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The Informed Parent

When Saying “No” Doesn’t Work

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Sep. 01, 2003

Do you ever wonder why you have to say “no” to your child several times before she responds? In my work with parents and teachers, I often hear the statement, “It doesn’t matter how many times I say ‘no’, it just doesn’t work.” My usual response is, “Do you mean it when you say it?”

Often when disciplining children, parents sound very automatic. A toddler reaches for a breakable object and offhandedly the parent says “No. Don’t touch that.” The child looks at her parent as she moves her hand toward the object to see if mom has meant what she has said. An effective parent looks at the child, saying, “I said NO. Don’t touch that.” Then she moves to assist the toddler in taking her hand away.

Frequently a parent sees her toddler reaching for the object and continues to repeat “No”. The child challenges by touching the object and eventually picking it up. She knows her parent does not really mean what she has said the first time, and possibly the second or third time. It is only when a parent’s voice holds a particular tone of authority that the child knows. “Oh, mom really means what she is saying.”

Each of you as parents knows this. You are aware that it takes the third time for you to say something before your youngster responds. Or perhaps it is on the fourth or fifth time. Children learn as toddlers how far they can push you. And they act on that knowledge throughout childhood and adolescence.

Effective parents learn to say what they mean the first time they speak. They use a tone of authority whenever they tell their child not to do something. You know what that tone is for you. It is not yelling, nor is it frantic. It is a tone that says you are serious about what you are saying. When a parent sees her child in danger, her voice holds a tone that stops the child in her tracks. There is no doubt that she means, “Stop right now.”

Saying “no” in non-emergency situations does not require the same intensity as in a dangerous situation. Nonetheless, your tone must indicate that you are the one in control and that you expect your child to respond. My daughters used to call that my business voice. I suspect that they knew my tone meant business.

Recently I was in a classroom where a teacher asked a student to put his pencil down. The boy continued to doodle. I knew that he would not stop because her voice held no authority. She nagged. The child knew that as long as he continued to doodle and she continued to nag, all attention was focused on him. Classroom learning was at a standstill.

Telling a child “no” without authority is a waste of time. You become frustrated because your child does not respond. And your child develops the habit of not listening, and of manipulating you. If saying “no” does not work in your family, try the following suggestions. You will find that soon you are nagging less. Your child is responding the first time you speak and you both are feeling happier with each other.


Sit with your child and say that you are not happy about the way things are going. You plan on changing the way you talk to her. You might say, “You know, I feel like I nag you a lot. When I ask you not to do something and you continue to do it, I just keep at you. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m going to use a different tone of voice that means I’m serious about what I’m saying.”


You will need to practice using more authority in your voice if you are used to nagging. Practice and role-play with your child. She will think it is fun. Try something like this. Put an object on the table. Ask your child to pretend she is going to pick it up, and when you say “no” she should stop. Say “no” quietly but firmly. Create scenarios appropriate to your child’s age. This works with children up through about ten years of age.


When your child follows your directions the first time, thank her. Be specific. Say “Thank you for not touching the vase when I asked you to stop.” Children need to know that you notice their appropriate behavior.


If saying “no” continues to not work after you have practiced using an authoritative tone of voice, assisted your child toward an appropriate response, and acknowledged her appropriate behavior, review what has gone wrong. Have the situations warranted your efforts, or have you reverted to nagging? Have you followed through? In other words, if your child has not responded, have you assisted her by guiding her to the correct response? Have you acknowledged the success? Each of these elements must be used in order for saying “no” to work.


Changing behavior takes time. The longer ineffective patterns have been used, the more effort it takes to change them. Younger children often respond more quickly than older children. Do not give up. Sit with your child again and review what you want and what may have gone wrong. Talk about what worked. Acknowledge that both of you need to make the effort.

Informed parents use effective parenting skills. The skill of saying what you mean and following through so that your child complies creates a harmonious environment. Children who trust that their parents mean what they say feel safe. They know that you have control of a situation. You feel rewarded because your child listens to what you say.

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