Adolescence and the Parental "No"

"No" is probably the most contentious word in parent/adolescent communication

Posted Mar 20, 2017

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

The child learns how the parental “no” can express disapproval and set limits on freedom. “My dad is unhappy with what I did.” “My mom won’t let me have what I want.”

What can make this powerful two-letter word particularly hard to bear is the double standard with which it is applied. It’s okay for parents to say “no” to a child and prohibit; but it’s not okay for a child to say “no” to parents and refuse. In the name of adult authority, parents set the expectations, issue the orders, make the rules, and apply the consequences. "It's not fair!"

Of course, in the name of her emerging personhood, the 2-year-old does start experimenting with assertion. The little girl or boy can ignore a parental demand or deliberately violate a parental rule to see if they hold or give, to see if something can be gotten away with, to see if parents mean what they said. However, the child mostly accepts this inequitable state of family affairs because she remains in the Age of Command. She still believes in the illusion that parents somehow have the power to stop her and make her.


The adolescent, however, becomes disillusioned with this belief. Detaching and differentiating from childhood for more freedom of action and individual expression around ages 9 – 13, there is a growing awareness that parents can’t make or stop him without his cooperation. “Any decisions to do or not do what they want are mine. My actions are up to me!”

Now begins the Age of Consent. Increasingly, actively (with argument) and passively (with delay), the young person begins resisting the childhood state of family affairs by pulling away, pushing against, and getting around parental authority. From here on, parents have to work harder to get the cooperation and compliance they want.

To some degree, young adolescents rebel out of childhood. "I'm no longer content to be treated or defined as a compliant little child anymore!" their contrary attitude and actions seem to say. Now a parental "no" can be greeted as an irresistible invitation into opposition. Giving more resistance and wanting more responsibility mark the growth of independent, self-governing authority that now gets underway.

Much early adolescent experimentation has to do with testing the old and trying out the new, now more tempted by the forbidden. While a healthy adolescent presses for more freedom to grow, healthy parents restrain that press out of concerns for safety and responsibility. This conflict of interests unfolds over the course of adolescence when the parental “no” is more likely to be contested and has lost some of its traditional governing influence.


While parents soon find, however, is that while their Command “No” has less traditional power, when it comes to provision of and permission for what the adolescent wants to have and do, their Conditional “No” carries greater weight. Tying adolescent freedom to decisions parents control can now have significant influence. “No, you can’t do…No, you can’t have…not if you want continued access to…” 

“Continued operation of a smartphone is a great persuader,” as one parent put it. “Driving a car is up to us,” declared another. It’s hard bargaining, but when other negotiation and persuasion fails, putting use of these two great freedom machines for navigating the online and offline worlds in play can be powerful bargaining tools when their adolescent would otherwise refuse a parental “no.”    


“You just like to say ‘no’!” complains the adolescent to parents. "It's your power trip!" Actually, in most cases I have seen, parents don’t like saying ‘no.’ Choose to prohibit, forbid, deny, refuse, or otherwise reject and frustrate an adolescent request, and parents should expect the young person to feel hurt, frustrated, angry, disappointed, or otherwise unhappy with them. By denying adolescent gratification or sticking with a demand or limit with which the young person disagrees, and refusing to change their mind, they are inviting disapproval.

For parents who hate or fear saying ‘no’ for the temporary unhappy feelings it can engender, their child’s adolescence can be a testing ground for parental courage to take an unpopular stand. It can be emotionally challenging to stick to the right decision when their adolescent attacks it as unloving, insensitive, unreasonable, unfair, and wrong. “I hate displeasing our teenager!” 

It’s not just that most adolescents want to shine in parental eyes; most parents want to shine in adolescent eyes. The parental ‘no’ is often an act of tough love that is tough on the adolescent but is also tough on them because the young person is unlikely to say, “Thanks a lot for not letting me go!” A more probable response may be criticism or complaint: “You never let me do anything!”

Saying ‘no’ is often part of thankless parenting an adolescent, along with providing supervision the young person may not want to hear. “Why do you have to keep nagging me to do my chores?” Why indeed.


And yet, the parental ‘no’ can have protective value, and despite complaints to the contrary, the adolescent is aware of this. Now in the age of consent, the young person knows she has more freedom of actual choice than she can comfortably manage. She needs some protective family structure around her even while complaining how her parents are overprotective. Over-permissive parents can be anxiety producing for an adolescent who is given too few boundaries with which to consent. “My parents let me do anything I want. I have to decide everything on my own. It’s all up to me!”  Parents must the give the adolescent protection of their prohibitions, a cage of responsible demands and limits to rattle around in, and often accept resentment for their efforts. Consider this example of what I mean.      

Their high school freshman has just received a phone call from a senior at school inviting her to a college fraternity party this coming weekend. Parents know this because their daughter is repeating out loud in their presence how excited she is at the prospect of going. “Oh, I’d love too! Thanks for asking me! I’ll just ask my parents.” Then she looks directly at her mother and silently mouths “no, no!” So, on cue, when the parents are asked out loud for permission, the mother says “No, no way!” At which point the daughter flies all over them to the guy. “Can you believe this? They won’t let me go! They never let me do anything! But thanks for asking.” Then, after hanging up the phone, she stalks into the bedroom and angrily shuts her door. Acting like a sore loser, she is actually a grateful winner. She got this great invitation that she feels completely unready to accept but can’t socially afford to reject. So she depends on her mother saying ‘no’ for her to save social face by not having to refuse, able to blame her mom for not letting her go. Now at school tomorrow she can tell her friends about the great invitation her parents wouldn’t let her accept. It’s a win/win situation except for parents who must carry the thankless burden of their protective ‘no.’


Finally, there is this.   Because during adolescence there is an increase in worldly risking taking, parents need to beware that they do get trapped in an  "urgency of now" when the young person needs to know “right away” about freedom to do something new. Parents can feel emotionally pressured to accommodate the adolescent’s immediate need. This is a time for them to explain: “If you want my response without giving me time to think about and discuss your request, then my immediate answer is ‘no.’”

In this case, the initial ‘no’ may not be a final ‘no,’ but is used to create delay for necessary discussion, data gathering, and deliberation to occur. In general, it is much easier transition for a parent to go from an initial ‘no’ to a thoughtful ‘yes’ with their adolescent than from an impulsive ‘yes’ to a reconsidered ‘no.’


Finally, there are some benefits of the parental “no” that are worth keeping in mind.

It is part of how parents patrol the family structure of rules and limits the young person is expected to live within.

It operates as a drag on adolescent freedom slowing that push for independence safely down.

It provides a parental value reference about what is not safe, wise, or right.

It provides the protection of parental prohibitions when the young person feels she or he can’t socially afford to simply refuse on their own behalf.

It allows parent to use an initial ‘no’ response to an urgent adolescent request to buy time and think about the possible costs of saying ‘yes.’

It reminds parents that they are not in a popularity contest with their adolescent, but that sometimes providing loyal opposition to adolescent wants for her or his best interests is what they must responsibly do.

Of course, when going through a high ‘no’ period with their adolescent, it’s important that parents find affirmative and positive ways to connect and nourish the relationship with their daughter or son during a less rewarding time. “Let’s take a break and go out for something to eat. You choose where. We could both use a lift.”

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Braving the Displeasure of Parents