How to Say ‘No’. (When it doesn’t feel easy.)

For such a small word, ‘no’ has an awful lot of grip when it comes to sliding off the tongue. It’s one of the first words we learn but one of the hardest to master.

Even the strongest of humans can find themselves saying ‘yes’, when they actually want to say ‘no’. When this happens too often, it can fuel feelings of resentment and regret, as well as a sense of being too available, too stretched, or too firmly stuck in the passenger seat. Becoming better at saying ‘no’ might be easier said than done – but it can be done. It might feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, and that’s okay. At the end of the awkward and uncomfortable will be a greater sense of empowerment, richer relationships and a clearer idea of what you need and why you deserve it. 

Why We Need to Say ‘No’ More Often

  1. We can only do so much. None of us are superheroes and even they have their limits. The things that matter the most won’t always clamor for priority. Saying no to the unimportant things gives the important ones the priority they deserve.
  2. If we don’t say no when we need to, other people’s needs will be given more priority than our own.
  3. Eventually, we will stretch too far and disappoint someone by delivering less than promised.
  4. Overcommitting runs the risk that we’ll end up with the reputation of being ‘nice’ – but unreliable.

Why We Don’t Say ‘No’ Enough

Before ‘no’ can find a more permanent home in our vocab, it will help to understand why we don’t say it enough. Here are some common reasons:

  1. Because we think we can. We overestimate our time and capacity and underestimate the other demands on our resources.
  2. Because we want to help. We’re nice like that.
  3. To preserve the relationship. Saying ‘no’ might end a friendship that depends on putting our own needs second all the time – which might be a friendship to stop fighting for. 
  4. Fear that rejecting the request might come across as rejecting the person.
  5. The person asking might get upset. We say ‘yes’ because we don’t trust that the person who has made the request will cope with ‘no’. 
  6. To keep our options open. Who knows what doors might close when we say ‘no’. More often than not though, it’s the door to sleeplessness, stress and chaos. 

How to Say ‘No’. (Without the world falling fairly off its axis.) 

  1. Know the clues. Often even before you’ve spoken the word you have a clue that you’d rather be saying ‘no’ ,but ‘yes’ jumps out instead. Know the signs – a tinge of anxiety, that sinking feeling, that faint voice inside you that knows everything that’s good for you except how to make you listen to it.
  2. Try ‘Can I get back to you?’ or ‘I need to check – I’ll let you know.’ This slows the interaction down and gives you time to consider your response. The thought of saying no can cause anxiety in itself, so the temptation is to say ‘yes’ to get rid of the discomfort. If you don’t have to give a response straight away then don’t. Give yourself time to actually believe that you’ll be okay to say ‘no’. Because you will be. Make sure you come back quickly with your answer – the issue won’t go away. If someone has asked for your help they aren’t suddenly going to forget about it. A quick, gentle, generous ‘no’ is always so much better for the relationship than no response at all.
  3. Are you saying ‘yes’ because you don’t want to hurt the person asking? Trust their capacity to cope with ‘no’. They’ll be fine and they deserve your confidence. 
  4. Make it clear you’re saying no to the request, not to the person. ‘I’d really love to help you but I can’t. I’m strapped this week. Let me know next time you need a hand though and I’ll help out if I can,’ or ‘I’d love to help you out but I’ve already committed to … Let me know next time you need a hand.’ If you want to, share what’s keeping you busy but don’t over-explain. You don’t owe anybody an explanation but for the person asking, hearing something after ‘no’ tends to feel less jarring than a straight-out ‘no’. 
  5. If you can’t say ‘yes’ to the request, is there something less intrusive you can do to show you care? ‘I can’t meet for lunch next Tuesday but how about we organize something in a couple of weeks,’ or ‘I’d love to help you out but I have so much on. I wouldn’t be able to give you what you need. I’d love to meet up with you in a couple of weeks though so you can tell me about it.’

If you’re used to saying ‘yes’, saying ‘no’ will almost certainly feel awkward. Accept the discomfort for what it is – the normal response to something new you’re trying, rather than what it isn’t – a stop sign. 

Saying no gets easier with practice and with the realisation that people won’t hate you for it. Relationships won’t be damaged and the world will keep spinning, just as it always has. Your ‘no’ won’t make any difference to that. And if anyone gets upset because of your kind, generous, articulate ‘no’, chances are he or she was probably added baggage that you’d rather not pay for. Always good to know.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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