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


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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