A version of this article originally appeared on Learnvest.com.
No. It’s a little word with a lot of influence, especially for parents. Maybe it’s because of what happens after we say the word “no” (you know, the screaming and tantrum-throwing) that we skirt around it, try to disguise it and sometimes just don’t say it all.
“News flash: Kids need you to say ‘no,’” says Lori Freson, M.A., a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Children are not emotionally or developmentally equipped to make major decisions or rules, or to self-regulate. That’s your job. And if you don’t do it, your child will feel a sense of confusion and internal chaos, which could manifest itself in stomach aches, headaches, tantrums, and even ulcers.”
That’s why it’s a big deal every time you dodge “no” for the more kid-friendly “here, get distracted by this ice pop.” But, we all know, putting your foot down can be harder than it seems. We turned to the experts for seven strategies on how to say “no”—and make it stick.
1. Find an Appropriate Redirect
Instead of focusing on no, “find what the child can do,” advises Brandi Davis, a child and family coach. For instance, a child who wants to blow bubbles in the house can be redirected with “We can blow bubbles outside or in the garage instead.” A child who wants a cookie can be redirected with “You can have a piece of cheese or an apple.” This method works (as opposed to the “swap-one-treat-for-another” version mentioned above) because it presents a viable, acceptable alternative to the unwanted action, and lets the child feel that instead of forbidding something, you’re actually giving him an option.
2. Ply Them With Questions
“When raising my daughters, I let them have what they wanted in their imagination,” said Linda Lovero-Waterhouse, mom of three. “For example, say we passed by McDonald’s and they begged to go, but I had dinner planned at home. After saying ‘no’ and hearing complaints, I would ask them if we had gone to McDonald’s, what would they have ordered? Which kids’ meal? Ketchup or no ketchup? What toy did they wish they could get? They often would be satisfied enough just by going through this exercise.”
3. Get a Little Silly
Saying “no” is the easy part, it’s getting your kid to accept it that’s hard, confides Jen Hancock, author of The Bully Vaccine ($8, amazon.com). “When my son was younger and we were just getting into telling him ‘no’ more strenuously, I would make a game out of it. If he started to whine, I would start singing the word—whatever song came to mind, the word ‘no’ was added. It would get him laughing, and he would start singing ‘yes’ in response—it was actually quite fun.”
4. Don’t Jump to ‘No’ Automatically
“When my kids approach me for something, I ask them why they want or need the item,” says Mary O’Donohue, mom of two and author of When You Say ‘Thank You,’ Mean It ($17, amazon.com). “If their answer gives me insight into why I should agree, then I say ‘yes’. If I say ‘no,’ they know that they have been heard and not just dismissed.”
5. Use It Sparingly
Parent Educator Sarah Lendt, M.S.Ed., NCC says she reserves the word “no” for truly dangerous situations, when she supplies an age-appropriate explanation of her reasoning. Otherwise, she finds alternative words to maintain limits. Some examples of her “no” alternatives include:
- “Not today”
- “Maybe another time”
- “Let’s choose something else.”
6. Keep It Short
For younger children, psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich recommends using short explanations such as “It is not O.K. to take the toy away from your friend,” and moving the child on to find another toy or activity. “Parents tend to feel that they have to explain and re-explain to a child why they said ‘no,’” she says. “You do not have to do this. Shorter is actually better because a young child does not have the intellectual capacity to follow your reasoning. Long explanations often make them feel more confused and frustrated.”
7. Set a Budget
Once children hit their preteen or teenage years, setting a budget for clothing can help them make reasonable choices and eliminate the need for you to refuse to buy them items in the first place, explains Sarah Clachar, founder of Fit Family Together and a mom of two.