A scene I often encounter in family work is a teenager asking permission her parents for something. When they say, “No,” she responds with tears, threats, and emotional distancing. As I witness these interactions, I inevitably watch parents squirm in their seats — they begin to question themselves, and caving in becomes a menacing parenting impulse to manage. I’m on the edge of my seat at this point… will Mom and Dad hold the boundary?
It’s undeniable: saying no is hard. Yet parents ask their kids to say no to a lot of things—drugs, alcohol, sex, unhealthy friendships and all the various adolescent temptations.
If you want your child to be comfortable showing up with resolution in these moments, you’ve got to model “no” at home.
Why is saying no so hard?
One of the biggest threats I see is not being able to tolerate your child’s pain. Her emotional reaction might feel so intense and unmanageable that the desire to rescue her from her emotions feels overpowering. Yet rescuing your child from her feelings teaches her that she is incapable, and that there are shortcuts to dealing with life’s discomforts. But rescuing creates a farther-reaching threat to your child’s well-being, as it reinforces manipulation, patterns of entitlement and addictive coping.
The skillful approach in these threatening moments is to practice compassionate listening. Listen to your child cry, react and talk out her greatest fears. Your stillness in these moments creates a safe container where your child can speak without interruption. When your child is in distress, the most important thing is not in your doing, it is in your being. You are the loving witness. When your child has become quiet, that’s the perfect opportunity to validate her emotions, “I can see why this is such a hard situation for you.”
Parents are often placed in double binds by their child. “If you don’t let me have a later curfew, I’ll lose all my friends, get depressed again, and it will be all your fault.” Yikes! The double bind can make you feel you’ve been taken emotionally hostage -- that the only way out is to give in. Yet relenting places your child at the top of the power hierarchy at home. Putting your teen (with his still developing brain) in a power position places him in a “parentified” role, when he lacks the life experience to reside there. As much as he sends you messages that he doesn’t want it, what he really needs is your leadership at home. The skillful approach during the double bind is to calmly point out the pattern and then highlight choice/resilience. “When you say those things, it seems like you’re putting me in a position where I’m responsible for your mood and social life. What have you learned about managing your feelings that could help now? Could you ask your friends if they would be willing to meet up earlier?” While you might not get a magical response from your teen, you are helping develop his awareness of his communication patterns, and cultivating flexible thinking.
You feel worn out! Your child badgers you until you can’t take it anymore, and give her what she wants. Or she finds you at an inopportune moment (you just got back from work, you are in the middle of a task, or otherwise distracted) and seizes the disadvantage. Or she approaches you with a sense of urgency, demanding an answer now. There really is something to be said for timing. The skillful approach is to consciously slow down time in these moments. You can do that by developing a broken record mantra, “I understand this is important to you and I need time to be thoughtful about this decision.” Repeat, repeat, repeat! Check in with yourself before making a parenting decision; “am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?” If you answer yes to any of those questions, HALT! Practice the requisite self-care that will restore you to balance before giving an answer. Give yourself permission not to parent out of survival mode by reminding yourself that most questions asked by your child are not as urgent as they represent.
As you work with your own resistance to saying no, you will develop a deeper understanding and compassion for your child’s struggle in practicing no. There is so much potential for no to be a connective, vulnerable experience in family life. When you can reframe “no” as a thought-filled decision, it actually becomes an act of love.
Why No is a Gift
- It teaches your child how to respect limits, setting them up for healthier balanced relationships
- They learn how capable they are of tolerating discomfort, allowing them to break away from the patterns of entitlement and addiction
- You learn how to tolerate the discomfort of watching your child in distress, without having to manage, control, or fix
- No still invites choice
- No shows you where your child’s really at
- You learn to honor your intuition, and begin trusting yourself more
- No in family life teaches that we can disagree and still maintain loving relationships
- Your child learns the power of using this word in their own lives — No protects, paces, empowers, contrasts inclusion with peer pressure, and filters through to the right relationships,
- It is an essential part of building self-respect
Yes becomes sweeter, and more cherished, because it has been honored by the No.
About the author: Rebekah Tayebi, satyafamilycoaching.com, earned her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University. After working in residential treatment and transitional services, she founded Satya Family Coaching, a yoga inspired aftercare service. As she helps families transition from wilderness therapy and residential treatment, she feels honored to support their recovery process back at home, where it matters most. She co-created Sky’s The Limit Fund’s aftercare program, a transitional service supporting scholarship recipients. Rebekah also co-founded the Yoga for Trauma Recovery program, taking an embodied approach to healing.