What to say instead of no to a child

say no to a child

You know the drill – you’re stressed, tired, and your child has launched their bajillionth request of the day at you. It’s just so easy to say no to a child, and requires head space to truly consider their request and think of a sensible response. But did you know that finding more positive alternatives to saying no to a child can actually make family life a lot easier?

So when they’re asking you for yet another ice cream/packet of chocolate buttons/a sleep over or phone before it’s age appropriate, what can you say instead? Today I have Louise Hoffman Brooks, Family Advisor at Parenting Success Coaching to help explain why saying no to a child may sometimes not be the best response, and what else you can say instead.

As parents, so many of us say no our children’s requests before we’ve even though about it – why is this?

Because no is a safe answer. Often our kids ask us things that feel like they require an immediate answer. We can hear it in the tone. And if what they are asking us to allow or give them – is something we haven’t had a chance to work out how we feel about – saying no feels like it is the safest option.

One of the main reasons that we err on the side of caution is that life is so fast paced. Many of us are mentally preoccupied all of the time – therefore it can feel difficult for us as parents to tune into our child (who lives in the NOW) and check in with ourselves about what we feel about a given request.

Why can the overuse of the word no to a child be counterproductive?

I think that it is critical to stress that no is an important word. One that ensures that we respect our own and others’ boundaries and ultimately allow us to give a bigger YES. When we feel free to say NO when we mean it – we can wholeheartedly say YES to others too. However, when we say no – mainly to be on the safe side. Or because we feel overwhelmed or negative – it can feel unloving from a child’s perspective. It can extinguish their inherent drive and possibility seeking.

A sign that we say NO (too) much is often offered by our kids; ‘You ALWAYS say no’. While that may not technically be true – we do well to reflect on statements like these rather than immediately justifying our position.

What does constantly being met with the answer ‘no’ teach a child?

That most things are futile. That wishing is wrong. That desire is pointless. This can give rise to a feeling of being wrong or too much. Too greedy. A child will go to great lengths to fit in and belong. So when they are met with criticism and no – they will take it to mean that they are wrong ultimately damaging their self-esteem.

So is this just about saying ‘yes’ more? Or about finding other ways to say no to a child?

I don’t think the answer is found in merely saying yes more. ‘No’ has a place. And no is not an unloving word. It is about the WAY we communicate our no. Our boundaries. In as much as we can say no in ways that does not make the child feel wrong for asking / wishing – it is far easier for the child to accept the no. Where many of us struggle – is with the aftermath of a no. When we have said no to an ice cream five minutes before dinner only to find our 4 year old lying on the floor screaming ‘I WAAAANT AN ICECREAM’.

These types of reactions are both healthy and understandable. When you are 4 you are only concerned with one thing. The here and now. And right now ice cream is all that matters to you. And when that wish is not granted there will be a reaction. You can call it grief for what they can’t have. Is this easy to be with? NO!! It can feel so triggering – which is why it is tempting to say ‘that’s enough. Calm down’ – appealing to their logic. The trouble is – this doesn’t help with their emotions.

So in as much as we can accept that a no will likely cause a reaction – and that this often involves tears and anger – and meet them with empathy rather than critique ‘I know – you really wanted that ice cream. And now you feel sad / mad ‘.. saying no can be absolutely healthy and good for the child.

say no to a child

Can you share a list of positive alternatives to saying no to a child?

  • ‘Yes you can have an ice cream .. after dinner.’
  • ‘Yes you can have an I-phone .. once you’ve saved up / you’re 13.’
  • ‘Let me think about that and get back to you. I’d like to speak to mum/dad before I make up my mind’ (this is good if the question is about going to a party / walking home alone after school etc). If the child insists on an answer straight away you could say ‘I wanted to meet you by giving your request some thought – but if you need an answer straight away – the answer is no’.
  • ‘ Tell me why you’d like that? I’d like to understand’.
  • ‘ I know I said yes to this yesterday – but I’ve thought about it since – and it does not sit well with me. So I’m going to say no’.
  • ‘I hear what you’re saying.. You’d like X.. I get that it’s important to you because all your friends have got it.. And I know you are mad at me. And that’s okay.’ (Said with sincere empathy).

The idea is we use ‘I-messages’. Personal language. When we talk about and from ourselves – refraining from describing the child or criticising it – we will find that we can say most things in ways that don’t feel hurtful. We have to have broad shoulders as parents – and tolerate momentarily being hated. When we over explain in the hope that our child will come to see things from our point of view – we lose them. They will most likely not win them over and we will only set the stage for endless negotiations.

How will using these change their responses to us, and the family dynamic? What are the knock on effects?

When we say yes when we mean yes and no when we mean no – we become safe company. It means no one has to second guess what we really mean. We also send a powerful message to our children that it is okay to say no. A skill that comes in handy when they become teenagers and we would like for them to be able to say no to drugs / alcohol / premature sex etc.

Switching up the way we say no can change a family dynamic radically. The tone and the atmosphere of a family is always mum and dad’s responsibility – and the more we can lead the way with respectful communication the more our children will be happy to follow.

say instead of no to a child

It’s important to remember that the sign of a ‘good no’ is not that our children don’t feel sad / try to change our no to a yes. This is not within our control. And them fighting for what they want is a sign of healthy development. A ‘good no’ refers to our ability to say it with respect for the child’s perspective – even if we can’t grant them their wish. When we meet each other this way – the family dynamic will naturally become more respectful and empathetic.

If you had to give a pep talk to my readers who were stuck in a rut of saying no to a child it would be:

Check in with yourself before you reply. What am I feeling? Often when no has become our go to answer – it is because we are a little bit out of touch with ourselves. We may have a feeling that things are a bit out of control and that we find it difficult to be connected to the present. As a working parent we have a million things going on all the time – and a child tugging at our sleeve can feel like the one thing that sends us over the edge.

So be curious. How am I? What might I need? Find ways to give yourself what you need. When our own needs are met – we become more generous and willing to consider to others’ perspective. And perhaps a phrase to implement could be ‘let me just think about that for a moment’. This allows you a little bit of time to check in with yourself before you respond.

Do you find yourself often say no without thought to your children? What do you think about these tips about what to say instead of no to a child? Do share in a comment below.

And if you’re looking for further support in your parenting you may be interested to hear about these upcoming parenting workshops

Say No -Successfully

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Boost your Child’s Self-Esteem

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About Louise Hoffman Brooks

Originally from Denmark, Louise lives in Surrey with her English husband, Dean and their two children, Freja 5, and Miller 2 ½ who she raises bilingually. Louise holds a BSc Psychology degree from University of Westminster, London and is a fully qualified Life and Business coach from a leading Danish coaching institute.

Besides having worked on a consultancy basis with children with a diagnosis of Autism, Louise has recently completed a foundation course in counselling and psychotherapy. Louise has since the birth of her second child attended all of Parenting Success’ workshops and has a keen interest in parenting issues and understanding what motivates children and make them thrive.

Picture credit People photo created by bearfotos – www.freepik.comFamily photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com Flower photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

7 comments

  1. I was talking about this with my mummy friends the other day – we were questioning whether we completely close off our children’s world sometimes with ‘no’ and ‘don’t’. Instead we should be more open and word things differently 🙂

  2. I try my best to put a positive spin on every situation. My son got angry with me the other day as he wanted an ice cream. I explained he could have one later when we got home and it was fine.

  3. I find it definitely helps if you say why its a no, or when they can have something. Being positive helps!

  4. I try to word things positively where I can, and it works with my elder son but not with my 4 year old. He just won’t accept any answer that doesn’t go his way, everything has to be on his terms.

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