07/30/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

Why Can't 'No' Mean 'No'?


My 13-year-old son refuses to take 'no' for an answer. No matter how much I explain why I won't raise his allowance or let him watch an inappropriate movie, he follows me around, demanding better reasons. It makes me so angry! Why can't 'no' mean 'no'?"

You are not alone in your complaint. Being stalked by a demanding child is exhausting, especially when it happens on a regular basis. Here are my thoughts:

1. Acknowledge his disappointment. "I get it, honey -- you really want more cash to buy the things you want. It seems completely unfair that I'm saying 'No,' especially when your buddy has been getting $10 for months now." Letting your child know that you understand his upset will help him let go -- as long as you avoid negotiating. (See tip #2)

2. Avoid negotiating when tempers are running hot. The more you engage in angry discussions about why your son can't do or have something, the more you'll awaken his "Inner Lawyer," challenging him to shoot holes in your position. Acknowledge his upset (see Tip #1) without getting pulled into a debate while he is upset. Note: Your son may say, "Just tell me why I can't see the movie/ have a bigger allowance," tempting you to offer yet another round of explanations. If he is angry, this is not the best time to justify your position. Instead, respond with, "I understand how unfair this seems and whatever reason I give you right now isn't going to make any sense. I'm happy to talk about it later, when we're able to listen to each other with respect."

3. Listen with care. Once the storm has passed and your son has settled down, invite him to offload his frustrations with you. Hear him out without delivering counterarguments and explanations. If you help him feel heard, he is less likely to harbor bigger resentments about never getting his way.

4. Show him better ways to ask for what he wants. Choose a calm moment and ask your son if he would like to know how to approach you with a request that might make it more likely that you will say 'Yes.' "When you come at me with demands in an angry and accusatory tone, I shut down, and I can't imagine saying anything but 'no.' You may have more luck if you try something like, 'Mom, I know that we've talked about my allowance being more than you got as a child. And I know that you think $10 is too much for a kid my age. But is there anything I could do -- maybe some odd jobs around the house -- that might change your mind?'" By helping him look for a win-win, you'll be teaching your son the important life skill of effective negotiation.

5. Be as consistently consistent as possible. We all know how important it is to stick to our word and not cave in to a child's demands. But the fact is, it's not easy to be consistent. Sometimes, we break down with, "Fine, you can have it!", simply because our child has worn us down. But as much as possible, avoid changing your mind once you have established that your child cannot do or have something. The less he imagines his whining will (eventually) work, the less he will resort to it to get what he wants.

6. Model healthy ways of handling disappointment. How does your son see you coping when you don't get your way? Do you behave with dignity or go on a long rant a when life doesn't go your way? The more your son sees you graciously making peace with things not unfolding to your liking -- or taking healthy steps toward getting what you want -- the more likely he will follow suit.

Some children have what I call "Sticky Brain," making it especially difficult for them to let go of the loop in their head that obsesses on the injustice of something. But all children will pursue a "yes" from us if they believe it will yield the object of their desire. By teaching your son how to handle those times when he cannot have what he wants, you will spare both of you those long, drawn out arguments. Best of luck!

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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