Parenting Through the Storm Blog

Parenting information and support for parents who have a child who is struggling. The official blog for Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between by Ann Douglas (HarperCollins Canada, January 2015 + Guilford Press, September 2016), a guide to parenting a child with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge.

It's Okay to Say No -- or "Not Right Now"

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Feeling maxed out? Wish someone would write you a permission note that you could politely present to anyone who even dares to think about demanding anything more of you right now?

Consider this blog post that note of permission: confirmation that it's okay to say no or (at a minimum) "not right now."

You're not being selfish.

You're engaging in self-preservation.

And that's one of the least selfish things you can do as the parent of a child who is struggling

I got to thinking about these things after speaking to a friend this morning -- a friend who is having a really hard time. The load she is carrying at the best of times is a heavy one -- and her load just got a whole lot heavier. The only way she's going to get through the next few weeks is by saying "no" vehemently and often.

But, here's the thing: sometimes we default to saying yes even though we need to say no, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of other people we love.

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I recently had the opportunity to discuss the how and why of saying no with another friend of mine, Susan Newman, psychologist and author of The Book of No.

I asked her to talk about why it's so important to master the art of saying no when you have a child who is struggling. 

Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Why is it so critical that parents who have a child who is struggling master the art of saying no?

So much of your time, worry, and emotional energy automatically focus on a child who is struggling with an illness of any sort—be it physical or mental. Saying no for a parent is a form of self-protection and psychological survival…and ultimately a boon to your child’s wellbeing. 

There are times when even you need a break—a few hours to spend with friends, to connect with your partner, or to be with yourself quietly. A no to whatever the demand or request often gives you that time to decompress, think through problems and essentially shore up the inner resources you need to handle whatever comes next and make good decisions for your child. 

A further benefit of saying no specifically to your child is that you gain the child’s respect and eventually his trust. A no tells him, especially when the outcome is positive, that you have his or her best interests at heart.

What happens when we don’t say no often enough — or we talk ourselves into saying yes, even though our heart is telling us we really need to be saying no?

When you don’t say no as frequently as you should or would like, you begin to feel as if you have no control over events or your child. That can begin to feel overwhelming and all consuming. More often than not a parent’s instincts are correct. If you feel you should be saying no, then you probably should.

By avoiding nos you run the risk of losing yourself and feeling trapped, at the mercy of your child who is dealing with her own problems. You could find yourself unable to cope and being out of control yourself can leave you unable to manage the situation, be sympathetic, or clear-headed enough to find the resources you need or make good choices for your son or daughter

What are our biggest fears about saying no — and what can we do to address those fears?

One of the biggest fears is that a no will make the situation of the moment worse or that your child will be upset and resort to the very behaviors or feelings we are trying to avoid. When your nos are used judiciously and couched in terms of what might be a solution or comfort or empathy, the nos will likely be more accepted without a long lasting downside.

Perhaps the biggest fear for all parents is that our child will not like or love us. When you factor in that most parents don’t want to disappoint their children—common thinking today—refusing a child becomes all the more difficult. The reality is that whatever you say no to will probably be forgotten in next hour or so—even a few minutes later with younger children. Nos said kindly while acknowledging a child’s disappointment or anger, will not jeopardize your relationship with your child. 

In what ways is saying no an act of kindness to yourself — and to others, too?

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Each of us had only so much physical and emotional energy. Well-placed, strategic nos help to conserve energy so it’s available when you need it. Saying no to a request or conduct you disapprove of will hopefully keep you calm and better able to address and cope with your child’s issues. 

Amazingly, the word no is freeing: it “buys” you precious time and keeps the boundaries you set for yourself, for your child and others secure; it teaches children, especially those with a mental challenge that there are rules that need to be followed, conduct that is expected. No is powerful in the positive developments it often helps to create, allowing you to work toward the solutions you seek. That can only feel good. Being kind to yourself is in the end the same as being kind to and supportive of your child.

Looking for additional insights into the joys and challenges of a parenting a child who is struggling? Find out more about my book Parenting Through the Storm.