The power of saying “no”
When my client Daniel first came to see me, he couldn’t understand why his 4-year-old daughter was throwing severe tantrums when she didn’t get her way. He told me, “It’s like Emma can’t deal with anything. She freaks out over every little thing, especially when she doesn’t get her way.”
He couldn’t understand why, after all his hard work and the comfortable lifestyle he’d created for his family, his daughter still didn’t seem happy with anything. The more upset he saw her get, the easier it was for him to just give in to her.
What Daniel didn’t understand, however, is that even though you can momentarily relieve another person’s anguish, you can’t take away their suffering forever. In fact, trying to do so may actually harm you and make things worse for the people you’re attempting to shelter from the facts of life.
It’s a simple fact of life that everyone is guaranteed the experience of not getting what they want, and not being instantly gratified. And as they get older, there will be countless things they’ll have to do on a daily basis they won’t necessarily like.
Unfair things will happen to them, regardless of who they are. But the same applies to our children as applies to everyone.
By attempting to shelter the people we love from the natural process of life, we rob them of the ability to develop the strength and resilience they need to overcome challenging circumstances.
If we never take off the bubble wrap and rarely say no, our children may become incapable of tolerating or managing the inconveniences of life—they’ll demand instant gratification and, over time, develop impulse control issues.
When we see our beloved children suffering from their inability to tolerate difficulty, and we don’t understand why this is happening, we invest all our energy into helping them. We try harder to shelter them, instead of allowing them to be anxious and find their own way to deal with life’s inevitable disappointments.
Daniel was acting with the best of intentions. He thought he was being a good parent, and the last thing he meant to do was contribute to his daughter’s inability to cope with difficult circumstances. Although Daniel couldn’t change the past, he could learn how his need to shelter, say yes, and fix everything was getting in the way of his daughter’s ability to manage herself during tantrums.
It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from being upset; it feels unnatural to watch them cry.
However, if we learn how to distinguish real hurt from an opportunity for our children to explore and learn to manage their own emotions, we’ll be more capable of taking a step back when necessary. We’ll allow them to learn that it’s okay to shed the bubble wrap and stop being sheltered by the word “yes.”
So should I just let my kid cry?
I get it. When we’re caught up in the moment, it’s easy to do whatever it takes to calm our children down. However, the consequences of overprotecting our children in this way can lead to worse consequences. shows that children who have been overly protected from their own emotions lack a sense of agency over their own lives and are more prone to develop unfulfilling relationships in the future.
Instead of trying to rescue our children from potential hurt feelings, we can better serve them by resisting the urge to step in, take over, and give in.
Modeling mature emotional regulation in difficult situations might be challenging in the short-term, but the long-term benefits are more than worth it. Setting children up to be content in life doesn’t happen by sheltering them from suffering—rather, it comes from teaching them how to self-soothe during difficult times.
Daniel began to show his daughter how to manage challenging emotions like anger, frustration, and, disappointment instead of trying to shield her from them.
Instead of running to her rescue, he sat with his discomfort and allowed her to get through her own. When parents effectively manage their emotions in front of their children, they help their children develop emotional maturity.
This is important work for us to take on, because children who don’t learn how to regulate their feelings will look outside themselves for sources of soothing as they get older. They might self-medicate with food, drugs, and alcohol; hold on to bad relationships; and become codependent. When they become too anxious, too sad, or too easily triggered, they may end up reaching for counterproductive ways to reduce their anxiety in the moment.
So what’s the takeaway here? Allow your children to work through difficult feelings; don’t try to stop them from falling by giving in.
The times we tend to get stumped with our children are usually our best opportunities for maturity and growth—not only theirs, but ours too! Children won’t fall apart due to difficult emotions if you model for them what it’s like to work through them.
As parenting expert Robin Berman, M.D puts it, “A big part of mental health is feeling at home with your emotions, knowing that you will not have to avoid feelings, or numb them, but knowing that you have the emotional flexibility and emotional resilience to feel safe with yourself.”