A scene I have often encountered in family work is a teenager asking permission for something from her parents.
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.
But, 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. Rescuing is actually a bigger threat to your child’s well-being, as it sets up 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 she 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 children. “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 like an emotional hostage. You feel the only way out is to give in. Yet, giving in places your child at the top of the power hierarchy at home. Putting your teen (with her still developing brain) in a power position places her in a “parentified” role, when she lacks the life experience to reside there. As much as she sends you messages that she doesn’t want it, what she really needs is your leadership at home.
The skillful approach during the double bind is to calmly point out the pattern, and then highlight choices/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 may not get a magical response from your teen, you are helping develop her awareness of her communication patterns, and cultivating flexible thinking.
You may 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 opportunity. 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!
Use the acronym, HALT to 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, 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 a matter of life or death.
You fear you will lose the relationship with her. You may have an already tenuous relationship with your child. Particularly during adolescence, your child is differentiating herself, or exploring her independence from her parents. While this is a normal (and healthy) development in family life, parents often grieve the loss of closeness and camaraderie they once shared with their child. As she pushes against you, you fear that this time, no could be the last straw.
Almost ironically, saying no consistently, where it counts, helps build the secure relationship between you and your child. When she knows what to predict, she feels safe. In a quiet moment alone or with your co-parent, begin to look at the non-negotiables, the areas in your parenting where holding no is steadfast. (Think safety concerns).
Next, look at privileges you have previously said no to. Has your child earned trust by making healthier, more mature choices? If so, reward her consistency and growth.
Finally, look at the green lights. What are the pieces of her life you can let go of managing? Allow her the room to be herself by letting go of the small stuff. When your boundaries become thoughtful and consistent you create a sense of trust that will serve the longevity of your relationship with your child.
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 gift, 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.
>> It is one of several important ways you invite your child to see you as a person.
>> No still invites choice.
>> No shows you where your child’s really at.
>> It is an opportunity to earn trust.
>> You learn to honor your intuition and begin trusting in 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 her own life. No protects, paces, empowers, filters through to the right relationships, and is an essential part of building self-respect.
Your yes becomes sweeter and more cherished, because it has been honored by the no.