The Art of Saying “No”
Image: Heather Wiliams
ACS Outpatient Counseling Services Intern
During adolescence, a great deal of communication that is initiated from teens toward their parents entails a request for permission to engage in an activity (sleepover, concert, party, use the car, etc.) or acquire a desired object (new clothes, athletic equipment, video game, etc.). Responsible parents will be denying many of these requests because they are not reasonable, because they go against parents’ values, or because they may result in potential harm to the teen, but teens do not easily accept ‘no’ for an answer. When confronted with the denial of their wish/desire, adolescents adroitly display their excellent debating skills, their relentless persistence, their capacity for instant outrage, and their emotional intensity, leaving parents overwhelmed and worn out. Parents will rarely win against these factors, but it is possible to retain your position of ultimate authority in your household by neutralizing your teen’s arguing.
It is in teens’ nature to gear up for an argument when their request has been denied. “Arguments give your (teen) the opportunity to throw reason out the window and to see how many of your hot buttons they can push.” Teens’ arguments are not based on truthfulness — they will distort/stretch reality to suit their purpose — and they will try to distract their parents from facts by accusing you of never allowing them to do or have anything they need or want. Teens will not respect a parent’s reasoning or explanation for denying the request because teens believe all ‘nos’ are unfair and they will argue with the hope, and expectation, that they can change your mind — it’s what they do! And when you believe you’ve given your final answer, still ‘no,’ teens will continue to pester and hound you, for as long as you are willing to engage them.
The most effective technique for owning the power of your ‘no’ is to disengage, and the only way to disengage is to stop talking. Simple, right!? It may take some practice before you are comfortable with the method, but the results will change the way you feel about adolescence. When your teen makes a request that you are not willing or able to grant, say ‘no’ and provide your reason; then listen respectfully to what they have to say in response. “Genuine, respectful listening is required” but if you are not going to change your mind, you have to disengage. Restate your position (I’m sorry, but I’m not buying you a new pair of jeans right now; I’m sorry, I’m not allowing you to attend a concert on a school night) and then stop talking about it; you may have to leave the room if your teen continues to argue or plead. Continued back-and-forth between parent and teen will surely result in escalation, possibly to the extent of a blow-up, and a parent’s engagement in response to every utterance your teen makes disintegrates the integrity of your conversation/discussion.
To know exactly when to disengage, pay attention to your own emotions; when you feel your own anger developing, the situation becomes combative, and/or your stress level rises, it’s definitely time to disengage. Avoid telling your teen to stop talking about the issue because this will only fuel their indignation and further escalate their efforts. Parents need to be the ones who end the discussion by firmly and respectfully maintaining their position, and then walking away from the interaction. As long as a parent continues to engage with their teen over the issue, the risk of a parent losing their temper increases, as does the likelihood that the teen will carry on cajoling, pleading, harassing, and possibly verbally abusing their parent. If a teen reintroduces the issue at a later time, the parent can simply repeat the previously stated position and continue what they were doing, or even leave the house if necessary. Under no circumstances should a parent re-enter the argument. Standing firm sends the message that no matter how much a teen fusses at or pesters their parent, their parent will not change his/ her mind.
If you’re not sure about your answer, or you have listened to their rebuttal and are willing to reconsider, you can always tell your teen that you will think about their request. And you still need to disengage, so your teen doesn’t bother you endlessly for a quick response. Changing your mind does not undermine your authority, as long as you do it rarely. It shows your teen that you listen to them, think about what they’ve said, and are flexible, but this doesn’t happen with any regularity. For teens who have a more difficult time accepting ‘no,’ or who frequently push the limits, it’s important that when you say ‘no’ you stand firm; also prioritize the issues your teen brings to you (aka the battles) according to a) the issues you care about, and b) the issues you really care about. With more difficult teens, knowing that holding onto your ‘no’ position will require great stamina and unpleasantness, be certain to stand firm on the issues that are truly important to you, and let issues of lesser importance go.
Often at the moment of disengagement teens will use language toward you that is unacceptable; it’s critical to continue with your disengagement and not allow your teen to suck you back in by calling you a nasty name — and be sure to mention the unacceptability of whatever word/language they used at a later time. Quick and definite disengagement is the most effective technique for achieving minimal pestering/fussing and back talk; it requires absolutely not responding to every instance of obnoxious/intolerable behavior your teen presents to you. Your teen will understand the clear message that engaging in unacceptable behavior results in their parent’s “swift absence” when you not only don’t respond, but walk away/leave the unacceptable situation. Disengaging and walking away retains the power in your hands because it teaches teens that they have to engage on your terms.
In summary, the best way to get teens to pay attention to what their parents are saying is to stop talking, or rather, to talk less….much less. Using the disengagement technique creates a ‘win-win’ situation where parents reduce and control the amount of conflict they are presented with, everyone maintains a low-level emotional output, and teens learn effective and appropriate ways of interacting with their parents.
Cline, Foster and Fay, Jim (2006). Parenting Teens With Love and Logic: Preparing Adolescents for Responsible Adulthood. NavPress.
Wolf, Anthony E (2011). I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up (What to Say and Not Say When Parenting Teens). Harper.