17 kind ways to say no to your child 

Juliet looked at her mom, her hands already on the paint pot, “Mama? Can we paint some more? Please?”

Her mom, tired and in the middle of signing a school memo, looked at her daughter and sighed. This was supposed to be cleanup time. It was getting late, but then again she didn’t want an argument. “Maybe next week, sweetie,” she said, moving to the table and beginning to pick up. And then, seeing her little girl’s face begin to crumble, said, “Or maybe even tomorrow. We’ll see.”

This kind of limit setting is what Hand in Hand calls a “workaround.” There is no clean limit. “It ends up being almost an emotional bribe,” says Hand in Hand Instructor, Kathy Gordon, because of our own feelings underneath the workaround.

We don’t want to deal with our child getting upset, so we work around saying no.

“That feeling goes something like, ‘If you don’t get upset, I’ll give you this later,’” she says. “Although, if your kiddo is like mine, they’ll hear the ‘deal’ in that workaround, and that’s when the endless negotiations start. “’How about if we just do it for five minutes now and that will be it?’ my son might say, as he tries to get around my workaround.”

Why saying no feels hard

Parents can have a hard time saying no because of feelings they have remaining from their own upbringings. Parents raised with a harsh no might, in an effort to spare their own children, become non-confrontational.

Or they may be tired and not ready for the pushback that can come with a no. Others may have never heard no from well-meaning parents themselves and don’t know how to say it.

But not saying no can be confusing for a child.

And it allows little room for their own feelings. When we understand that children can benefit from releasing their tension and fears through tantrums and crying, a firm no can be a true gift for them.

Children looking for a pretext to cry may push and push limits. A kindly said no gives them a solid reason to cry. And when we stay close to children while they shed their tears, we can offer the warmth and connection they need to feel better. (You can read more about how crying can be good for children in this article, “Discovering The Value of a Good Tantrum,” at Hand In Hand Parenting.)

Children who dont hear no may continue to push or may internalize the feelings until they crop up next time.

“We set parents up for frustration and ultimately failure if we teach them to do workarounds instead of supporting them in learning to say ‘no’ simply, lovingly, even playfully, and without explanation,” Kathy says.

Being listened to helps us clear out emotional baggage. Exploring how you feel about limits, how limits were set in your house growing up, and what the word no means to you, can be useful.

No can be soft, and playful

As many of us know all too well, this two-letter word can carry a mighty weight and is too often used as a weapon, but a no doesn’t have to be harsh. It can be said softly and still maintain authority.

Try saying the lightest no you can or saying it playfully. Try saying the word using lots of warmth and eye contact. Try even saying no, no, no repeatedly until it feels comfortable. Or sing it in your most over dramatic operatic voice.

“In a sense we are reclaiming the word ‘no,’ making it not about a harsh limit but about something that can be light, connecting and playful, yet holds a firm boundary. Often it’s that clear boundary rather than the vaguer ‘perhaps next week’ that allows a child to access their feelings,” says Kate Orson, author of the book, Tears Heal.

A no doesn’t need to sound mean or be yelled to be effective and it doesn’t have to be avoided.

Take a deep breath and try these no-nonsense and empathetic ways to say no:

  • “No.” (The easiest way to say no, or even try, “no, no, no.”)
  • “I can’t let you do that.”
  • “Oh, honey no.”
  • “Come back.”
  • “It’s time.”
  • “That’s your brother’s…”
  • “No, you can’t have another.”
  • “No, not now.”
  • “I can’t let you do that. I can’t let you hit.”
  • “No, son, your sister has that pillow.”
  • “We aren’t doing that now, but I am here.”
  • “No, you can’t climb into my lap right now. You are right here in front of me. It’s safe.”
  • “No. No candy/screen time/new toy right now.”
  • “I know you want them, but I can’t let you have them right now.”
  • “No, I will pick you up in a little while, but not this minute.”
  • “No, I won’t let you grab another book from that shelf.”
  • “No, we’ll get a snack later. No chips right now.”

Adapt this list to common situations in your house and make them yours.

Original article by Kathy Gordon, an Instructor at Hand In Hand Parenting.

Hand in Hand Parenting is a non-profit that provides parents with the tools and support they need to listen and connect with their children.

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