The Importance of Saying “No” to Children

Boundaries don’t have to be strict and inflexible. We all need some boundaries in our lives and what we have the capacity for, what we can do has limits. For example, we can’t lift a truck by ourselves and we don’t even attempt to because we know that’s beyond us. These boundaries can help us adapt to life and the more we consider our social, emotional, and physical boundaries, the more equipped we are to adjust our behavior or make a change that better serves us and those around us.

As parents, we are the first ones to set boundaries for our kids and in order for our children to both learn and accept boundaries or create their own, we have to examine how we’re modeling them.  We’re not always going to meet every single need our children have but by reflecting on our own boundaries as parents, we’re more likely to be clear with our expectations and better models. For a kid to accept the fact that there may be things their parents can’t do both physically and financially can help them internalize and make sense of the situation more easily. We may be upset when we can’t do something that our kids want. There’s a delicate balance in life between doing things we want to do, things that fulfill us, and doing this we don’t want to do even though they may serve us in the long run. That lesson, learning to navigate that balance, can be an important lesson for young children as they grow and develop their own sense of boundaries.  

Sometimes we may notice that children tend to push on boundaries. Maybe they’ll ask a parent for something and when they’re told no, they’ll go to a different parent and ask the same thing. In such cases, it’s important that all parents and caregivers involved are aware of and consistently implementing boundaries across caregiving. This kind of collaboration is crucial, especially if the child or children are spending time in different places with different caregivers. Understanding that they’re an individual who’s still part of a community can support the development of children as they learn social skills and self-advocacy.

Importance of “No” When Setting Boundaries

Our relationships are often established by considering individual boundaries. What we can, can’t, or don’t want to do play a significant role in terms of those relationships. That said, saying “no” can sometimes be difficult because we’re afraid of upsetting the other person or harming our relationship. The fear of not being loved or accepted can prevent us from saying “no” even though it means depriving ourselves. It’s important to remember that not wanting to do something is a good enough reason to say no. If we continue to say “yes” when we don’t want to, it can cause an internal conflict wherein we suffer needlessly just to maintain a relationship and that can have destructive effects in the future. 

Often, being able to set clear boundaries in our adulthood is closely related to the ways in which we were encouraged (or discouraged) by our parents to express our needs and desires when we were children. Therefore, in order for our kids to define their own boundaries, our boundaries as parents play an important role and need to be clear. For example; if a kid observes their parents do something just to please the expectations of others, they can interpret this message as “I need to satisfy others’ expectations even if I don’t want to.” At this point, to be a role model for our kids we should set boundaries not only for them but also for ourselves. 

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Why Can’t I Say “No”?

We might refrain from saying “no,” thinking that rejecting the requests of our kids will hurt or upset them. Maybe we can’t say “no” because we don’t want to be the “unloved parent.” The childhood experiences of parents can define their behaviors toward their own kids. Sometimes if we take the approach of, “I have to do whatever my kids want because when I was a kid I couldn’t get what I wanted,” may not have the intended result, causing children to think their desires will always be satisfied or to be unprepared to navigate their emotions when they do encounter a “no” later on in life. 

It’s very natural for children to express disappointment when they can’t get something they want. And as parents and caregivers, navigating the fallout can sometimes feel daunting or scary. However, we should remember that children can adapt to boundaries. The boundaries we set for our children are the beginning of boundaries they will set for themselves or for their surroundings. They learn that their body is their own, that they can act in service of their own needs, that they can prioritize themselves and that’s okay. And it starts with us, the parents and caregivers. 

Of course, children may push against boundaries just as some adults do. As they’re learning, growing, developing, kids may express frustration when they don’t get what they want. It’s important to validate their emotions as you’re reinforcing a boundary. We experience a whole host of emotions as human beings and children are no different and every emotion can be helpful information for you to better know your child and for them to better know themselves.  

Ways of Saying “No”

First, we should be clear about our expectations when we’re making rules and setting boundaries for our children. If you’re met with resistance, see if you can reframe the conversation around seeking to understand one another. That could look something like, “I see you’re frustrated because you didn’t get ‘x,’ and that’s tough. I understand how you’re feeling. Here’s how I feel…”

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Maybe you’ve set the expectation that your child can only be on their phone for a certain amount of time and you find they’re trying to expand that limit or resist it altogether. Here, I don’t suggest being strict or harsh. On the contrary, we should adopt an explanatory and understanding attitude. Our reactions to the frustrations we encounter as an adult are closely related to the reactions we experienced as a child. Childhood is the demo of adulthood in a sense. Being consistent about the boundaries we set for our children helps them both comprehend and accept those boundaries.  

We all desire to know the “why” behind the rules whether that’s why we have to clock into work at a certain time or why the sun isn’t made of cheese…we’ve all got questions at some points in our lives. Just saying “no” without any explanation can be confusing and cause unnecessary conflict. Similarly, if “It’s no because I say so” doesn’t work for you as an adult, why would it make any sense for a child? We need to explain why we’re saying no. Are we saying no to protect them? Or is it something we can’t do at the moment? Acknowledging their emotions as we explain can help them to calm down and self-regulate.  

Just like adults, children feel the need to be understood. Imagine that you need to leave the house but the kids want to continue playing. It’s very crucial to explain that you understand their desire to stay home and the “why” behind whey that can’t happen. Saying “I know you don’t want to leave your toys now and this upsets you, but we need to go because your grandparents are waiting on us for dinner. When we come back you can continue playing with your toys or you can take them with you” will be very supportive. 

While trying to get our kids to adapt to hearing “no”, we shouldn’t forget to give positive feedback when they observe these boundaries. This way it will be much easier for them to adapt to other boundaries. For example, they watch a cartoon and turn off the TV. Saying “Thank you for turning off the TV,” will make them feel that their good behavior is seen and encouraged. 

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