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The Trouble with No

June 8 2016

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By Elizabeth Sylvester, PhD.

If you are like most parents you tell your children “no” all the time. You say things like “No you can’t have a sleepover, it’s Tuesday night,” “Stop hitting your sister,” “Don’t argue with your grandma,” “Turn off the computer, your time is over,” or even “We do not put peanut butter on the dog.” All these “no’s” are intended to communicate limits to our children, and raise them to be cooperative, polite and self-controlled. But, if you are like most parents, you have probably found saying ‘no’ doesn’t always work. The behaviors you say “no” to often continue. Your child may ignore, debate, argue, or even outright defy your limits.

It may be tempting to back down in frustration and set fewer limits, yield to the child’s refusal, attempt to persuade your child to accept the limit, explain, bargain, negotiate or bribe. Or you may be like most of us and have attempted to make your “no” more powerful by escalating, raising your voice, threatening, accusing or lecturing. But over time you may have discovered these responses are not particularly effective either. There is a secret, however, in saying “no” and making it stick.

The secret is your energy.

Many children are highly attuned to the ebb and flow of their parents’ energy. When the parent is looking at them, they feel the energy of the connection. When the parent is speaking to them, the connection is stronger. The more passionate the communication, the more intense the experience of this relational energy. Children are almost always attracted to the attention, connection, and relationship they receive from their parents and other people.

Some children, most specifically those we would describe as behaviorally or emotionally intense, are extraordinarily attuned to the energy directed toward them. They crave the deep, passionate connection they feel when their parents are intently focused on them and engaging with them. This is lovely when you are engaged in play and giving your child your full attention and enthusiasm. But think about other times when you are fully and passionately engaged with your child … think about how highly focused and energized you may be when she misbehaves. The intensity of this relational connection is also fascinating to the child. And this is energetic misalignment — your words say “no” while your energy says “yes.”

These times of parental intensity are confusing to the intense child. He is attracted to being the center of your attention, but he probably hates the negative quality of the attention. Any time you are chiding, reminding, arguing, or raising your voice you are dishing out your “no” with the absolutely alluring “yes” of a powerful dose of relationship energy. Consider instead experiment with saying “no” with your energy as well as with your words.

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