If you were to be given a coin for every time your child asks you a question that requires you to say yes or no – and often RIGHT NOW – you would be laughing all the way to the bank. Numerous times a day we get to flex our boundary setting muscles which should lead to to a black belt in the art of saying no. But the truth is – most of us sport a yellow belt. We are still very much learning. Because saying no is so much more than merely uttering this two letter word.
Whether you are having to set a boundary with a friend, co-worker or your 4 year-old you can be sure of one thing;
Your no is going to give rise to an emotion in the other. And often one of disappointment.
The thing is it rarely FEELS nice to have to disappoint. Where your friend might react with temporary aloofness, your 4 year-old will likely stomp his feet and cry while your 10 year old might react to your no with attitude or negotiation. Because children are wired to try to go for the yes.
It can feel exhausting. And it is tempting to avoid this altogether by changing your own agenda, telling yourself; it doesn’t matter that much – and say yes to avoid the uncomfortable feelings.
But the thing is:
When we say yes when we mean no – we only DELAY the big and uncomfortable emotions
Either way, there’s a price to pay.
Either YOU end up exploding when you can no longer bottle up your frustrations or you accept that your child’s reactions are outside of of your control and are in fact a hugely important part of growing in emotional resilience. When we seek to avoid uncomfortably and momentarily being hated, not only does our child sense our fear and will play into it, but our child will not learn to adapt to the futilities of life. Not just the cookie they can’t have when they’re 5. But the no their peers give them at 16 or the rules that we all have to abide by in society.
The good news is – although children don’t tend to thank us for giving an honest no and setting our boundaries before we reach our limit – they will feel able to relax in our care and thrive being given what they need -not just what they want.
Thankfully boundary setting can be learnt and when we understand HOW to say no in ways that feel respectful to both you and your child – over time, communicating your boundaries is going to feel a lot less scary.
Let me share with you 3 helpful things to bear in mind when giving your child a no and dealing with their reaction.
1. Be clear
Children are wonderfully clear. Some would even say they are audacious. They ask in straight terms and therefore, can also handle clear and honest answers. In fact, if we are show them that the door to negotiation it is helpful to them that we keep our answer short, respectful and concise.
“I don’t want to give sweets now”
“I can’t play with you right now -but I would love to after dinner”
“No – I don’t want to give you more time on the iPad”
These statements leave no doubt as to what your answer is. They all say no in various ways and the WAY you say it will make it more likely that your child can accept your answer.
Because we often know that what follows a no is an attempt at negotiating or a big reaction it can be tempting to say no in a very stern way or sugar coat our message so that instead of owning our answer we end up asking a question or asking them a question back:
“Can’t you play by yourself?”
2. Don’t over-explain and justify
Although your child will likely want to challenge your no, resisting the urge to over explain or justify your decision makes it easier for your child to come to accept your standpoint.
“Remember last night when you had sweets just before dinner.. you didn’t eat anything”
“I did.. And I will”
“Yeah – you say that..but I’m yet to see that”
All we end up doing is prolonging the pain. Our child sees this an open door and will use it as an opportunity to change your no to a yes.
Focus instead on repeating your message:
“As I said – I don’t want to give you sweets right now”
“I know you would love to play right now – and we will – after dinner”
3. Allow a reaction
You might think this feels too confrontational. But the fact is -the more we can move our child towards acceptance of the futility of what they’re trying to do – the better they will learn to adapt to this fact of life over time and mature in their reactions.
It’s natural to think that you are doing boundary setting all wrong because your child is having a reaction. But remember;
You can’t control how your child responds – you can only control HOW you communicate your no and how you respond to your child’s reaction
When you accept this fact it becomes easier to bear that your child might move through initial anger and frustration before eventually getting sad. Sadness is merely a sign of acceptance and is so important for our child to be able to restore emotional balance.
However, not all children go there readily. We can help our child move from mad to sad by making it feel safe to have a reaction and not wanting to stop it. If you can – hold your child. Or look at your child with empathy. And refrain from judging what might feel to you to be an ‘over reaction’.
Kids FEEL their emotions – they don’t think them. And this is where we often clash. Reasoning and logic is not registering when our children are in their big emotions – so it is far more helpful to say less and instead focus on keeping yourself grounded.
Calm first – teach second
After your child has calmed down – it might make sense to say a bit more about why you decided to say no. But not until your child’s thinking brain is back online will she be receptive to your good reasons.
Anger is okay – aggression is not
You may find that your child’s frustration leads to aggressive and attacking behaviours such as kicking, hitting or throwing things. This is because anger is fuelled by adrenaline and cortisol and prepares the body for fight. Of course, these behaviours need to be stopped. But rather than giving consequences and sending your child to their room at this point it is a good idea to respond with calm while telling them not to hit and do what needs doing to keep everyone safe.
Remember, it takes practice – and lots of it – for a child to learn to channel these big emotions in mature and acceptable ways. And as adults many of us are still having to learn this for ourselves. So a good place to practice is to remain grounded and in charge when your child can’t be and most need you to not stoop to their level.
Saying no can be the kindest answer. It is what often prevents us from suddenly exploding and what gives our child the necessary resilience to adapt to life and the limitations that we all face.