Just Say No!

Just a little two letter word but a word with so much power.  When children are beginning to talk that is often one of their first words.  A word of defiance letting parents know they have their own wishes, different from those of their parents.  For parents, it is a word of authority intended to stop certain behavior, or as a response to a child’s demands, as in “no,” to candy before lunch.

Advice to “just say no,” has been promoted as a method young people should use on their own behalf as a way of rejecting drug use or early sexual behavior.  This of course depends on their ability to use the internal controls that parents provide externally while children are developing.

Why is “No!” so powerful?  Does it accomplish any of its intended purposes when used by parents or children?  It certainly can be effective with young children as a way of interrupting potentially dangerous behavior – such as a child about to run across the street or touch a hot pot.  It may be less effective if a child hears no all the time and it becomes something to tune out.

It is a powerful word for little children in particular, who often feel powerless in the face of their big, strong parents.  Saying no becomes a way for them to assert themselves.  Defiance is part of a process of establishing oneself as a separate person, different from one’s parents.  Defiance may be part of that process for teenagers as well, although by then the “no” may be acted out in more ways than words.

The ability of young adults to use “no” as a way of rejecting self-destructive behavior depends on many aspects of where they are in their development.  Some of the things known about adolescents are their inability to judge risk, and their belief in their own immortality, which can get in the way of their ability to monitor their own behavior.

Parents often complain about the fact that saying no doesn’t accomplish their goals.  Children continue to engage in behavior they have been told not to, or to demand things after parent have told them no.  Apparently, the word begins to lose its power when used by parents although not by children when refusing to comply with parents’ wishes.

For this reason, saying no does remain powerful as a provocation for confrontation.  Parents get frustrated when children don’t comply with their wishes or requests.  They then have to find a way to deal with the unacceptable behavior, but they also may react to having their authority challenged.  This often can lead to an escalation of the conflict between parent and child as parents seek stronger ways of asserting their authority – such as punishments or time-out.

Since saying no is so often counter-productive there are alternatives to be tried.  For young children, distraction – interesting them in something other than what they want at the moment – is often successful.  As children develop greater cognitive and language skills there are other ways of saying no without sounding like you are the boss.  Showing compassion for their inability to get what they want is almost always a good first step.

Although finding a compromise is not always possible, even letting children know that you understand what they want can help them feel that there is a possibility that their wishes may be met – if not now, perhaps at some point.

Is no in a direct form ever useful?  I heard from several parents about children who are now young adults expecting the kind of support from their parents – financial and otherwise – that no longer seems appropriate.   In many ways. this is a replay of the same kind of conflicts that existed earlier – except that now expectations of the grown children are different.

What is the same, is that parents who may have no trouble saying no to their children about certain things, find it hard to say no when it comes to withholding a kind of support to their children.  As parents, we want to give to our children and this can get us into trouble with little children as well as big ones.

Saying no is emotionally loaded, both in its power and lack of power.