Parenting Tips for Saying No and Setting Boundaries

Saying no can be one of the most relentless challenges for any parent. Whether it's a stomping toddler, an obstinate preschooler, or a convincing teenager pressuring you, it's important to understand what your job is and why it is so vital.

Your job as a parent is to set limits. And your child's job is to test those limits. So when you're faced with power struggles, remember: It's your job! Now here's the prize: saying no appropriately is extremely critical to a child's development. When you set appropriate limits for your child or teen, you are giving them the chance to practice and learn numerous skills.Entrepreneur working while his little girl plays

Setting Healthy Limits Is a Parent's Job

When parents set limits purposefully, we help children and teens learn how to set limits for themselves internally, which in turn strengthens self-control and confidence. When you do this well, your child becomes empowered to say no to peer pressure—which in turn helps prevent substance abuse and other dangerous behaviors as they grow older. What parent doesn't want this empowerment for their child?

If you only think of the short-term benefits, you may give in, just to get them off your back for the moment. However, when you look at setting limits as a way to give your child valuable skills in the long term, it becomes much easier to say no. And eventually we realize that saying no is most useful when we don't have to say it all!

Let's look at a partial list of the vital skills children and teens learn when you are set limits effectively.

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Appropriate limits teach children how to
  • delay gratification
  • handle frustration
  • calm their emotions
  • control impulses
  • set boundaries for peer pressure
These are all very important abilities that enable a child or teen to interact in the world and with others confidently while following their own individual path. They learn how to set limits for themselves and boundaries for others through our responses to them. When our responses are loving and firm consistently, their mental and emotional muscles strengthen much like muscles of our bodies get stronger with repeated exercise. Let's look at some of the ways to respond in various ways that support healthy development.

Mother conversing with teen girl on the couchReserve saying no for important issues.

A big mistake that many parents often make is to overuse the word "no." A simple yet vital key is to reserve saying no for important issues like safety. There are many ways to redirect a child or teen without actually using the word "no." The first way is to tell your child what they can do instead of what they can't do. Give them options that work for you. For example, your child is whining for a Reese's peanut butter cup at the grocery store checkout. First, require your child to talk in their natural voice. To respond to whining reinforces the whining. Then, you might say, "When we get home, there's an apple and some peanut butter waiting for you!" This usually satisfies their need for something sweet, yet maintains your value of limiting their sugar consumption.

You're probably saying, "That's fine for my five-year-old, but that won't work for my teenager!" So let's translate the above strategy to your teen. For instance, if your teen is harassing you for extra money (which never happens in real life, of course), let them know that a more respectful approach will get them much further with you. Then tell your teen in a calm voice that you really want them to be happy and you also want to feel good about the decision. And then spell out the requirements for you to say yes to their request.


Give choices instead of saying "no."

Another great way to decrease the number of times we feel we have to say no is to give the child choices. This way we can uphold our limit while still giving appropriate power to our child or teen.

Let's return to the Reese's peanut butter cup scenario above. You might say kindly, "You may run and pick out a special piece of fruit for yourself, or you can have a homemade Popsicle when we get home." Now they get to make the decision based on what sounds the best to them. Just make sure that you can stand 100% behind any options you offer.

Teen boy playing guitarFor the teenager, if you don't want to dole out extra money and yet you know what they're asking for is important to them like a new guitar, give them a choice that empowers them. You could give them the opportunity to earn the money by helping you with some yard work that's not on their chore list already, or you could offer to let them borrow against next month's allowance (with interest). Better yet, you could pay them to design the PowerPoint you need for your project next month. Teens are very tech savvy and often do a great job with things like this. Plus, they will get the added bonus of feeling good about having you affirm their abilities.

Meet their needs up front to decrease their demands.

Lastly, recognize that needs drive all behavior. If we meet our child's or teen's needs up front, saying no is rarely needed. Ask yourself, "What does my child need?" Do they need to explore? Do they need to connect with you? Or for a teenager, do they need more responsibility or independence? Do they need to feel heard and valued? Do they need a skill? Meet the need fueling their behavior, and you will be amazed at how harmonious your relationship with your child will become—and how seldom you will find yourself needing to say no.

When you meet your children's needs regularly and say no sparingly, power struggles disappear. Then when you do say no, you can say it with confidence, because you'll know it's in the best interest of your child or teen.

For more tips and tools on positive parenting skills or to attend one of our parenting classes or workshops, visit our parenting resources.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer’s mission is to create thriving relationships at home and work. She coaches children, teens, and their parents in her private practice located in Bozeman, Montana. Jennifer is a parenting instructor of Redirecting Children's Behavior and an Instructor Trainer for the International Network for Children and Families. She's been a parent educator for the past twenty years. Jennifer is also the author of "The Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence for Children" and co-author of "Hacking the Teen Brain" courses. She frequents homes and schools as regularly as a behavioral consultant to help with challenging behaviors. Jennifer is married to her beloved husband of 39 years and is the mother of three grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting