How to say ‘no’ to children (without all the guilt and arguments)

Do you struggle with knowing how to say ‘no’ to children?

Is it hard for you to hold firm to boundaries, especially around food?

This is something that just about every parent or carer faces, and if they’re honest, probably finds very difficult.

It’s not hard to see why.

Today parents are busy. They feel overwhelmed by work and life commitments. With days full up and often many hours spent in traffic moving between family activities, by the time it comes to food, our resilience and ability to hold firm is way down. Maybe it’s even non-existent.

Let’s take a classic scenario.

You’ve worked all week, criss-crossed the city in peak-hour traffic ferrying kids to after school activities, you know the pantry at home is empty, and up over the horizon looms the ‘golden arches’ (or similar) take-away. Right on cue, the kids start screaming for food.

Is it any wonder we give in at that moment? Is it really a surprise that we say ‘yes’ to the unhealthy take-away, because we don’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart too much, do we? Until we’re emotionally strong enough to withstand that onslaught, it seems too hard not to give in. Many parents also unconsciously want to be their child’s friend, and unpopular decisions could mean you’re ‘not their friend anymore’.

Learning how to say ‘no’ to kids is like any other habit: it takes time and commitment, and in many cases, it requires support.

It may seem to be a paradox but learning to say no to kids means you must do some shifting around on the family needs list. That means, you as the parent need to shift your needs from the bottom of the list (or maybe your needs haven’t even made it to the list?!) to the top. That’s right. Your needs must find their way to the top. By taking care of ourselves first, we are not only better equipped to address the needs of our children, we’re also teaching our children one of life’s more valuable emotional management skills. Yes, it’s a classic case of ‘fitting your own oxygen mask first’. How many times have you heard the flight attendants tell you this before a plane prepares for take-off from the runway?

Parents and carers often wear their ‘sacrificing’ for children as a badge of honour, as they focus all their attention on the child or children; especially, if there is a high-need child. Nothing could be further from the truth! We cannot give to anyone, including our kids, from an empty tank.

My own experience of parenting this way with children who are living in addiction is proof this approach does not work. Burning myself out and running myself ragged did nothing but show me I needed to find another way. Not only is this method unsustainable, it’s also not the kind of behaviour we want to model for our children, who will be watching what we do – and following along behind us.

 Here are just some simple ways you can start taking care of yourself and build the confidence and ‘emotional muscle’ to say ‘no’:

  1. Eat well – Healthy food habits are key. Start small and work healthy food choices into the family.
  2. Exercise regularly – Get out as a family if it’s not practical to go alone. Whatever you do, keep moving.
  3. Take time out – When we’re ‘full up’, we can’t possibly be our best, so begin by carving out 15 minutes a day. Joy and fun should not be ‘optional extras’ in life.
  4. Reduce the stressors – Feel like life is always busy? It could be time to release some commitments to create space in the family’s schedule. Don’t know where to start? Pick up a notepad and write down all your commitments for the week, then look to see if you have the courage to reduce these commitments by just one or two items.

Fortunately, none of these suggestions are rocket science. Every parent can find ways to support themselves to say no with confidence. When we approach it this way, unsurprisingly, the arguments reduce too.