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Afraid to Say No? Saying It Too Quickly? Tips for Parents

Do you struggle to say no to your kids? Or say it before thinking? Here we explore this tricky word and how to use it with intention.

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No. That two letter word is really the trickiest word in parenting. Once your kids learn it, they seem to use it against you. Use it too often and you will find yourself being inconsistent. Don’t use it enough and your kids won’t learn limits.

How do we navigate the world of saying no as a parent? In this post, we will explore situations when no arises, the messages your kids learn with your use of no, and tips for meaning what you say.

The importance of limits

We all know that it is our job as parents to show our kids the boundaries of the world they inhabit. We teach the right from wrong, what’s safe and dangerous.

It can be helpful to think of parental limits with this metaphor: imagine someone is blind and exploring a new room. They will only learn where the furniture and walls are from bumping into them. Kids learn limits through overt teaching (“don’t touch the stove, it’s hot” or “hold the railing when you walk down the stairs or you may fall”). But they also learn though experience, like the blind person in the example.

Some kids really need to bump into a lot of walls before they realize that they are not going to move.

Limits help kids feel safe and secure. They may protest, but as adults, we know that what feels good is not always good for you.

Using the word “no” is one way to teach children limits. The problem with this little powerful word is that we may not stick to it when we need to or use it too frequently in a knee jerk reaction. Below are some scenarios of how we may ineffectively use “no” in our parenting.

You are afraid to say no for fear of a meltdown

The situation: You are out shopping with your kids and even though you said that you would not buy anything that’s not on the list, one of your kids see something that they absolutely HAVE to have. They cannot think or talk of anything else. You say no- several times. They escalate, you feel your nervous system activate. You know where this is going – where it always goes: a huge melt-down. You can feel yourself being pushed to the limit and you have two stores to go. You grab the desired item toss it at them and say, “Fine have it! What am I going to do with you!”

What your child learns: If I have a really big reaction, or even threaten to do so, I get what I want.

You are too tired to say no

The situation: You have been on your feet all day at work and you are exhausted. You know the kids have been playing video games and watching Netflix for much of the day. They need to do some chores and their school work so you tell them to turn off the TV and get to work. They push back with, “Just one more episode!” You say no, but they keep begging. You sigh and say, “Okay, just one more.” But that one episode turns into two and then three…and you don’t have the energy to fight them on it.

What your child learns: A weak no from a tired parent becomes an easy “yes” with just a little push back.

You say no without thought

The situation: You are engrossed in your laptop. You are aware that there is a lot of noise happening around you but you have managed to tune it out so you can finish typing your email. All of a sudden, as you are looking it over one last time, your child appears right next to you speaking at a loud volume asking to go out and play. You don’t look up. You say, “No. It’s almost dinner time. Clean up your mess.” Your child begs and begs, jumping up and down, clearly full of a ton of energy. You think, “boy, this kid needs to run around outside! Why did I say no?” You feel caught – you wish you hadn’t been so quick to say no and all the parenting books say to be consistent. What do you do? You need to finish your work. “Fine!” you say, “go outside!”

What your child learns: No doesn’t really mean no.

You say no because you are upset

The situation: You just had an argument with your partner and you are hurt and frustrated. Your children come to you and ask to go to the park. You snap at them. “No! I just took you yesterday! You have plenty to do here. You are always asking me to take your places.”

What your child learns: No is unpredictable.

What to do instead

Here are some tips to help you when you are struggling to stick with your no or find that you say no too quickly.

Practice the pause

There is power in silence and space. Remember that parenting is not a race. You are not in a hurry, you are in for the long haul.

Why is the pause so powerful. It gives you a moment to get present with your kids. Think about what is important to you in the moment and what you want your children to take away from it. Here are some ideas for taking that important pause:

  • Stop and count to 10 before answering
  • Look down and wiggle your toes in your shoes
  • Take a gentle breath and a long exhale
  • Close your eyes and tap your hands alternatively on the sides of your legs
  • Say, “Mommy needs a minute to think.”
  • Go to the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror and ask: “What is important to me right now?”

Identify your values

It’s not easy to say no to kids, especially if you are afraid of fallout if you do. Anchoring yourself in your values can help you stick to your no. Explore and identify your family values. Values is the long game, meaning that you work towards something you care about even in the face of uncomfortable reactions by your kids.

Your kids are responsible for how they react to your limits. Your responsibility is to establish the limits. They may not like them but having limits anchored in your values can give you the fortitude in the moment to stick to your no when it would be easier to say yes.

Focus on teaching a skill

When we can identify a skill our child is lacking, we can make this the focus of our resolve to stick with our no. All kids need to learn self-regulation, delay of gratification, gentleness, using kind words and other fruits of the Spirit. When you can identify the skill your child is lacking in the moment and see how that is an area they need to practice, it can give you the strength in the moment to do something hard that is for their benefit in the long run.

Offer alternatives

Sometimes we don’t need to say no. Often there is a way to say yes to a request that is acceptable to both you and your child.


  • “When your Legos are in the bin, then you can go outside.”
  • “When your voice level matches mine, then we can talk about it.”
  • “When I have rested in my room alone for 15 minutes, then we can go to the park.”

If you notice there is a pattern to these statements. When something happens that is important to you, then something can happen that is important to them. It is a way of getting on the same page with your child and placing the responsibility of the outcome in their hands. They can get what they want when the skill has been executed.

Parenting is hard and we are all doing the best we can in any given moment. I hope that these tips have been helpful. When is “no” trickiest for you and your kids? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

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About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and moms in Connecticut. She is the author of More Than a Conqueror, A Christian Kid's Guide to Winning the War on Worry. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of the things she is most passionate about: God's word, parenting and mental health.

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