Why is “No” so Hard to Understand?

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

Do you sometimes find yourself feeling like you’ve been “negotiated” by your child? You might notice that you hesitate to set limits or even make simple requests because you dread the lengthy argument that might follow? You might be thinking, “It is just easier to do this by myself!” How do we get ourselves in this pickle? Is it us? Is it something about the culture that our kids are growing up in? It is probably both – but we are more likely to be able to change what WE do than to change the culture. Let’s set the scene.

You can imagine being the parent of an eager 10 year old who wants to spend Friday night at her best friend’s house. Last year she really struggled settling into friendships and it seems that she now is gaining confidence. The only problem is that there is an important family event on Saturday morning – and knowing that she won’t get enough sleep with the group of 3 giggly girls on Friday night – it just isn’t going to work! When she comes to you filled with eagerness and joy part of you desperately wants to say yes – to support her joy and progress in making friends. Part of you knows that it would mean Saturday would be a disaster. Very sweetly you say, “No honey, not this time.” You can fill in what might happen next. She is really disappointed and a bit surprised so she may start by trying to convince you that you are wrong, or that she’d be fine Saturday or by begging. Or, if she has had a tough day she may start right in with name-calling or anger. You might try to go into explanations, or feel justified, or get angry because, you were actually “nice/kind” and she is just having a tantrum – and at this moment you don’t care if she ever goes to another sleep over.

Yikes, what happened in those minutes when you “collided” with each other? She came to you with excitement and anticipation and didn’t know how to manage the answer. Your situation is a bit more complicated. You are of two minds. Actually – your brain has one clear vision (this is not a good idea), and your heart has another (this would be great for her). You might say you are of two “bodies.” Ten year-olds get some of their information from your words – and even more information from your body. So in the space of her disappointment, she also got a mixed message, “Mom (or Dad) is conflicted about this.” She might not even know how she knows – but she has a sense – and that adds to the confusion and the behavior.

Now what? There are some strategies that can be effective when we want two things at once.

1) NOTICE: “I have mixed feelings about this.” When you have mixed feelings you will (whether you want to or not) give mixed messages. Those mixed messages invite negotiation.

2) BE HONEST: Be honest about your mixed feelings. We sometimes think that will invite negotiation. Mixed feelings invite negotiation whether you state them or not because your body has already conveyed them. By being open about what is going on with you the conversation can be more honest.

3) DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT: You could use the, “Right now the answer is, ‘No’” technique or ask for time to really think about your values (is the family event more important or the sleepover) by saying, “I need time to think about this before I answer.” Then take the time to clarify your values so that you can be of “one body” before you answer.

4) RESPOND: Either way you’ll want to connect. Using the example it might sound like, “Honey, this was a hard one for me because I know how much you want to go. This time the answer is no.” Or, “Honey this was a hard one for me because I was really looking forward to you being part of Saturday morning, but as I think about it long-term, I know that being with your friends is more important.”

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