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Child Development

How to Say No to Your Child

Children naturally want things urgently, but parents can't always oblige.

Mommy and 4-year-old Lily are shopping in a store. Lily spots a ballerina doll and immediately falls in love: "I want this."

Mommy gets a knot in the pit of her stomach as she faces her least desirable dilemma. She thinks to herself: I already bought her a toy in the last store we went to. Should I buy her this? I don't want to spoil her. If I say no, I may be asking for trouble.

Does this situation sound familiar to you? As you move from store to store with your child, they are sure to spot something desirable. There are always so many exciting things on display. Even if you've already bought her three things at prior stores, she still wants more. It's a natural part of being a child to get attached to things and want them urgently.

Knowing how and when to say no is one of the hardest tasks for a parent. If the wish or behavior is in the realm of a clear issue, such as safety or health, it's easier to say yes or no. "Yes, you can have a banana," or "No, you cannot cross the street by yourself." But most issues fall in the gray areas: Should I allow him to jump on the bed? Should I read him an extra story? Trying to answer these questions can leave you feeling bewildered.

Parents are often afraid to say no.

They love their kids and want to make them happy. They often fear saying no, because they want their children to love them and worry that a "no" will harm their relationship. Or they are afraid to anger their children and cause a battle.

These fears can be enhanced by a parent's early childhood experience. For instance, if you wanted more love from your parents, you might say yes to win your child's love at any cost. Or, if you always fought with an angry parent, you may desperately want to establish a peaceful relationship with your own child. Suppose your parents were very strict, or finances in your home were very tight; you may avoid saying no because you identify with your child and remember how bad it felt to constantly be denied a wish. A helpful rule of thumb one parent follows: "I try to do what I would have wanted my parents to do for me and what, at the same time, is acceptable to me."

Tips for saying no to your child:

Here are some strategies to diminish the dilemma and help you say no in a way that will lead to less confrontation.

1. Set limits.

You do not have to give your child everything he asks for to be a good parent or to communicate that you love him. It's actually more loving at times to set limits. Boundaries help them to manage their expectations and desires and enable them to function effectively in life.

2. Discuss in advance.

It is very helpful to establish some limits before you go out for the day. You might say, "Today we are going shopping at the toy store to get your friend a birthday present. You can choose only one small toy for yourself." Negotiations from the peanut gallery may still arise, but you have established a rule you can refer to later. With an older child, some parents set a specific dollar amount limit, give their older child a few dollars to spend, or suggest that she bring along some of her allowance money.

3. Buy some time.

When your child asks for something, avoid saying no immediately. If you do, it's like waving a red cape at a bull! The child feels powerless and may reactively begin to fight.

It's better to pause and put off making a decision for a few moments. Ask yourself, "Do I need to say no, or can I say yes? If it's not a yes, can I negotiate?" When you're conflicted, it might be helpful for you to verbalize your dilemma. Tell your child, "I'm not sure what to do. I have to think about it for a while." (Keep in mind that you do not have to be perfect and know what to do right away.)

4. When you need to say no, it will help your child if you start by acknowledging his wish.

This way, he knows you respect him and care. For instance, you might say, "I can see that you really want that pair of sneakers." If you do, he will feel more respected and even find it easier to let go of his wish. He knows you are listening, and you are considering his desire.

5. Explain the reason.

Children will accept your decision better if you have a good, logical reason. For example, you might explain, "You can't have a sleepover tonight because you have a soccer tournament early in the morning, and you need to get a good night's rest." Even simple explanations can help. When your young child sees another child's balloon tied to a chair and wants it, you can say, "It's not yours. It belongs to that boy. We can't take it home."

6. Provide emotional support.

If your child is upset about your refusal, acknowledge her emotions. You might say, "I can see you feel very sad. You really would like to buy that puppy. But we can't have a dog in our building."

Your words help to ease her disappointment and let go. If your young child has a fit and starts screaming or throwing things, validate her wish and then stress that, in your family, you talk about your feelings as a way of working out solutions, so you want her to calm down and use words.

7. Alternatives soften the blow.

Kids can become quickly attached to something they want. When you say no, it's like slamming the door on their desire. There are ways to make the limit more palatable. When your 3-year-old is begging for an ice pop before dinner, you can suggest an alternative: "How about having some apple slices now, and you'll eat an ice pop for dessert?"

Suggesting to an older child that you put the new skates he wants on his birthday wish list will help him to accept your denial as well. He knows that if he waits, you will come through. Distractions, for instance, "Let's go look at the kittens in the store window," are particularly effective at helping a small child detach from something he is clamoring for.

If you make sure to acknowledge your child's wish, are attentive, and offer explanations and alternative solutions (when you can), your child will be more accepting of your limits, and shopping days and general life will go smoother.

More from Meri Wallace LCSW
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