Saying No

By Janet Bertelli, MSW, LCSW, Clinical Director

The ability to stand firm and say no to your child who is pleading, crying or even having a tantrum to get you to agree to something that they want can be a daunting and exhausting experience. But when the child is 15 and not 3, saying no to them may be much more difficult than saying no to the the three-year-old who wants the candy bar at the checkout counter at the supermarket.

There is a great similarity between the three-year-old and the teenager when it comes to power struggles. Both are playing out the internal struggle to define themselves while still wanting and needing structure and absolute consistency from their parents. For the teenager they are caught in a paradoxical tug of war; they want to be treated like a grown up and taken care of like a child at the same time.

Parents need to be strong and resolute in remaining firm in whatever stance they are taking. There are certainly times when it is beneficial to sit down and negotiate because it is good for children to develop autonomy by learning to make their own decisions. There are times, however, when saying no should be absolute and with no negotiation.

As your child enters adolescence it is usually a good time to evaluate what requests can be negotiable and which are non-negotiable. Non-negotiable requests might be when your teen is asking to do something that you are not comfortable with: an activity that you feel your child is not mature enough to handle, or they are asking to go to an event with peers who you do not know. Setting down the rules ahead of time allows you to calmly tell your child that thier request is clearly not within the terms of agreement. Not only should the rules be discussed but the consequences of breaking those rules also should be discussed before an incident occurs. Your “no” should always be delivered with the consequences that will occur if they defy you. For instance, “You may not go to the mall after school and if you do, your phone will be turned off for the weekend.”

It is difficult to listen to the pleading and begging, and even more difficult to hear what falls out of your teen’s mouth when they realize that you are not relenting. In the book, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, Mel Levine, M.D. emphasizes that adolescents need to learn to accept non-negotiable rules. He points out that as adults, we encounter many non-negotiable expectations and that parents need to help their children to prepare to cope with such expectations. Your child may be crestfallen if you say no to them going to a concert without supervision, but it is important to know that letting your child experience being disappointed and unhappy is a way for them to learn that these feelings are transient.

Here at Sage Day, we partner with parents to help them negotiate and navigate the difficult waters that adolescents sails upon. We know how difficult holding the line can be and are always available to offer our support.