As the song goes – “sorry is the hardest word.” But for many parents of teens and young adults, “no” is the hardest word. We often have trouble saying no because we:
- Want the young person to like us. We may tend to be a pleaser or an appeaser.
- Want the young person to be happy. We feel responsible for their happiness.
- Fear conflict. We don’t want them to be mad at us.
Parents often face a common dilemma in responding when their young adult presses for some privilege or concession. We may give in and then feel resentment that we didn’t stick to our values and what we believe to be right or wrong. Or we say “no” and feel guilty and possibly face rejection or punishment from our young person. This is a common “dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t” parental scenario. Neither path forward is without an emotional cost.
Explore a Third Path
When faced with the dilemma of responding with a yes or no, explore a third path that might meet the young person halfway or represent a compromise. As part of pursuing this third path, take the time to ask about their intention behind the request and why it’s important to them. Once you reflect what you heard and indicate you understand their need, offer to tell them your concerns that may lead you to say no. Then ask them to reflect what they heard. After this, ask them to work with you to come up with solutions that would be acceptable to both. The main rule of thumb is to avoid “my way or the highway.” Find a route both are willing to take.
Avoid compromises that involve you giving in with a promise of some type of action after they get what they want. This would constitute a quid quo pro bribe – “I’ll give in to you, but you will need to do something in return.” You don’t want to establish a pattern where you risk their failure to follow through. It also requires the parents to follow up to see if they followed through. The young person may also count on you forgetting about the required action. On the other hand, “Grandma’s rule” states that you don’t get a cookie until you meet some responsibility. If the compromise involves them doing something upfront to earn “yes” from you, that’s appropriate and workable. For instance, telling your 20-year-old son, you have to pay rent if you want to live at home.
“No” Can Be Empowering
“No” is not a four-letter word but can be empowering. When my daughter was in college as a freshman, she called one evening quite upset because her two roommates had ditched her to get something to eat. She was crying and asked if I would come over and pick her up from her dorm room. I said, “no.” But I followed this with how much confidence I had in her working this out with her roommates. I also encouraged her to use her exceptional interpersonal skills to resolve this. She wasn’t happy. The next night we spoke, and I asked if she had talked to her roommates regarding feeling ditched by them. She said – “Oh yes, we talked, and everything is good; it wasn’t a big deal.”
If you would like to learn more about how and when to say “no” in ways that can combine love and backbone, check out this discussion on Psychology Today’s website.