A frustrated parent writes that her almost 7-year-old will not accept no for an answer. When she wants something, she will whine and ask repeatedly to get her way. Her daughter is so relentless that this mom eventually loses her patience. She ends up screaming, and her daughter ends up crying. “I must be addressing the situation wrong at the first ask,” she admits. “I just don’t understand how she doesn’t get no means no.” This mom is hoping Janet can help her end this constant battle with her daughter.
Transcript of “How to Make No Mean No”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a question from a parent who is wondering what she might be doing wrong because her child does not seem to give up and accept no for an answer, ever. This parent is losing her patience. She’s ending up yelling at her child, understandably, because her daughter is asking the same question, 25 or more times — to do something that the parent has already said no to. She hopes to get some help with communicating to her daughter that no means no.
Here’s the note I received:
Hello, Janet. I was wondering if you have an article about no means no. My almost seven-year-old is a pusher, constantly whining and asking, in hopes she’ll get her way, until my patience is lost and I end up screaming and her crying. I don’t understand how she doesn’t get no means no until I pop. It’s so frustrating and I hate yelling, but it’s a constant battle about everything. She’ll ask and ask over and over, 25 or more times. “Can my cousins come over?” “Can we get ice cream now?” “Why?” “Why?” “Please. This isn’t fair.” I must be addressing the situation wrong at the first ask. Please help.
Okay, so I thought this would be a good one to respond to because it applies to many situations, all ages. The fact that this is happening with her seven-year-old shows that, yes, the dynamic has gotten a little entrenched. This daughter seems to be getting some traction with her repeated questions and pushing and pushing her parent, holding on instead of letting go to the “no” answer.
Why does a child do this? Because they see that they can impact their parent with their feelings, and it becomes a compulsive thing to repeat.
I always have the fantasy myself, because it’s very hard for me to say no, I don’t like setting limits myself, I’m not good at having boundaries, I want to hope that when I do, that the person isn’t going to give me any trouble about it. Because it was hard enough for me to say no in the first place a lot of the time. I just want you, the other person, to let me off the hook.
That is my issue, not my child’s. Because where a child is coming from is they use these boundaries from us to release a lot of feelings that often have little to do with the specifics. It’s a tendency children have. It’s actually very healthy. They have these cathartic stress release experiences because they can’t have ice cream right now. Yes, they are disappointed about the ice cream, I’m sure. But it touches off more feelings that a child has.
It’s important for us to perceive these experiences that way so that we can understand that my child is having a kind of a tantrum here. This is a seven-year-old version of a tantrum, for sure, and can even be the way that a younger child gets stuck, repeating, repeatedly whining: Let me keep asking. and I’m not happy about this.
What they also tend to be feeling is that the parent doesn’t have complete conviction in their choice. That the parent is, like I’m saying about myself, a little unsure setting limits, that maybe we’re not in the groove of it yet. We haven’t realized that this is one of the most important, loving things we can do for a child. It still feels a little mean. Maybe our child’s not going to like us. We want to please them. Maybe our child’s going to reject us. We could be tapping into old attachment feelings that we have from our own childhood.
But for whatever reason, we’re not coming down on the note. And then doing the other part that we have to do to be our child’s leader with conviction — that’s welcome them to share whatever they need to share about that. Welcome them to keep persisting, welcome them to keep asking.
We are so centered and sure of our decisions (and we need to find this in every decision, even the small ones like ice cream). We need to find this in the moment. We need to get into the habit of, ideally, coming down on those notes, a period at the end of our sentence, sure of ourselves.
Or even if we’re not sure, we can be assured about not being sure by saying, “Huh. Let me think.” It’s not because you are pestering me and repeating this, that I’m getting worn down. It’s just me actually taking a moment from a platform of strength. Because we have so much power as the parents, as the adults in the room, we have all the power here. I can take a moment. “Hmm. Let me think. I’m not sure.” Meanwhile, our child is saying, “Oh, please, please, please.”
We have to let that go. We have to hold our own with our children, with every limit that we set, ideally. We’re not going to be perfect. We’re going to have days where we’re exhausted and we can’t, but if we can at least do it half the time or a little more than half the time, we’ll start to feel that groove. We’ll start to see how it helps our child to let go when we do that.
I was doing a Zoom consultation with this group of parents. We were in a class together for a couple of years with their children, who are now mostly turning three. We are trying to get together once a month to check in and we’re having great discussions. It’s interesting how every time it seems like a theme sort of emerges. And I remember the last time before this, it was about our power as parents and what we’re giving power to in our children — how to not give power to behaviors that we don’t want them to continue. And then this week it really became about conviction.
This one father who really has this down, he’s really gotten the tone and the feeling that he needs to have… First he called it being a brick wall, which it really isn’t at all, but it has the firmness of a brick wall. But then he said something to the effect of: “But no, it’s actually, I have empathy, too, for my child. I can welcome them to feel whatever they feel about it from a place of strength, from a place of, ‘You can’t knock me down here with this repeated whatever, but I’m not this uncaring wall that’s just tuning you out and ignoring you at all.'”
It’s wonderful when we get the taste of this, because we see how it works and how it helps our child not to be stuck asking. That’s not really comfortable for our children either, actually. Yes, it drives us crazy, but it’s not comfortable for our children either.
Oh, and then another parent took from that call… We were having sleep conversations about parents having conviction around ending the day with their child and that they were giving their child this wonderful gift of sleep, seeing it positively. This parent was saying how her child, she felt, was having difficulty because of the light in the summer. It wasn’t dark enough, even with the blinds drawn, so her child couldn’t fall asleep. And she was telling him it’s going to be dark later.
I said, “Don’t even tell him that. Just say, ‘You’re going to go to sleep when it’s light, and then when you wake up, it’ll be light again. But because it’s summer, you’re not even going to see the dark.'” So he’s not waiting and waiting for it, in other words.
Anyway, she’s been having to stay with him for an hour to go to sleep and just having all these difficulties. She wrote back to me after our call together with everyone, and she said, “Oh, man. Conviction.” She got into the conviction. She said, yeah, when she first left, he cried. She went back one more time. That was it. She said it wasn’t about the brightness outside at all. It was her conviction.
Let’s talk about how that looks and feels in action when our child is doing what this little girl is doing, constantly whining and asking in hopes she’ll get her way. Now, I’m going to receive this question from a place of believing in myself as a leader, believing that a leader is actually what my child wants in her heart of hearts and needs and hopes for. It’s fine for her to ask for whatever, but as the adult, I have to make these decisions. What’s going to work for me? What’s going to work for her? What’s the best thing for her? This parent uses the example, can my cousins come over? So let’s say the parents says, “Oh, no. Not today. They’re not going to come over today.” Now she says, “Why? Why? Oh, please. This isn’t fair.”
I’m letting those feelings just happen. I’m letting those feelings be. I’m staying comfortable, expecting that my child will be doing this sometimes. And maybe a lot, if this has become a dynamic between us. I’m not surprised. I’m not thrown off. Oh, gosh. Now what do I say? I’m actually going to be expecting it. Then, I don’t feel like I have to say anything right away. I’m just maybe nodding my head. If I was doing something, I’m carrying on. But I’m looking at her empathetically, if possible, like, “Oh, it’s really hard to hear no to that.” Meaning it. We can’t just be saying words. “Oh, you’re upset that I said no.” That comes from a more defensive, less comfortable place in us, and children know that.
Our goal, and again, we’re not going to get there all the time, but this is what to go for, is to get to that place where you can say anything. You can ask me 50,000 times and I’m decided. But I welcome you to keep going, as long as you need to.
Also, in my mind, I’m realizing, oh, she’s letting go of all this stress of all these things that have been going on and all her disappointments about everything. This is very healthy for her to be doing this. It’s not something that is going to sting me every time she has another question. Then I feel: Oh, I got to answer it. No. I’m that brick wall with empathy (to use my friend’s analogy), and nothing can budge me. In fact, I’m so comfortable that I can nod my head, I can be empathetic. “Yeah. It’s tough. Yeah, you love those cousins.” Maybe I’ll say a few more things. I don’t have to feel that I need to respond to every word she says, but I’m not trying to tune her out either.
I’m just letting it roll off me, letting it bounce off me. Maybe every once in a while, I’m acknowledging from a genuine place. “Oh, it feels like if you keep asking me, I’m going to say yes,” whatever the specifics are. The words will come when we practice this attitude. For people that are still practicing and want a script, I would say, “It’s so hard to hear no. Yeah. I know. It’s hard for me, too, when I want things.”
Let’s say, she says, “Can we get ice cream now?”
“Oh, shoot. We can’t. Darn it. We can’t get ice cream now. You want it right now. Ah, you’re so in the mood for it right now.”
But again, I’m not feeling pressured to come up with responses. I can let there be repeated questions without a response because I have responded the first time. I’ve told her the answer and set the limit there. The rest is up to her. It’s not my responsibility. This is important: It’s not my responsibility to get her to be okay with my decisions and agree with me. That’s integral to being this kind of leader. I don’t take that on as my job.
In fact, if she needs to go on and on about this, I know that that’s healthy for her to feel the depths of her disappointment. I try to remember that these reactions tend to be thematic, that they’re weighted with other feelings that need to happen, especially when our child seems to overreact.
Let’s say she keeps asking and asking. I’m carrying on with life. I’m not stopping and waiting for her to be okay. I’m carrying on. But every once in a while, I might look, if she’s still going, and go, “This is hard to let go of. You’re really having a hard time with that. So disappointing.” Meaning it, because I actually want to encourage her to share the feelings. They’re not wearing on me. They’re not stinging me. They’re not making me feel more doubt about my decisions, because I’m not opening the door for that to happen.
If I want to change my mind, I’ll change it later when I feel centered in myself. Then maybe I think about it and I realize, “So you know what? We can do that,” and I’ll come and tell her. But it can’t be a worn down response. Because what happens when we do that is we let her know quite clearly, without meaning to, that this is what you’ve got to keep doing, pushing me until I finally say yes.
In this case, the parent has gotten in this dynamic where she gets to the place of exploding because she’s letting it in, letting it in, letting it in, feeling doubt, trying to respond. “Oh, well, this is why. Because we can’t. Get it?” I’m really wanting my daughter to let go, instead of knowing she can’t let go until she’s done. That’s not my job. My job is to have conviction and be the leader and comfortably hold my own. I can do it without being forceful or pushing or stern. That’s where we want to get.
It’s very freeing when we get that. It actually affects other areas of our lives. It has for me. I’ve also seen that children end up kind of melting comfortably into that kind of parenting, melting into: Oh, I’m the child here. I don’t have to control the adults. They’re my leaders, and they’ve got this down. Then I’m free to be a kid and do all the things that kids need to do.
This advice also holds true for children who are interrupting repeatedly or doing anything repeatedly. Same advice. See it as a positive exchange. Hold your own. Let the feelings be. Be decisive. Have conviction.
I hope some of that helps.
For more, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can also get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes and Noble, and in audio at Audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.
I wonder about how to handle it with older children when the push back is not only whining or repeated asking but yelling and arguing and sort of calling names…I have one who will follow me around the house yelling. I would like to have a boundary about what I’m willing to accept in terms of treatment – I say, I don’t let people talk to me that way, I’m going to go to another room and when you can speak kindly if you still want to talk about it I can listen then. But this does not seem to really work…thoughts? Thank you!
Do you have a sense of why this persists? I would set your boundary, going into another room only if you must etc., but not do the scolding part, which serves to give the behavior a lot of power. (“I don’t let people talk to me that way”) I would try to feel more above this in your attitude. Maybe even an upbeat: “Looking forward to what you have to say when you stop with the name calling.” Then breathe, let it go, don’t give it the slightest bit of power.
I am wondering how to handle when I tell them no and they do it anyway, usually turning on the tv or getting a snack that I’ve told them no to already.
Also wondering this.
Eg, they refuse to leave the playground and they are too big to man handle into the car? Because they are 7?
I have got into the car and turned the engine on before. Pulled away even, very slowly, to no avail!
Some kids just seem not to care. Then you are forced to backtrack with egg on your face
I can share some things we have been doing:
My 4 yo is a pro at testing those boundaries. I usually give him a heads up about the natural consequences:
“Hey buddy, I need to talk to you about something, let me know when you’re available.” Helps him see I respect his availability as well as expect him to respect mine.
“Wow, you chose to not listen. Bummer. The TV/snack seem to be too much of a temptation. How can I help? Do I need to keep the remote/snack hidden? I’d rather not, but I need you to follow the rules. What do you think?”
“We need to leave in 5 min, that’s about time to do 5 things.”
“Let’s go, headed to the car. Hmm, I see you’re not coming. That’s your choice. I must warn you, if you choose to delay or disobey I will be less inclined to bring you to the park again tomorrow/this week”
I wait in the car, I don’t start moving, I always want him to know I would never leave him, but I’m also not interested in power struggles.
I always welcome any discussions after cooperation.
“I want to hear what you have to say, but I’m too distracted because we will be late. Let’s go and talk along the way…”
Also wondering. When they physically go and get things, when I said no. Thank you! Loved the podcast, very important topic for me personally.
I love your articles (transcripts). Wish had discovered you 7 years back when I got pregnant. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom in this way.
I would also be interested in reading a reply to Lauren’s question.
Also how to set boundaries in presence of grandparents who refuse to co-operate coz they don’t share our views for example showing their love by allowing them to watch TV to excess
I’m interested in how you would apply this to,as you suggest, w child who is interrupting? My just turned 8 year old interrupts my conversations a LOT. How do I set that boundary.
I have this a lot with my 8 year old – I will say no to something but he won’t leave it unless I answer ‘why’ – just saying No and acknowledging him feeling hard done by without explaining seems to remind me of my own upbringing ‘Because I said so!’ – so how do I navigate the need to sometimes say No yet not just because I said so…??
Hey Janet! I have twins who are almost two and a half and a newborn. My one twin will not stop repeating, “Go away baby.” Even at this age, he knows it gets to me because he repeats it over and over and I stumble on my words. I didn’t even realize I could say “no” to him in this sense. I often offer extra hugs and sympathize with him when things get hard. “It’s hard when you want me and I’m nursing the baby.” (and so on). It works for most other things but not this one. I would love to try something like, “No. Baby will not go away,” and “It’s hard when I say no to that.” Gently and firmly. Thank you for the tips! I’m so glad I’m able to adapt them to my situation.
When my child gets stuck arguing or begging after I made a decision, i let her know I heard her idea (maybe even say her idea back to her so she knows I understand) but am not changing my mind this time, so if she wants to keep telling me her idea, she can, but it won’t change my mind and it’s not very fun for either one of us to keep going over and over this. So maybe we should move on and talk about something else.