Parenting the Parent Series Part 3: Learn to say ‘No’

Learn to say ‘No’, so that ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes’, in order to teach people how to treat you. By Samantha Toweel-Moore , occupational therapist.


In Part 3 of our series, Parenting the Parent, learn how to set boundaries in your life by saying ‘No’ to things that you are not happy to do, without feeling guilty. In this way, you can show people how you want to be treated, and avoid being abused.

Remember the last time you agreed to do something that you didn’t want to do? One of two things probably happened: Either excuses ran through your head until you found a way out of your commitment, and you were relieved but guilt-ridden; or, if you went through with it, you probably found that you built up resentment about it. Either way, you wished you had the power to say, ‘No’.

Why don’t we say, ‘No’?

What is so difficult about it? It starts with the associations we have about it. Dr Caryn Aviv says that women are taught from a young age to look outside themselves for the 3 As – acceptance, affirmation and approval. Saying yes seems to be the quickest way to obtain the 3 ‘A’ fix.

On top of this, from our youngest years, ‘No’ was a word we learnt to associate with denial and rejection. Our parents drew the boundary lines for us as we were too young to make healthy and safe judgements for ourselves.

Today we are the parents. We have the wisdom and power to make safe decisions for ourselves. Yet, many of us are yet to make that mental shift. We fear being the adult and expressing our personal preferences and priorities; we weren’t allowed to do this as a child. As we start this process as an adult, we face the possibility of a backlash from our family and friends as they learn to adjust.

At first, we may do what others ask of us, as we believe that this will prevent conflict. It may work for a while, but with time we become unwell, as we realise that we’ve become a machine used to build others’ dreams. We have our own purpose, but it has no time. We’ve committed ourselves to others’ demands and not our own priorities.

‘No’ is a necessary shield to protect us from exploiting ourselves. It’s a boundary line which defines and protects us; a line we draw to allow ourselves to put first things first. It helps us to lead our lives, and ensures that we don’t become ‘people pleasers’.

To change our default patterns of behaviour, we have to understand the benefits of boundaries, as follows:

We teach others how to treat us
What we put up with, we end up with. We need to discourage behaviours in our relationships that we feel are disrespectful. To do this, set one small boundary at a time. For example, if you have a friend, family member or colleague who calls you at all hours of night to offload their stress, explain that you cannot give them the support they need after a set time (say, 7pm) because you’re engaged in family responsibilities. Once they meet the time boundary, move on to the next limit. For example, say “I can only speak for five minutes at a time, as I’m at work or have other commitments.” Then give them a minute’s warning before you have to go, saying, for example, “We need to wrap up. I have a minute left.”

Boundaries provide:

  • Protection
  • We need to draw the line in order to ensure that we’re not abused on a physical, emotional, sexual or verbal level.
  • We need to act in a responsible manner to ensure that we don’t cause harm to ourselves or others. For example, not to drive if we are drunk.


  • When we set consistent limits in the same way, for example, “I don’t work on Sundays”, we become predictable. This predictable nature makes us and those who deal with us, feel secure.


Did you know?

Children and adults who are emotionally secure are :

  • more creative
  • tend to share more
  • show initiative
  • are good at symbolic thinking, which fuels imagination and ideas.

We all have pet hates. If we set boundaries around these behaviours or situations, we allow ourselves to be more accepting of others. For example, if it annoys me when people chew gum while they’re speaking to me, I can express this to them. I use ‘I’ statements to avoid casting blame. For example, “I feel distracted and agitated when a person chews gum while speaking to me.” The person then does not feel under personal attack. They simply know that you would prefer if they would respect this preference. Then when they avoid chewing in front of you, you are able to share a far better relationship.

Boundaries benefit children

Children feel safe and secure when their parents provide clear, consistent and fair boundaries.

Boundaries help to:

  • Develop the child’s self-control. Your child is not controlled by your constant saying “Don’t do that”. He hears the rules and learns to respect them, with time. He becomes responsible as he has a choice of whether to stay within the boundaries, or cross the line and face the consequences.
  • Prevent unnecessary guilt. If you allow your child to treat you in an unpleasant way, for example, pulling your hair or smacking you in the face, then you run the risk of them feeling guilty afterwards. Children are egocentric. They believe that what happens in their world is because of them. If they see that you are upset, they will often link their behaviour to your being upset.
  • Keep your child grounded. Limits help your child to bring fantasy into reality.

How to set the boundaries

  • Recognise that you have a choice, and that saying ‘no’ is an option. To make the right choice, ask yourself if saying yes will build your priorities in life or steal from them. Only say ‘yes’ to what is in line with your purpose in life.
  • Protect your core, your integrity. Be truthful and authentic so that you can reduce resentment in your life. Ask directly for what you need.
  • Express your needs and preferences. Don’t expect others to know your expectations or preferences if you don’t express them. Express them in simple, clear, concise language.
  • Respect your need to rest. Often ‘doing nothing’ appears that you have no ‘good’ reason to say no. Yet rest is vital to maintain constant good health and performance in life. It is a necessity, not an option.
  • Refrain from saying, “Sorry” when you choose to say ‘no’. We apologise for wrongdoings. Making a choice not to do something is not wrong, it’s living-giving. It enables us to manage our priorities.
  • Give yourself time. Say, “I’ll come back to you.” Give thought to your decisions. They will cost you time and energy, so choose with care.

Set the boundaries. Say, no to requests that compromise you, so that you can action your yesses. Put first things first in your life, and be fulfilled.

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