Saying No to Kids and Actually Mean It

Make sure your child understands why you're saying no.
Thanasis Zovoilis / Moment / Getty Images

Whether you tell your child he can’t go outside and play because it’s too cold, or you say no when he asks to go a friend’s house before he’s finished his homework, hearing the word ‘no’ once in a while can be good for kids. It sets a clear boundary and when used appropriately, shows you care.

There are many ways to tell a child no, but not all of them are effective. If you say no to your child, it’s important to show that you mean it.

Give a Definitive Answer

Hearing things like, “Well, we’ll see…” or “Probably not,” can be frustrating for children. And they’ll often beg, whine, and plead to turn a wishy-washy no into a yes.

When you mean no, make your answer definitive. Say, “No, you can’t do that today,” or “No, we aren’t going to go there.” Say it in a firm, authoritative manner to show that you mean business.

Of course, there may be times when the answer really is ‘maybe.’ In those cases, make your uncertainty crystal clear by explaining why the uncertainty exists. Say something like, “I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to go to the beach. We’re going to have to wait and see how the weather looks after lunch.”

Offer a Short Explanation

A short explanation about why you’re saying no can turn your refusal into a learning experience. Saying, “No you can’t jump into the pool without your life jacket,” without an explanation isn’t helpful. Your child may think, “I can’t do that because my mom is mean,” without recognizing the potential danger.

Try saying something like, “No you can’t jump into the pool without your life jacket because you're not a strong enough swimmer to swim all the way to the other end of the pool without a life jacket yet.” When your child understands the reason behind your answer he may be less likely to take the risk when you’re not there to tell him no.

Make it Clear You Won’t Cave In

No matter how much whining, begging, or pleading your child does, don’t give in. Changing your no to a yes will only reinforce to your child that you don’t really mean what you say.

Even when you hear things like, “But everyone else gets to do that!” or, “You’re so mean. I hate you!” don’t go back on your word. Remind your child, “I love you and that’s my rule,” and discontinue the conversation.

Ignore mild grumbling and avoid arguing about your answer. Refuse to engage in a heated discussion and don’t get into any power struggles.

Follow Through With Consequences When Necessary

If your child’s behavior becomes disruptive, follow through with a consequence. Yelling, screaming, and ongoing pestering may respond best to a brief time-out.

Give one warning when necessary. Say, “If you don’t stop begging me, then you’ll have to go to time-out.” Logical consequences are also effective ways to reinforce when you really mean no.

Deal With Your Emotions in a Healthy Way

While some parents may not like saying no because they don’t want to be mean, others may feel guilty that their child is upset. It’s important to notice how you feel when you say no so you can deal with your feelings in a healthy, and productive manner.

Remind yourself that it’s OK for your child to experience uncomfortable emotions, like sadness and disappointment. In fact, saying no to your child’s requests give him an opportunity to practice dealing with his feelings in a socially appropriate manner.

Make Sure You’re Saying Yes Often

Saying no to all of your child’s requests can be harmful. Kids need the opportunity to explore different places and try new things. So it’s important that you grant your child permission to do the things that are good for his development.

When you catch yourself saying no a lot, ask yourself why. Are you too tired? Do you worry that he’ll make a mess? While it’s OK to say no sometimes simply because you don’t want to do something, don’t become overly restrictive out of habit.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.