It’s OK to Say “No” to Your Child (Really!)

Posted May 8, 2009 by

Why are fewer parents using the word “No” and failing to give their children consequences that will make their inappropriate behavior stop?

Before that question is answered, I feel there should be a word about why the word “No” needs to be in the vocabulary of every parent. From the beginning, our children look to us to provide them with the security and parameters that are necessary for them to trust not only us, but the wider world around them.  Many parents don’t believe me when I say this, but your child wants you to say “No” to them when they are acting out.  When kids are misbehaving, they are looking to you to say, “Stop me from doing this!  Tell me how to behave correctly!  Keep me safe!” This may not seem true when you are in aisle six of the grocery store and your 3-year-old is flailing on the ground because you won’t buy her cookies, but when you say “No” and follow through, you are telling her you love her, you want her to be safe, and your expectations of her are high enough that you are willing to let her be miserable (by setting a consequence) so that she will change her behavior.

(Before we go on, I want to stop for a moment and say that I realize for many parents who have children with certain behavioral problems, using the word “No” may trigger further negative behavior. A good article to read on that topic is James Lehman’s “Why the Word ‘No’ Sets off an Oppositional, Defiant Child”.)

So why do many of us seem to struggle with saying “No” to our kids? I have a few theories.  Recently, a mother I know told me that her 2-year-old was ruling the roost because she just couldn’t bring herself to tell her daughter “no.”  Instead of giving consequences, this very well-meaning mom reasons, bargains, and bribes — but her daughter always gets her way. When we talked about it one day, this mom explained that as a child, she was verbally abused by her own mother and often felt insecure and unloved.  While it was understandable why she would feel this way, I believe she was making a cardinal parenting mistake:  equating saying “No” with not loving your child.  Understand that there is no correlation between saying “No” and how much you love your kids.  In fact, I would say the opposite:  saying “no” is a message to your kids that you love them enough to make sure they don’t hurt themselves or someone else, and that you want them to grow up strong, healthy and well-adjusted.

I also hear from a lot of working parents who feel guilt about leaving their kids. When they have time with them after a long day, they don’t want the burden of making their children miserable by telling them “No.”  But again, we need to separate out our feelings of guilt or sadness from the necessity of giving our children security through telling them “No.”

I also think that “No” has become a dirty word because parents are afraid of hurting their child’s feelings.  While most of us were not abused as kids, many of us had parents who may not have always been the most sympathetic or understanding.  As a result, I believe there are too many moms and dads out there who have swung the pendulum in the opposite direction and are working overtime to be friends with their children.

But there has to be a balance here.  Throughout your child’s life, they will have plenty of friends, but they need you to be the person in charge.  You can be friendly without being your child’s friend.  Saying “No” means that sometimes you will be the bad guy, sometimes your child will tell you they dislike you — or even that they hate you — and sometimes your heart will break a little when you see how unhappy they are.  But I believe that as parents, we need to be strong enough to withstand the temporary anger our children throw our way so that we can take on the role of being the one in charge.


Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

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  1. KSimpsonof3 (Edit) Report

    I have a son 15 and he is starting to disrespect me the house rules and always talks bad to me if he isnt getting his way. the only time he is nice or respectful is when he wants to do something. How can i redirect him back to a respectful and secure kid. He doesnt feel real secure with himself and i think he has low self esteem. I know these things can be part of the issues. How do I build his self esteem up?

  2. drjoan (Edit) Report

    To: Bewildered

    The main issue I see here is that you are having trouble with being consistent with your daughter. Each time you slip into bad patterns when you deal with your daughter’s difficult behavior (which we all do at times)you are confusing her. She is unclear as to what the boundaries are that you are setting for her. Of course she is going to try to get away with anything she can–that’s a 10 year old’s job! It is unfair for you to be inconsistent with your rules/consequences and then wonder why your daughter is inconsistent with her behavior. Her bad behavior won’t end until you decide to be open with her regarding what your expectations are and what the consequences will be every time she fails to follow the rules.

    An example for your bathing suit issue could have gone like this: “We are going shopping for a new bathing suit. We have exactly one hour to find something you like. After that time, if we find nothing, we will come back another day, but we will be leaving the mall at 3:00. I want to make sure you understand what I am saying so that when it is time to go, you get that we will be leaving. If there is whining or complaining when our mall time is over you can’t go to your friends house to play tomorrow. Are we clear on this?”

    Kids your daughter’s age need to know exactly what is going to happen and what the consequences will be if they do not follow along. Then, if she gets whiny you can make it clear that you have already stated the rules and since she is breaking them she will have to deal with the fall-out all on her own. The more you practice this consistently, the more she will believe you and the better her behavior will be.

    I know this isn’t easy, but consistency is one of the cardinal rules parents need to follow if they want their kids to change. Good luck!

  3. Bewildered (Edit) Report

    I have tried to used TT for a few years..notice I said try?
    I find that i will used the techniques, and I may or may not get results, but I tend to slip back into a really bad pattern with my 10 year old daughter. She can be a true joy to be with..BUT she can also be a horror! Ex: she asked my bf to take her to buy a new bathing suit, I came along. Everything was fine, but we couldn’t find one she wanted in her size. We decided on one that we could return if she decided that she didn’t like it. Well..she asked “can we look at a different store? No, we have somewhere to go, we agreed that we only had a small amount of time. Then she proceeded to sulk, and act up on the way home. She started with I have a stomache ache I need to eat..on and on. I didn’t even want that bathing suit. This continued during the 20 minute ride. I just feel so frustrated, becasue I wonder if she will ever stop being this way. I am trying to give her consquences that are connected and task oriented. It’s to the point where we don’t even want to go anyhwhere with her because she is so aweful after/during. Well she ever stop ruining it for us all??

  4. drjoan (Edit) Report

    To Momof3:

    Kudos to you for setting boundaries and saying “No” to your teen-ager! It isn’t easy is it? I understand when you say that you are a little insecure about the boundary setting. One thing that may help is to tell yourself that you are doing this because you love her. Of course your daughter won’t look at it that way, but this can give you strength if your confidence begins to waver.

    In terms of creating a list of reasonable limits, I suggest you do this with your teen. Sit down with her and create a list of expectations that you have for her. Also, create with her a list of the consequences she will face if she breaks the rules. She can create her own list of what she wants to do with her friends, after school, on week-ends, etc. Then you can decide which of her requests are reasonable, which are negotiable, and which are totally off-limits. You can make these decisions based on your families personal values and rules.

    I would strongly urge you to decide which issues you can let go of, then give her the freedom to do it. The reason I suggest this is that there are some things that are not worth the fight and it gives your teen a sense of control in her world if she is allowed to do things that are not harmful. Allowing your child little freedoms can make a big difference in diffusing the ongoing push and pull that can take place between a parent and a teen. Then make clear which of your expectations are non-negotiable and explain why.

    Parenting a teen is a fine balance between setting boundaries but not being too punitive at the same time. Of course she has violated your trust in the past and I understand your need to be weary of trusting her again. Explain to her that as she shows you through the small freedoms you give her that she can be responsible you will consider re-negotiating with her in the future. By involving her in this process you are telling her that she is the one responsible for whether or not she is allowed to engage in certain activities. This takes the responsibility off of you and allows her to succeed or fail on her own watch.

    You sound like an awesome parent who is on the right track. Keep up the good work!

  5. Brooke (Edit) Report

    Dr. Joan:

    Thank you for your article. As always, your common sense, balanced approach is a breath of fresh air.

    When my first born was a toddler I had a hard time saying no to him, but I found that his demmands and behavior got worse and worse. Now that I have learned to “No,” and not fear his temper tantrums, they don’t last like they used to. He might be mad for a moment, but then he quickly forgets.

    Not saying “no” seemed like the path of least resistance, but it is actually much easier to just say “no” and move on then have to try and bribe, cajole and tiptoe around your child which lasts all day.

  6. Elisabeth, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Dr. Joan: Thanks for giving us the strength to say “no” to our kids. Sometimes it’s a really hard thing to do — but if you look at the big picture, you can see that it’s absolutely the right thing to do. In fact, I think that’s one of the hardest things about parenting sometimes — seeing that big picture when you are getting through one phase of your child’s life, and learning as you go. But it’s always good to remember that our goal is to raise healthy, well-adjusted, responsible kids — who will hopefully one day become responsible adults. Saying “no” really is an important piece of that puzzle…So I say Amen, Dr. Joan!

  7. momof3 (Edit) Report

    I enjoyed this article–it is SO true. we don’t have a problem telling our kids No. And our daughter lets us know that she don’t like it. She is newly 17. We are a little insecure on how much freedom a teen really needs—-she fights us almost daily since just turning 17. There isn’t much trust with her–she trashed that and does continue to lie here and there to us, despite us explaining to her you don’t build trust with someone that is still being secretive and lying occassionally. She feels she don’t want us IN her business, so she keeps things to herself. We delved into her business when she was 15 and really making some poor choices for herself. We have told our children that the day they decide to start lying to us and keeping vital information from us or being sneaky is the day that we have the right to search your belongings. And we do. Not as often now as it was a year ago. They were warned ahead of time and still she decided to do things HER way. Is there a list somewhere of reasonable limits to set for kids this age that you are having trust issues with? Seems almost everynight she is asking us for some privelage and i tell you we are mighty sick of it. Our other 2 kids don’t have the compulsion to do this. They are boys though…….maybe that makes a difference. Our daughter just don’t seem to have that drive to do her personal best. She is better since a year or so ago—but still not where we feel she should be for her age! Very disconcerting.



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