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How to Talk to Kids about Saying No and People Pleasing

Do you or does your child have trouble saying “no?” Do you find yourself saying “yes” to your children when you really want to say “not today,” “I can’t swing it,” or just plain “no?” Does your child over-stretch or over-commit because s/he can’t seem to say no? Perhaps you or your child is what my next guest calls “a master of yes and a novice of no.” But is all this people-pleasing a problem? As you might have already guessed, of course it is. And- As it turns out, even though it might be difficult to say no, it’s vital that we learn how to do it for our own health, wellbeing and stress-levels—and also so that we are teaching our children how to do it too. Is it uncomfortable to say no? Sure, it can be. But constantly saying yes can cause anxiety, anger, stress, regret and feelings of powerlessness. We definitely don’t want that. For the many ways to say no and mean it, we turn to Susan Newman.

Social psychologist, Susan Newman is the author of 15 books in the parenting field. Her research examines such areas as building strong family bonds and raising only children as well as the difficulties of being working parent. She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today and U.S News & World Report.  She is the author of “Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day” and The Book of NO: 365 Ways to Say It and Mean It—and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. You Follow her on Facebook at DrSusanNewman and sign up for her free “Monthly Family Life Alert” Newsletter on her website SusanNewmanPhD.com.

Important Messages:

  • We can’t say yes all the time- and when we do, we put ourselves in a constant state of overwhelm.
  • We have to learn to take care of ourselves- and part of taking care of ourselves is saying no.
  • Saying yes- illuminates arguments, it’s easier. Parents feel guilty- they don’t feel that they spend enough time with their kids. Some parents feel deprived- so they don’t want that to happen with their kids. And others were indulged- and want to do the same with their kids. And some want to be their child’s best friend. Some parents are falling prey to social pressure- raise “star” children who do it all- academics, sports, arts, music.
  • Questions before yes—do I have the time? Will I be unhappy if I say yes? Will I be resentful of the person asking me? 
  • Do I really want to do this? Is this someone I really care about? What am I giving up?
  • Sometimes we don’t calculate how we will feel in the future
  • Saying “no” set limits for kids and teaches kids how to say no himself.
  • By giving in to every wish and want, you are setting your child up to expect that everything will always go his/her way. When s/he comes out to the real world, rude awakening.
  • Saying “no” provides an opportunity for self-awareness.
  • Saying no helps a child learn to evaluate whether or no s/he wants to really do something. It also teaches responsibility- contributing to the family- and will feel pride- laundry, cooking.
  • Sometimes you can give an emphatic no. Other times, you can give an explanation with it. For example; “Can you just make my bed today for me?”
    “No, I really can’t do that, I have to make my own bed and get ready to go to work—and that’s your responsibility.” Or “I’m a parent and this is a house rule. When you’re a parent, you are welcome to have a different rule.”
  • Model for your child how to say no. Explain to your children why you turned down a request for help or an invitation. We can talk about people who ask us for help all the time but don’t offer help in return.
  • Watch opportunities to teach how to say “no” in action. “If you are going to take on another sport, how are you going to handle what you already have on your plate, get your homework done, free time to be with friends.” Go through the questions so s/he can figure out what a yes or no would mean.
  • As kids get older, do hypotheticals with drugs and alcohol and sex- how to say no.
  • When you are saying no, say it calmly and quietly.
  • Many parents think they keep saying no, no, no. I’m allowed 6 “no”s in order to have kids and yourself no it. Too many “nos” can cause arguments and tuning you out.
  • Parent knows best: If you know best that your child isn’t ready for something—“how do you feel about it?” What are the fears? What’s in the way? Is there a way to switch it around so there are alternatives.
  • Give your child permission to use you, the parent, as an excuse. “My mom/dad said I can’t…” (i.e. sleepover- “how about inviting your friend over to our home?” “My mom/dad said t=I need a good night’s sleep because…” “I can come for a sleep-under until 10pm but need to get picked up before bedtime.”
  • On the other hand, if you think your child CAN do something s/he feels nervous about (and would say no to), encourage him/her. “I know you can do it!”
  • Saying no: phrases like “I prefer not to,” “I’m uncomfortable,” “I’m not the right person,” “Regrettably, unfortunately, sadly I can’t,” “Wish I could but…”
  • Gossip: “I’m not sure about that.” “I need to think about that.” “I’m not comfortable commenting about that.” “I don’t really agree with that.” Don’t have to commit to a yes when someone is gossiping and trying to get you onboard.
  • Commentary about Appearance/Thanksgiving/Holiday/Family Get-Togethers- you don’t want to say “no” outright because it’s a sensitive family gathering: “I can understand your concerns but I don’t think a family gathering is the appropriate place to talk about it.” Change the subject. (Ideally, you want to get this person aside beforehand and say, “Look; my kids’ haircuts, dress, body is off-limits for this family get-together or any other family gatherings”)
  • Can you play with me now (when you can’t)? “I know I promised you that I would play a board game with you but I need to get dinner right now for you- you’re going to be hungry. Be patient. Let’s do it after dinner.” (teaching patience and let them know you care- but we are as disappointed as they are when we say no- but we are guiding them and letting them know what will come in the real world- that people don’t always say yes when we want them to do so!)
  • Reminded of Vicki Hoefle who said (paraphrased); Your child is going to be 18 in a hot minute! You need to parent your child as if s/he is going to be an adult in the real world!
  • Give children choices. You are not a restaurant chef! Think about what they want- and how to make decisions early-on. Instead of saying “no” outright, give them choices.
  • “I want a cell phone…everyone else has one.” Answer if the answer is no: “Absolutely not, you will get one- but not until you are older. In your friends’ homes, their parents make the decisions. In our home, I make the decisions. I know you are miserable with that decision but as soon as I feel you are old enough, you will get a phone.”
  • Money: “Honey, we just can’t swing that right now.”
  • Procrastination: Harvard study- kids who do chores are more responsible and do better academically.
  • Don’t do things for your child that she can do for herself. If your child is struggling with how to say no, talk it out. Brainstorm. Want them to stand on their own two feet. Have your child call and say; “I can’t do it today…here’s why.”
  • Wiggle room- careful on long-winded explanations. Gives the asker too much wiggle room to say “you can’t do X another day, do this today.”
  • Children won’t remember you saying no to this and that when diving into their memory banks. They’ll find something else to fault you for.
  • Protect yourself by saying no. Use self care. Teach your children to do the same. Refuse pressure. Refuse extra requests.

From the Blog of Dr. Robyn Silverman https://drrobynsilverman.com/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-saying-no-and-people-pleasing-with-susan-newman-phd/