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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The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Would you be more likely to take advice from someone who listened to you first, or someone who insisted they knew best and worked hard to convince you? Our teens are just like us. If we want them to consider our advice and be open to our influence, making sure they feel heard is so important. Being right doesn't count for much at all if we aren't being heard.
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Hear what they think, what they want, why they think they're right, and why it’s important to them. Sometimes we'll want to change our mind, and sometimes we'll want to stand firm. When they feel fully heard, it’s more likely that they’ll be able to trust that our decisions or advice are given fully informed and with all of their needs considered. And we all need that.
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 #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #adolescence 
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