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Just Say No: Calmly

Just Say No: Calmly

What is it?

‘Just Say No’ was a mantra I developed for myself because I found it the single most difficult thing to do as a parent. Boundaries. Sigh.

I have hesitated to post my Just Say No catchphrase because so much of parenting seems to be about empowerment and encouragement. In fact, I buried my JSN file when I read Dr. Dan Siegel’s book, The Yes Brain, in which he explains, “It's about using "yes" to find ways to relate...instead of starting at "no," which shuts them down.” I mean, he’s a founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center – how could I say "no" when he is saying "yes"?

But I’m bringing it back. You can still use "yes" lots. And it's not about saying "no"; it's about holding your lines. The more I talk to parents, the more I realize that the inability to simply say "no" leads to, among other things:

  • parent resentment when child does not do what parent wants (but couldn’t say or enforce),

  • overparenting, which can lead to anxiety and depression,

  • entitled children; being entitled is a resilience non-starter, and

  • difficult teenage years; they're tough enough - get ahead now!

Picture yourself saying "no" to a toddler who is about to touch a stove. Factual. No nonsense. No emotion. It should be the same when we say “No, I can’t bring the lunch that you forgot to school” or “No, you can’t have a sleepover even though you are telling me all of your friends are going.” But it never is.

How to Address It?

One way to help yourself is to stay calm.

Maintaining a calm voice is a powerful tool when we want compliance without further igniting a situation, creating a power struggle, or losing control ourselves. Model respect and control, and you’ll find that kids are often compelled to listen. They won’t yell because you aren't yelling. Many will just drop the argument.

Your Script in Action

9-year-old playing video games instead of starting class despite you asking him to get ready. You can actually see his point: we are all sick of COVID and virtual everything. Maybe you'll let him have another few minutes. Or, you have to get to work and you're about to start threatening consequences. Instead,

  • sit next to him and make eye contact: Tommy, it’s time for you to start your zoom class so I need your help putting away the video game and grabbing your computer and headphones. It’s great how you can do this all yourself.

Tween daughter who cannot disentangle herself from her phone to settle down and do homework. You feel badly for her. Maybe she should be able to have the phone while doing homework. Or maybe you’re tempted to count to three or threaten taking the phone for a week. Instead,

  • put down what you are doing so that your complete focus is on her: I know it’s hard to put down the phone when all of your friends are on it but now it’s time to do your homework.

Don't despair if this doesn’t work immediately. Walk away; don’t engage. When you aren't looming over them, they can sort of save face despite complying. If it still doesn’t work, let me know; there’s something else going on.


Look for one opportunity to practice sticking to your "no". The best opportunity is one where you know you are just being a pushover. Notice how you can stick to your limits, and the entire world doesn't fall apart. I think you might feel a wave of relief. Set the bar low and the habit will form faster because you’re setting yourself up to feel successful, and that’s the feeling that wires in the habit.


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