No Means No: How to Teach Your Child That You Mean Business

by James Lehman, MSW
No Means No: How to Teach Your Child That You Mean Business

I think a lot of parents feel it’s important to explain their reasoning to their children in an attempt to get them to understand. Realize that along the way, wanting your child to understand can easily shift into wanting their approval, or their acceptance of your reasons. When this happens, parents can get stuck in a dynamic where they're over-explaining things to their children. I personally think that once you’ve given your child a reasonable amount of input, any further explanation defeats the purpose.

Have you fallen into the habit of over-explaining and over-negotiating with your kids? If so, it’s likely that every time your child wants to challenge your authority, decision, or rule, you keep talking to him in order to get him to understand why you’ve made the rule in the first place. And often as your child gets older, you'll find yourself compromising some more and changing the rules a little more. Understand that what you’re really doing is training your child not to accept the rules. Don’t forget, if you tell your child “No, you can’t do that now,” and he keeps bugging you—and then you end up giving in and letting him do it—you’ve just trained him not to listen to you.

If your child is pushing back when you say no, understand that up until now, you’ve watered and fed that behavior, and it grew.

Let's look at the reverse. If you wanted to train your child how to not accept no for an answer, how would you do it? First, when you said “no,” you'd encourage your child to keep challenging your authority, the consequences they’ve been given, or the responsibilities they have. You would also keep explaining your reasons to your child over and over. Then at some point, you’d give in and reward him with a bit (or all) of what he's asking for. So you can see that many parents are training their children to challenge them without even knowing it.

So what should you do when you set limits and your child gets angry? I think it’s important to define what setting limits means: in my opinion, it could mean anything from establishing a curfew, to saying the “TV goes off at eight o'clock.” In effect, your child experiences those limits as being told “no.” Some kids get angry when they're told no, and they manage that anger by demanding an explanation from their parents. They might say, “It's not fair,” and start to act up—they take it out on you.

Things can often escalate into a shouting match. If you're screaming at your child (and by the way I understand how easily that can happen) as far as he's concerned, you're on the same level as he is. You negate your own authority by yelling. Certainly, the first time you yell, your child might respond the way you want him to—and maybe even the second time. In fact, the first ten times he might respond. But the day is going to come where he just screams back at you. This keeps escalating until he breaks something or kicks the wall. In my opinion, getting into a shouting match usually doesn't work, because your child just learns more aggressive ways to respond to you.

If a parent tells me their child won't take “no” for an answer, my response to them is always, “If you reward that kind of behavior, then your “no” doesn’t really mean “no.” It means “keep trying.”

  • Establish Your Authority Early On
    How can you stop all the over-negotiating and over-explaining as a parent, and let your child know that you mean what you say? The longer that you put that off, the harder it's going to get. Parents have to establish their authority very early in life by setting limits and having a structure. For example, you don't let your two-year-old walk by the street; you don't let your three-year-old go out by the pool. You just have those limits and enforce them. This establishes the structure you will use as a parent for the rest of their childhood.
  • When Kids Get Over-Stimulated
    Don't forget, sometimes kids get over-stimulated and when that happens, it's very hard for them to respond to a direction. And so parents have to keep that in mind. If kids are over stimulated and get carried away, take them to their room and have a little seat where they can sit, have them take a break for five minutes. That will allow them to recover from the over-stimulation. Then you can talk with them simply and firmly about what the boundaries are. And ask them if they can do it. If they can, then they can go out of the room. If they can’t, then they have to stay in for a few more minutes, until they agree to comply. If your child gets over-stimulated in a store, you can do the same thing by using your car as the calm down area.
  • Don’t Let them Turn You Around
    I believe the best thing you can do when your child is arguing with your rules or consequence is to say “No, I’m not going to discuss this any further” and turn around and walk away. Don't respond to any backtalk. So if you say no and your child starts saying, “But, but, but…” just keep walking. Leave him holding the bag. If you give him the power to turn you back around, he's going to turn you back around forever. I think kids do need a reasonable amount of explanation, but after you’ve done that, you don’t owe them anything more. It’s not productive.
  • Tell Your Child the New Rules
    The time to explain concepts to your child is when things are going smoothly. So when things are good, sit down and say to your child, “When I tell you ‘no,’ I don't want to talk to you anymore about that. No means no.” You can help coach them if the word no is particularly frustrating to your child. “If you don't like no, if that makes you frustrated, go to your room and draw for five minutes. Go do something to calm yourself down.” That should start very early. Let me be clear: If you give in to temper tantrums from kids who are two and three and four years old, you're training them to challenge your authority. You're training them not to give in to you, because they know you'll give in to them. They’ll use the same tactics whenever you challenge them. And remember, if it works in childhood, they’ll use it as adults and it will lead to a lot of difficulty in their relationships.
  • Always Remember These 3 Parenting Roles: Teacher, Coach and Limit Setter
    Always remember these three roles of parenting: the Teaching Role, the Coaching Role and the Limit Setting Role. The Limit Setting Role is an important part of your parenting style. Parents will often tell me they don’t like to set limits; these are the same parents who tell me they want to be friends with their kids. I understand that, and I'm not judging them. But I also think that that's a misconception of what the parent-child relationship should be and can be in the early years—and even on into the teen years. My son didn't need friends. He needed a parent to say, “No, you can't stay out after ten o'clock on Friday night unless I know where you're going to be.” Personally, I think the parent-child relationship is lifelong and complex. If your child is going to be friends with you, that probably won’t happen until they’re adults.

    By the way, even though I don’t advocate being your child’s friend, I think you should be friendly with your kids at all times. That's that “positive regard” I often mention. And what that means is that you should always talk to your kids like you like them. Have a look on your face and a tone that gives them the message that you care about them. I know this can be hard, especially when you’re frustrated and your child has been acting like a pill. Still, it’s very important to be positive when dealing with them as much as you can, because they pick up on any negative feelings very, very quickly and soon internalize them--or rebel against them aggressively.

Parents have to be clear and honest with themselves about the reality of the situation if they have nurtured this “never take no for an answer” problem in their kids. If your child is pushing back when you say no, understand that up until now, you’ve watered and fed that behavior, and it grew. So to expect this behavior to change without any conflict is unrealistic. I believe you need to set limits and stick to them, while remembering that your child is not going to turn around their behavior in one day. If you’re only starting when he’s 15, remember that you've trained your child that you're a pushover and that you don't mean what you say. Once you inadvertently train your kids to believe that, it's very hard to break that training.

These are hard patterns to turn around, but parents can do it. You have to come up with a game plan. That game plan should include what you're going to do, how you want your child to act in any given situation, how to teach them to do it, how to respond to them if they get so overwhelmed they can't do it, and how to set limits on that behavior. In my opinion, these are some of the basics of sound parenting.

Realize that this fight might take you six months or six years. But unless your child has some severe behavioral disorder, eventually most kids will turn around and start responding–that’s all there is to it.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


This is the most valuable lesson for young inexperienced parents I've ever read. I'm SO impressed by its content! I wish I had received this advice 40 years ago! Thank you -- on behalf of my children and grandchildren.

Comment By : Jane

Very good article. I am guilty of giving in because my gradaughter wears me out by talking back, asking why, why, why and not giving up when I say no. I will learn to walk away and set a consequence for her behavior.

Comment By : cu

Yes. This is where the rubber meets the road. Thanks, James, for another good lesson!

Comment By : ociana

Thank you James, I needed to hear this again! I'm not doing my kids any favors by setting a limit and then letting them renegotiate with me.

Comment By : sg

You've been spying on me! This is exactly what my problem is with my son. I've been divorced for 5 years and during the divorce I allowed the guilt to override my structure for my kids and spoiled them. I'm struggling now to undo exactly what you say in this article. Thank you for this advice!

Comment By : Jo Anne

I wasn't doing my child or myself a favour by explaining, seeing how sometimes it has a time and place, but of my choosing and not theirs, or not at all. A child gives what they get and throws it back; managing my reaction allows them to learn to manage theirs.

Comment By : less wired mom

Great advice! So what's the next step when we say "no" and mean it and walk away and the child finds a way to defy us anyway?

Comment By : Frustrated Mom #1million

Never thought my husband and I would be in the position of raising children again. We now have custody of our 14 yr.old grandson and are trying to undo the damage from his mother. It's not easy to be sure, but after reading this article I know we can turn him around. Thanks James.

Comment By : Tired Ganma

Wow, this is exactally what I needed to hear! I will try it. Thank you.

Comment By : MommyOf3

This was a great article. I really wish I had found this website 18 years ago. I have struggled with the issue of saying NO, not explaining and giving in with my now 18 year old son for years. I have done better with it the past few years but I'm afraid I started a little too late with him. I have two more boys,13 & 16 that I have been firm with on the no and not explaining issue and I will NOT make the same mistake with them. Thanks James for this article.

Comment By : empowered mom 2009

I understand about not giving in but what about those public situations? I have a two year old that when it's time for dinner, it's time for dinner. So what do we do when he wants to eat or when he's done eating and wants to get down and walk around?

Comment By : Frustrated

Thank you James. We went to buy shoes today. My son was noncomplying most of the time. He has NLD which is information processing. He is very bright and usually in a good frame of mind. To take his prize possesions (model train engines) away only increases his anxiety. He will start pulling out patches of hair. So during the shoe shopping, I politely asked him over and over again to help with trying on and walking in a new pair of shoes. Hours later I feel very disappointed in that I feel helpless. If I take things away his anxiety level goes up.

Comment By : sad

I have read alot of these articles and this is hands down the best one I have ever read! I am married to an over-explainer and I am always telling her "you've said enough" and "too many words - he gets it". It's like the article says, if you let the child direct the dialog, you have given up the authority. Thank you James.

Comment By : Eric A.

My son is 10 and this one really hits home. I'm trying to do better but it is certainly hard when he continually challenges me. I'm glad to hear that it's not too late to try to fix things. I'll keep trying. Thanks for the encouragement!

Comment By : sams_mom

* Dear 'sad': It does sound like giving your child a consequence does not work for him. It’s probably best to look at helping him learn skills and giving little rewards and encouragement when he does well. We recommend that you find some local professionals in your area for the services that he may need. Start by asking his pediatrician for recommendations. And look for some support for yourself, perhaps even some respite care. You might contact your local community mental health center for information on any programs. Try connecting with other parents with kids who have challenges. This usually offers some reduction in stress because it helps to know you’re not alone.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

very nice article. We are in the "thick of things" with our 13 year old daughter; way too much explaining and reacting to her negative reactions with our own negative reactions. Not a happy household. We will bear down and try harder.

Comment By : mommaof3

I feel like my boyfriend and I follow a lot of these rules well in general. Lately, I'm feeling less in control and more reactionary with his younger child. She's 3 (almost 4), and has screaming fits that really push my buttons. The older child (5, almost 6) has adapted very well through the separation and divorce and understands that there are different rules in each of the two households, but the little one doesn't. Their mother, to the best of my understanding, doesn't really give them rules, structure, etc. I feel so defeated sometimes knowing that our positive work is demolished each time they spend more than a few hours with their mother. How can I make a 3 year old understnad that even though scremaing and whining works at Mommy's house, it doesn't work at Daddy's?

Comment By : scritch13

Dear Scritch13: This is not an easy situation, but I give you a lot of credit for trying to make things better. As for this little screamer, I don't think you can really "make" a 3 year old do anything, but you can set down some serious boundaries for her that have attached consequences so she knows what to expect each and every time she stays at your house.  An example could be this:  The next time she comes over to your house, you and your boyfriend need to sit down with both children and show them a list of all the house rules.  Even though the 3 year old can't read them, she will know you mean business.  Read each rule out loud and read what the consequence will be if she does not follow them. For instance, "If you don't finish picking up your toys, you lose a video privilege for that night". At this time, bring up her screaming by saying "I know you have gotten into the habit of screaming when things don't go your way, but we're going to work on stopping that when you come here."  Make a chart that is broken down into morning, afternoon, and evening.  If she can go the whole morning without screaming, she gets a "+" mark for the morning.  The same thing for afternoons and evenings.  On an index card above the chart, list 3 things that she can pick one from if she can earn 15 checks in a week period.  Examples include picking out what to eat for dinner on Friday, picking a movie for the family to see, deciding what to have for dessert, or a trip to the ice cream store.  The point here is to work towards helping her develop positive behavior rather than simply punishing her for her bad behavior. The other thing to keep in mind is that children in the same families often have extremely different temperaments.  In my own family we have a screamer, too, in the middle of two pretty mild-mannered children. It can be very stressful when that child acts up, but remember that your job is to stay calm so the child can too.

Comment By : Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Dear Scritch13: P.S. I'd also like to encourage you (and other parents/caregivers of younger kids) to read Dr. Joan's article, "Stopping a Temper Tantrum in Its Tracks".

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

Hi I am seeking help. I found this email helpful, but am really feeling desparate. I have two children a 7 yr old daughter and a 4 yr old son. My issue is with my daughter. She is not defiant in the way that she curses or hits but she is very challenging. If she does not get her way she starts crying, whining and when she can't control herself than she starts screaming. She has always been this way. She gets so upset that by a certain point she has escalated and can't get herself under control. It is really wearing on my husband and I. We have tried everything Merit Charts, taking away priviledges, yelling. Nothing seems to work. The worst thing is that the battles start over the littlest things such as getting dressed in the morning. What shoes to wear. Opening a new cereal box when their are already 6 other open boxes. I know she is testing limits but I am beyond frustrated. I love my child with everything that I have but their are times when I can't stand to be around her; especially when she is acting this way Please help

Comment By : Emifi27

* Dear ‘Emifi27’: It’s important to let your daughter’s pediatrician know how frequently your daughter has temper tantrums, how long they last, and how she behaves during those incidents. It’s necessary for a physician to determine whether temper tantrums need further evaluation. After your doctor has determined there is no reason to be concerned, use the problem solving techniques in James Lehman’s program. But you’ve done the first step toward making changes by recognizing what does not work. As you said, in the throes of a temper tantrum, taking away privileges or yelling does not work. There is a great article by James Lehman, Avoiding the Power Struggles with Defiant Children, which address what you’re going through. Incentives and consequences alone do not change behaviors. They are tools used to help kids use their skills to change behavior. What works for your child to help her calm down? Is it better for her if you ‘reduce the stimulation’ for example and do a minimum amount of talking—no arguing when she begins to get frustrated so you’re not experiencing a ‘battle’? We as parents have to put a halt to the tug of war by disconnecting from it. And we must disconnect in a way that does not escalate the situation. That’s the challenging part because we have feelings too. But it’s important to role model to our children how to calm down in these circumstances. You can’t make them calm down, they have to calm themselves, but you can coach them to try to calm themselves down. Have a talk with her and tell her you recognize that calming herself is hard for her and you are going to try to coach her during that time so she can do a better job. Let her know that your coaching will be very short, after which you will move away from her so that she can focus on calming her body. Tell her that when she is calm, you can talk again. Talk about some of the ways she might calm herself down: (1) taking slow, deep breaths (2) listening to music or (3) resting on her bed. So let’s say she has a temper tantrum. You might say, “You need to find a way to calm yourself down. We’ll talk when you not so upset.” Here’s the most important piece. You must speak in a non-threatening tone and have a pleasant look on your face. This won’t work if it’s said in anger or exasperation. If she feels forced by you and resists, you’re in that tug of war again. You have to think of this as ‘coaching’ her to calm not ‘requiring’ her to calm. If after a pause, she continues to escalate, and seems determined not to disconnect from you, give her a reminder of what tools she could use. “Maybe you could go lie down in your room for awhile. I’m going to go to my room for a bit too.” Calming down is the child’s work to do. You can’t physically do it for them and you can’t force them to do it. You can only role model how it’s done, problem solve with them on calming down techniques, briefly coach them during a temper tantrum, then step back and allow them to learn to do this work for themselves. Call us here at the Support Line whenever you have questions on apply a technique from the Total Transformation. We would be glad to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I can relate to these stories. I am a single mom and have been for 5 years, my daughter is 8 and challenges me on everything, guilt trips me about not loving her and not caring about her. she says that I hate her when I try to lay down rules or let her know she is out of line. I think I baby her out of guilt since her dad left us. I know it isn't right, but that is what I did and now I am paying the price. She is really mean to her 2 year old and 1 year old cousins as well. She won't let them play with her things, has to control everything and doesn't like them to be complimented or she has to say something to tear them down. I feel that we can't go to family things anymore because my kid is so mean and will be disaterous... I will definitely take the advice on here to heart and implement it in our life. Thank you so much.

Comment By : Denise4009

I found this article very informative. My 11 year old son has ADHD and is always talking back when I try to give him direction. He tells me I am mean and even says worse things. Yesterday I started to use some of the techniques I found from this newsletter, for example I stopped yelling and changed my tone completely, It really worked, he was calmer and so was I?! I told him today that I was taking his Wii away after school because he did not get dressed when I instructed, well he went into the bathroom and slammed the door. I didn't yell I just ignored his antics. I hope I can stick to my guns! Being a divorced Mom and having him 99% of the time makes it even harder! I wish I had this support 11 years ago! thanks!

Comment By : PattyJ

My son just turned 7 and has a very hard time keeping his hands to himself and gets VERY close to his classmates which makes them uncomfortable. I get calls almost everyday from the school which the latest one was for him biting a little girl who he felt was being unfair. He tends to get very angry when he sees something as unfair and he says his brain tells him to hurt the other children or adult who isn't being fair to him. I explained to him that although its okay to get angry, he CANNOT hurt another person. The school's hands are kinda tied with what they can do and it appears to me that when they take him out of the situation to "help the principal w/a special project" it's a reward to him. He has stated that if he hits enough people he will be sent home. I've set the limit "NO excuse for abuse" and he did pretty well the first day but today he bit the other kid. I just wondered if its natural for him to escalate his violence towards others before the consequences kick in. And should I warn the school to be aware? And also, because of his age, he only has to be aggressive-free for one day then he can get video games back plus for every good report on his behavior sheet he gets a point towards one of the rewards we discussed, such as going to a movie or taking him to the store so he can buy a video game (I said Id put in half the money)The bigger the reward the more points he needs to have. I am determined to stick with the consequences not only for my son's well being but for his classmates and teachers, too. I just pray that I have the strength! Great article, James! :)

Comment By : Kev's mom

* Dear “Kev’s mom”: James Lehman writes, “. . . serious behaviors emanate from a marked inability to solve problems. In my view, having feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety and depression are problems which have to be solved in ways that don’t cause self-defeat or harm to others.” Regarding your question “if it’s natural for your son to escalate his violence towards others before the consequences kick in?” we would answer that expecting consequences alone to change this behavior will not work. In this case, your son needs to ‘solve the problem’ of ‘acting out aggressively’ when he thinks things are unfair. [There are more instructions on helping your child with what triggers his aggression in Lesson 7 of the Total Transformation program—How to Stop It Before It Starts: The Trigger Management Process.] Help him learn what else he can do instead of being aggressive. Perhaps teaching your son to use some deep breathing exercises to reduce tensions would be helpful to him. Be sure to model non aggressive behaviors at home. Don’t spank him as a consequence because spanking escalates bad behavior and models aggression. Let his pediatrician know about his aggressive behaviors so that he can rule out any underlying medical conditions or decide whether you should consult with other professionals. We wish your family success as you continue to seek out the resources that will help your son.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Love the article and the comments help me to deal with the issues I have with my child and my granddaughter. I will bookmark this and refer to it as I change how I deal with how far I go with my explanations. Also, found this interesting, child book publishing company

Comment By : Emmakaye8

I don't give in, but I over-explain, A LOT. This has led to two kiddos (4 and 6) who can't take just NO, they need to know why all the time. I really think I've been an awesome mom but I should have used the old "because I said so" line starting at age 2 with them. Now I've got two little lawyers. Meh.

Comment By : witsend

I Have 4 Step Children ages 3to 11 years old the 11 Years old has ADHD. If you tell them to Lisen they DO NOT lisen to all of 5 of us adults and the 6year old and the 11 year old fight consdent they all Fight Over a Video Game including the 3year old Please feel free to Contact me to give me Imput on this Major Problum.Thanks

Comment By : David Cheswick PA

* Hi David: It can be a very frustrating situation when you have a house full of children and none of them are listening! James Lehman suggests that in blended families its most effective for the children’s biological parent take the lead on disciplining them when things get out of hand, and you would take a supporting role in that. One of the most effective things you both can do is to set some ground rules with the children when things are calm, and let them know the plan for the next time that they start to argue about the video game. For example, you might say “I have been noticing that there has been a lot of arguing over this video game. I want to give you a chance to work this out between you, because I know you can do it. If you cannot work it out, I will take the video game away until things calm down.” I am also attaching an article that you might find helpful: Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Ceasefire Now). Thanks for your question and good luck!

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

OK, I'm sitting here nodding my head, "YES!!" and reading key points that are totally on target with what I needed to read today and exactly what I was looking for. Changes aren't going to happen overnight. When he challenges my "No" (and Lord knows he will), don't keep explaining myself. I'm going to try to be strong and enforce my decisions more. (Breathe) . . . wish me luck!!

Comment By : Jnicoletto

After our house burned down last month I notices we were allowing behaviors we would NEVER have allowed before. Now we get to start over with our defiant older child and nip the new behavors 'in the bud'. I commend all you parents for paying attent and loving your children enough to grow them up right! As a homeschool mom I have the advantage of being the sole disciplinarian but also the disadvantage of being teacher/parent ALL the time. I really have to pay close attention to caring for myself so I have the ability to remain calm in these situations. This was a good reminder of why yelling doesn't work and I am back to the drawing board of my own for an attitude adjustment. Just in time!

Comment By : 1bustmomx4

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