The Power and Value of Saying “No”

Saying No to Kids with Carl Pickhardt

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Jun 23, 2021

“No” is not an exclusively negative word when it comes to parenting.

“If you don’t say no, then you have no boundaries in the relationship,” says Carl Pickhardt Ph.D., father of four and a psychologist in private practice, based in Austin, Texas. “Relationships are about setting safe and responsible and caring boundaries.”

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As children progress to adolescence, the ability for both a parent and child to say “no” takes on the aura of a necessary life skill, often serving as a key defense mechanism, according to Pickhardt, who has worked in his field for more than 30 years.

“The child actually believes that my parents can make me and stop me,” he says. “The adolescent is no longer suffering from that illusion. The adolescent knows that you cannot make me, you cannot stop me, without my consent. And so now the power of NO becomes protective and the kid becomes more resistant because now what they’re trying to do is protect their freedom. They do that by trying to set limits with parents. And they do it too, actively, with argument, disagreement, and passively, with delay. And all of that is this gathering of power that adolescence is. It’s a coming of age passage.

Welcome to Where Parents Talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a father of four and a grandfather of three. He is a psychologist in private practice, an author of more than a dozen books, a lecturer and a graphic artist. Carl Pickhardt has written books spanning conflict and communication, discipline and divorce, and the adolescent years, among other topics. He joins us today from Austin, Texas. Thank you so much for being here, Carl.

Yeah, I’m glad to be here. Thank you for giving me a call. Yeah.

So I wanted to start first of all, you know, it’s a word that many parents — it’s probably the first word that many parents use with their young children. And ironically, it’s also the very probably the very first word a lot of toddlers use with their parents. We’re talking about the word NO. Can you tell us from a the perspective of a psychologist, why is the word no important?

Well, no, is the boundary setting or the limits setting word. And it has to do with trying to keep ourselves clear on what we don’t want in our lives. And a little child, of course, learns it very early. The kid, you know, first I kind of swipe their hand away, and the parent, you know, says, well, you know, instead of trying to hit me, you know, say the word no, and I’ll understand that there’s something else you’d like me to do. But you setting limits is a very, very important skill, both in childhood, and particularly in adolescence, when all of a sudden the demands dramatically increase.

Let’s talk about those adolescent years, obviously, so many different things going on, on many levels. What does the power of saying no mean in those years for both parent and child?

Well, it’s a transition for a lot of parents. It is for the kid but for the parents, childhood very often is the kind of the yes, saying years, this the age of, you know, age of command, where by and large, the child actually believes that, you know, my parents can make me and stop me. The adolescent is no longer suffering from that illusion. The adolescent knows that you cannot make me you cannot stop me without my consent. And so now the power of NO becomes protective and the kid the kid becomes very often more resistant because now what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to protect their freedom. And they do that by trying to set limits with parents. And they do it too by a by actively with argument, disagreement, and passively with delay. And all of that is this gathering of power that adolescence is it’s a coming of age passage. And I think that the goals that of that passage are two-fold. One is, there’s the goal of differentiating from how I was as a child, and you my parents, and becoming my own individual, and the other is independence becoming, you know, my own, free-choosing and self-governing individual. And the kid is growing on both those fronts. And they’re pushing to get those freedoms on the one hand, and when parents are seen as restricting those freedoms, with a no, you know, then the kid can feel frustrated. And then what happens sometimes is the parent gets frustrated back, because now they see the kid is being oppositional. And it’s, sometimes it’s harder for them to get their way. And so that’s why you tend to get more disagreement and adolescence. And that’s why the management of parenting adolescence very often is learning the management of effective disagreement.

I’d like to pick up on that point at because my next question was going to be how does a parent with a preteen teen you know, young person, adolescent manage that successfully?

Well, the key phrase is, let’s talk about it. Communication is how you try to stay connected, while adolescence is growing you apart, which is what it’s meant to do. And so disagreement is simply an opportunity for discussion. Now, how that discussion is conducted to choose a choice of language, you know, that also may need to be discussed. You know, I don’t yell at you and I don’t want you to yell at me. I don’t do hurtful words with you. I don’t want you to do hurtful words with me. But I will, you know, I can promise you this, I will be firm where I have to. I will be flexible where I can. I will listen to whatever you have to say and I’ will discuss with you whatever we need to discuss. And sometimes parents, you know, they get weary, they get offended by the opposition, and then they get weary of the resistance. But I guess one thing to remember is that the question I sometimes ask beleaguered parents is, which would you rather have? Would you rather graduate from your care a shutting-up child who doesn’t know how to say no, and doesn’t feel comfortable doing so? Or would you like to graduate from your care a speaking up child, who knows how to be able to set limits in relationships for themselves? And most parents would choose the second.

So let’s break that down a little bit further. First of all, what would you say to parents who, let’s say, haven’t had the most communicative relationship with their child up to that adolescent period? And you know, there’s the natural withdrawing that adolescence will go through? You know, and so there’s a lot going on there, what would you say to them in terms of opening up the lines of communication, as you describe?

Well, I think by talking about communication, by saying, this is, this may be a time now where we have more times when it’s harder to reach agreement and harder to get along, and that’s okay, that’s part of the growing apart that adolescence is about. And I want to respect that. And I want you to respect that. And I want us to do that, by being able to talk out any difference or any disagreement that comes between us. And you know, I will work with you where I can, and I’ll be firm where I have to do and I’ll be flexible, where I get and I will always explain, you know what it is, you know, I want to happen or not want to happen and why that is?

It’s interesting, in a recent article that you wrote for Psychology Today, you say that, it can be hard to say no. But life gets harder if you can’t say no,
absolutely. Could you explain that a bit?

Well, I think it’s hard to say no, because it very often it evokes displeasure in the other person, or sometimes disagreement or anger or frustration. But, you know, if you don’t say no, then you have no boundaries, you have no boundaries in the relationship, and relationships are about setting safe and responsible and caring boundaries. And, you know, those, those change all the time as the child grows. And I mean, that’s what the past things like I will, you know, I will work with you where I can, and I hope you will work with me where you can, you know, and you know, most of the time, we’ll be able to come up with a set of boundaries that works for both of us. But as you grow, you know, you’re going to be pushing a new in different ways that neither of us know about those kind of fresh experiences, you know, where we have to test our capacity to be able to talk out, you know, differences that may be offensive, or scary or whatever to us. And that’s okay.

You know, your perspective is so interesting, because, you know, you were likely raised a certain way, you raised your children a certain way, and now you’ve got grandchildren that are being raised, you know, 2021 completely differently. So like, I wonder how much has changed when it comes to saying no setting boundaries, through all those generations. Plus, you have the perspective of being a psychologist who’s written books on the topic?

Well, I think remember, I go back to my parents. My parents were screened my parents came up with was the movie screen. I came up with a TV screen, my kids came up with the computer screen. And now all of a sudden, I’m parenting in two worlds—the offline and the online. And I have to be able to set limits, or help set limits on both. And I mean, that’s a huge area of complicated area, and how do I help my child who is spending a lot of their lifetime online, set safe boundaries for themselves, so they do not inadvertently expose themselves to the risk of getting hurt some ways, or they start communicating in ways that in fact, get them hurt. So that it’s just it’s just more complicated now the setting of boundaries because it’s two worlds not one.

So I guess in many ways, though, even though it’s more complicated, would you say it’s even more necessary?

Oh, absolutely. Yes. Yes, it takes. It’s hugely complicated parenting now because by and large, the kids know more about the internet world and parents do when they’re in a notice more skilled at navigating it. And, and so they, you know, one of the things that, you know, again, adolescents are trying to do is they’re trying to differentiate and detach. So they’re trying to set up their own individual life experience independent of their parents. And, you know, what parents, I think are trying to say is, look, we want to, you know, when I, when I ask you about how was your day, I’m asking two questions. How was your offline day at school? And how was your online day? And what was going on and parents have to be able to share, they have to model this is what I did with my, you know, my online day, what did you do with your online day, and you have to be able to share all that stuff. And part of the, you know, part of the growth of child adolescent is not just going from the age of command to the age of consent, but going from the age of being easily known to becoming much more private. And that privacy is meant to, you know, protect the, you know, it’s the need not to be known. And, you know, what parents are saying is, I know, I realize I can’t know it all, and I don’t expect you to tell me everything. But I do hope that you will tell me everything that directly affects your welfare and your well-being. That is, if you are in danger, or in threat, you know, or you know, are seriously unhappy. You know, these are things I need to know, so I can be there for you. Sometimes kids, you have got a teenager, say my, you know, my parents keep best in the dark. What I try to tell him is no, he did not keep in the dark, you put your parents in the dark, and you know what they’re going to do, they’re going to take their ignorance, and they’re going to imagine the worst. And based upon that, very often false information, they’re going to come down and be more restrictive, and more negative than they would otherwise be if in fact, they actually knew some of what was going on. You are better off having informed parents than ignorant parents.

So it’s interesting because here we are, everything that you’re talking about in 2021, with the societal discourse going on around speaking up, you know, sharing whether it’s the mental health issues or other issues, there’s a big focus and emphasis on people to speak up. You’ve got a pandemic that has forced people in front of screens, and maybe thrown some of the limits and barriers that parents would like to have in place, right out the window. So you’ve got a confluence of factors really affecting the ability to do a lot of what you’re saying. So what would you say to parents currently finding it hard to find that balance as they try to raise their adolescent children?

Yeah, but that’s what you just said, is a beautiful statement. I mean, that’s, that’s the statement to make, you know, I am having as your parent, I am having a hard time trying to balance out, you know, how much information to exchange how much I need to know how much you need to tell me. And it’s all been complicated for this, you know, this crazy pandemic world that has, you know, all of a sudden, created some ways more intimacy than we would normally have as a family, because we’re the only company we have. And so, I mean, really, it’s, it sounds so simple and so complicated. But parents and kids need to be able to talk about whatever’s going on. Can we talk about it, I know you’re unhappy, or you’re angry, and you’re disappointed or you’re frustrated? Can you give me some words to describe what’s going on and help me better understand, so I can better work with you in a way that works for both of us? You know, and you just got to keep coming out to talk. If you don’t have the talking out. And then what happens is you start getting more acting out. And that doesn’t serve well at all. Sometimes I think what happens is parents, I think, I think parents of adolescents tend to be more anxious then parents of children. And I think that’s honorably come by, after all, the kid is moving out into the larger world under more influence with peers, and all of a sudden, they’re, you know, they’re interested in experimenting with more and, you know, and parents are feeling more and more out of control, as you know, I think of it as the public parent. The public parent takes over in adolescence. The public parent is advertising media, you know, all of a sudden, the internet, you know, all of a sudden, childhood seems so sheltered and so simple and so secure. And now it’s been blasted. And all of a sudden, you have this overwhelming influence coming in, particularly on the in the in the online world. And for some reason, I don’t know what I think it’s changing. I mean, I think they how was your day question, which referred to the to the offline world, the online applying that to online experience, I think is getting more common. But it’s still harder to do, it feels like people treat online as private, or something we don’t talk about. And yet it’s so massively influential. That’s why I think parents need to talk about their online life with their kids. So that they can legitimize that I mean, what we, what we give our kids is who and how we are, that’s primarily what we give. And that’s the model as the example. And if we routinely talk about, you know, the complexity, particularly the online complexity of our lives, the kid can talk about the online complexity of their lives. If we can talk about how we got in difficulty online, you know, and maybe the kid can learn from that and not make the same choices that we did.

I’m curious, there are going to be parents who listen and watch this, who maybe have been just generally lax in setting limits and barriers over time, you know, it hasn’t been a priority. Maybe, maybe they’re not the disciplinarian in the family. And maybe they rely on the school, the babysitter, whomever else to do it. Yeah. And then, you know, there’s an element of guilt involved, when you have to maybe look at putting your foot down and saying no. What would you say to those parents about how they can now go about establishing those barriers that maybe they hadn’t laid the foundation for before?

Well, you’re not, you’re not bound to continue a pattern of behavior, you know, that may have been all right in childhood, but seems less workable now. And parents could say as time change, you change, I change, and we change, and the rules governing family change, you know, and we have to keep up with this. And so, you know, what’s your, what’s your coming back to is, and adolescence is not just how a child changes on the way to adulthood, it’s how parents change in response. And it’s how that relationship changes. And I think if you want, if you understand that change is occurring in all three spheres of life, then you can say, well, let’s talk about that. And maybe, you know, in elementary school, you and I didn’t talk that much about, what I wanted you to do or not to do, because you pretty much operated within the family limits, but I understand you’re, you know, you’re 16 years old now, you know, and you spend a lot of time with peers and out in the world, and you have a larger view of things. And now, it seems like when I make set a limit of some kind, you know, it feels frustrating to you. But, you know, again, I went over I mean, obviously, I’m, I’m in counseling, so you know, I believe in communicating and talking. But, you know, I mean, I think I’ve worked with a lot of parents and adolescents and getting them to talk together about whatever it is, it makes it easier to work with what they got, I mean, lots of kids, you say, all right, you know, I’ll do what you want, or I want to, you know, what you don’t want me to, but at least I have had my say. That’s huge. The kid wants their say. Parents have to be willing to hear that say. By the same token, you know, the kid is not the kid is not lying. You know, I am not eight years old anymore. You know, you’ve got to, you’ve got to loosen some of these limits that you have on me, you know, and I know that may be hard for you, but you’re gonna have to risk giving me more freedom than you have before. And then the parent says, well, then I want to contract. If I give you more freedom, what are you going to give me what capability what responsibility? What evidence are you going to give me that you are ready to manage that in a way that won’t hurt you. And that’s a dialog that you can have. So you get some horse trading going on, which is fine.

Anything else that you’d like to add in terms of tips and strikes energies for parents of adolescents navigating this, again, very tumultuous, busy, rewarding. I mean, there’s all kinds of adjectives you can throw in there, but this key developmental phase of their lives?

Well, I think yes, I think lastly, I would say that remember that what, as a parent, your relationship with your adolescent has formative value, so that you know how the adolescent it was, you is going to a lot of ways contribute to how are you going to be with their in their adult relationships? If you are the kind of parent who said I will not stand taking no for an answer. So the kid doesn’t say no to you, you know, you put that kid at risk of getting used to relationships where they can’t say no. And now all of a sudden, in their adult relationships, lo and behold, they get in a relationship with someone who dominates them to their costs. And that is not a good deal. That’s what I meant earlier, I think you really want to graduate, you want to graduate from your care, a young person who is comfortable speaking up, setting limits, saying no, and not being afraid that if I say no, I will displease and I will jeopardize the relationship. No, I mean, that’s why you try to. I mean, again, like counseling, I guess with that. I don’t see disagreement as a bad thing. I see disagreement as a way of taking a look at issues around independence and individuality and working these things out. And you do that by talking these things out. And that’s what you’re trying to give, you’re trying to give your kid you know, talking skills, every opportunity that you when you say no, that’s an opportunity, about talking about something that’s important, particularly if the kid finds that no difficult.

Carl Pickhardt, Father, Psychologist and Author

Pickhardt, who also has three grandchildren, has authored more than a dozen books on parenting, adolescence and discipline, some of which are published in multiple languages, including:

  • Who stole my child? Parenting through four stages of adolescence (2018)
  • The Connected Father: Understanding Your Unique Role and Responsibilities during Your Child’s Adolescence (2007),
  • The Future of Your Only Child: How to Guide Your Child to a Happy and Successful Life (2008)
  • Stop the Screaming: How to Turn Angry Conflict With Your Child into Positive Communication (2009)
  • Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years (2010)
  • The Everything Parent’s Guide To The Strong-Willed Child: An Authoritative Guide to Raising a Respectful, Cooperative, And Positive Child (2005)
  • The Everything Parent’s Guide To Positive Discipline: Professional Advice for Raising a Well-Behaved Child (2005.)
  • The Everything Parent’s Guide To Children And Divorce: Reassuring Advice to Help Your Family Adjust (2006)

In a piece written for Psychology Today, in June 2021, Pickhardt writes, “It can be hard to say NO but life gets harder if you can’t.”

During an interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk, Pickhardt sheds further light on the thinking behind this statement, explaining it this way, “I sometimes ask beleaguered parents is, which would you rather have? Would you rather graduate from your care a shutting-up child who doesn’t know how to say no, and doesn’t feel comfortable doing so? Or would you like to graduate from your care a speaking up child, who knows how to be able to set limits in relationships for themselves? Most parents would choose the second.”

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D., also discusses:

  • the keys to parenting adolescents
  • how “no” protects self-interests in relationships
  • why Pickhardt describes parenting as “hugely complicated” now
  • key strategies for parents to manage adolescents

Reading is not your thing? Where Parents Talks is proud to offer parenting advice in other formats. Watch our parenting videos or listen to our parenting podcasts for more experts and real-life parents’ tips and advice.

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