to consider your request for another time.” Children appreciate fairness.
Delay responding to a request
If your child wants to do something or makes a request (or a demand) that has you feeling uneasy, it’s okay not to respond right away. Let your child know that her request requires more thought than you can offer at a moment’s notice, and that you will get back to her at a later time (it’s best to give a specific time frame such as an hour or a day). Then, when you come back with a no, he will know that you have given it ample thought and are sure about your decision. You may even ask your child for input as you’re thinking things through, so that he knows that you are considering the request with his position in mind.
If you reserve no for when it’s really important, are confident with your decision and are resolute about sticking to it, even when tempers fl are, then your child will ultimately learn that no means no and will begin accepting it.
Through the ages
When your preschooler asks for a cookie and it’s almost time for dinner, you most likely want to say no. An alternative response, and one that may prevent a temper tantrum, is to turn the no into a yes, but later. So your response may be “Yes, after dinner.” Some preschoolers may be okay with this but for those who aren’t, it’s important not to give in because of the tantrum. If you do, you will be reinforcing the negative behaviour. Instead, so long as your child is safe, ignoring the behaviour is best.
Most school-aged children have a long list of what they want and when. Peer pressure encourages them to ask for the latest and greatest toy and it’s hard as a parent to refuse them anything for fear they will not fit in. On the other hand, saying no to most requests just to prove who’s in charge doesn’t work well either. Rather than giving an emphatic no, ask your child to help you understand why they want what they want and then consider the request from all angles. Don’t be afraid of saying no if you’ve come to that conclusion after careful consideration.
Teens take great exception to being told what to do or being told no. It’s easy for parents to withdraw, exhausted from arguing and trying to set limits. As much as possible, do the opposite and stay involved with your teen. Ask your teen to convince you why you should consider his request and then, if he makes valid arguments, consider whether your no is definitive or flexible. Teens can detect when you’re afraid of saying no and will take full advantage of it, so be prepared to remain firm (even if other parents are not on the same page as you).
Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at helpmesara.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, September 2015.