What Every Two-Year-Old Knows– The Power of “NO”

FayPsych Staff

"The word no must have a place in our lives if we want to live as healthy, happy, mature adults..."

A friend of mine had been experiencing a particularly bumpy few weeks and I invited her to lunch to blow off some steam.  She was troubled by her role as treasurer with a fundraising organization she had belonged to for the past several years.  Squabbles within the group’s leadership over the past few months had come to a head, and she felt torn between wanting to contribute to the group, and her desire to remove herself from the stress and anxiety of being exposed to all the bickering, along with the burden of the job of treasurer itself.

As we talked over a light lunch at our favorite restaurant, she recounted to me the three emails she had already received that morning related to the group’s latest saga.  “I’m
at my wit’s end with this – I have a full-time job I can barely keep up with as
it is.  I just don’t need this drama in my life. ” She said in exasperation.  I think
I’ve finally had it.”  The group’s dysfunctional ways were often the topic of our lunches, so I was not surprised to hear about this latest turn of events.

She was absolutely right. She didn’t need drama in her life. She had a very demanding career, as well as young children and a husband at home who needed her time and attention. As we talked, I reminded her that she had practically been made treasurer at gunpoint two years ago, and that it had not been enjoyable for her at any point since she had begun the job.  She had taken on the position with great reluctance, and it had proven to be as time-consuming and politically charged as she had feared.  She had hoped initially, that the good the fundraising organization did for the community
would outweigh the heavy toll the position took on her.  Over time though, it became clear that was not the case.

“I’m seriously thinking of resigning.” She told me.  “It’s just not worth it.”  She shook her head in frustration.  “I knew I never should have taken on this position.”

She had reached a crossroads, but on a journey that could have been avoided altogether with just one powerful little word – NO.  Had she had the courage two years prior to say no to the nominating committee (and she clearly knew she shouldn’t take the position back then), the stress and anxiety she had experienced over these last
two years could have been completely avoided. She would not have spent hours away from her family and her work, thanklessly trying to please the fundraising committee’s board, had she uttered that one small word– NO.  She knew she should have done it at the time, but she just couldn’t bring herself to say it.

It’s amazing how difficult it is for most adults to utter a simple two letter word.  I think of how often I have witnessed a toddler in a fit of two-year-old zeal throwing around
the word no as effortlessly as they might a toy.  At this stage of development, when a child is discovering his own sense of self and separateness from other people, he
delights in telling other people no as loudly and as often as possible–  especially if things aren’t going his way. He is learning how to establish boundaries and use language to make those boundaries clear.  While adults are reluctant to use the word no, a two-year-old relishes the word.

As we grow older we learn to be much less self-centered than our two-year-old selves, like my friend, who is a very caring and compassionate woman in every way.  This turn toward a more selfless outlook is a natural and necessary part of our development, but it can have a downside.  Our concern for others may make us vulnerable to suffering at tasks or in situations that make us miserable, or do damage to our relationships and sometimes even our health.  As we grow up, shame and guilt also enter our lives and become powerful motivators for our behavior.  We may make decisions based upon our fear that we are “not enough” or are “not living up to expectations.”  We find ourselves saying yes to things we are absolutely clear are not healthy for us, but we feel powerless to conjour up that two-letter word that holds the key to releasing us.

When we become disconnected from the ability to say no, out of misplaced altruism, guilt, shame or fear, we allow others to hold us hostage and use us for their own purposes. We may also wrongly believe that we are acting out of love when we fail
to say no to a parent’s, child’s, spouse’s or other family member’s requests,
when in fact, that failure to say no may be the most un-loving thing we can do,
both for that individual, and ourselves.

It’s easy to slip into the failure to say no trap over and over again;  it happens when we
over-indulge our children by not saying no (teaching them that they can expect to have whatever they want, whenever they want in life),  when we let our own parents
run over us with unreasonable expectations or demands (leaving us to simmer with silent anger at them while we limit our own life choices or our own family suffers from our misplaced loyalties),  when we let a friend coerce us into spending time doing something we don’t want to do (when we know it will make us anxious and cause friction at home), when we let our spouse’s desires overwhelm our own needs time and again (until resentment builds to the point of damaging or destroying our marriage).

The word no must have a place in our lives if we want to live as healthy, happy, mature adults with strong and enduring personal and professional relationships.  Without establishing appropriate boundaries with this powerful tool, we set ourselves up for lives filled with anxiety, depression and other psychological maladies. We also set ourselves up to fail as parents and as romantic partners; we doom ourselves to raise children with unrealistic expectations that the world will never be able to meet, and we assure that we will never give our partners the best of ourselves.   If we truly want to be loving, we must demand the best of ourselves, and for ourselves, and we cannot do so without the power of no in our lives.

My friend and I talked some more over dessert and she decided she would tender her resignation that afternoon.  I could see she was tense about having to talk to the board’s president about her decision. When we said our goodbyes I reassured her that her decision was sound.

I spoke to her the next afternoon and she told me she had officially resigned.  She also said the president had begged her to take another position on the board.  I asked her what she told him.  “No,” she said simply.  I could hear her smile and her relief over
the phone.

Over the next couple of weeks we caught up by phone several times, and the sheer delight she expressed at the free time she now had on her hands along with the stress she was not experiencing was almost contagious.

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

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Apologetic Parenting – Why It’s the Kids Who Are Sorry

FayPsych Staff Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

I was standing on the cookie and cracker aisle of the local supermarket the other day, when I witnessed the most amazing transaction between a young boy and his mother.  The boy, who appeared to be about four or so, announced in a loud voice that he wanted “COOKIES!” as he snatched a box of chocolate chip cookies from a low shelf where the store had cleverly placed them.  His mother, who was following along behind him with her shopping cart, promptly parked her cart. A very lop-sided power struggle then began between the boy and his mother right there among the saltines and the vanilla wafers.

Mom: Now sweetie, I’m really sorry, but we can’t have any cookies today.

Boy: But I want cookies.

Mom: You know you’ve already had sweets today at grandma’s, Nathan, so we have to put the cookies back. 

Boy: (clutching the box of cookies tighter)  NO!  I want these cookies! 

Mom: No sweetie, you really have to put the cookies back now – I’m really sorry.

Boy: (teary) NO!!! I hate you!  I want cookies!

Mom: Nathan, that’s not a nice thing to say about Mommy.  We don’t use words like that.  Now, please put the cookies back.

Boy: No, no, no! You’re stupid!

Mom: Please, Nathan, I’m sorry, but it’s time to put the cookies back now…

Boy: (screeching) No mommy! No! I told you!

And with that, little Nathan and his box of cookies dashed off down the aisle and disappeared around the corner.  His mom ran after him and I heard screaming and crying a few aisles away.  I continued my shopping, but saw them again in line at the checkout.  Nathan was red-faced,  his mom looked harried and the box of cookies was on top of the other groceries in their shopping cart.  To the victor go the spoils – and it was clear who had been the victor in the cookie battle.

What was particularly interesting about how the whole cookie transaction played out is that Nathan’s mom is not a poor communicator or a poor negotiator.  I recognized her from our local bank where she holds a fairly powerful position in which she regularly conducts intense negotiations for the commercial loan department.  Despite her business skills, she began their little interaction with an incredibly weak move – an apology.  I highly doubt she would ever do this in a business context.  Her pleading, over-explaining and continued apologizing gave her four-year-old son the upper hand throughout the entire interaction.  She started weak and it was downhill from there.

What I witnessed at the grocery store is played out time and again all over this country – apologetic parenting.  Rather than approaching our children confidently and establishing appropriate boundaries, knowing that we are acting in their best interests, we feel we need to apologize for doing our jobs as parents.  When we come at our kids from this sheepish, half-hearted approach, they begin to discover from a very young age that we are gutless and unenthusiastic about enforcing the rules, discipline, and boundaries that they need to learn in order to become happy and successful members of our society.  They begin to react like Nathan – begging us to restrain them.  Why do we parent this way?   Perhaps we feel guilty because we are working parents, or we feel our parents were too harsh with us; whatever the reason for our hesitance, we are creating a whole lot of little Nathans with our apologetic approach to parenting.

I felt for Nathan’s mom.  The scene at the grocery store had to have been embarrassing for her.  She still had on her name tag from the bank and I’m sure she had had a long day at work before the battle with her son began. But more than this, I felt sad fearing for her for what the future held if she does not come to grips with her parenting of Nathan.  Today the battle was over a box of cookies, but in the future, the struggles would progress to much more important things, and she will have far less power over Nathan at that point.  At four, he had already figured out how to best her – what would he be like at twelve? At sixteen?

I also felt for Nathan.  Nathan needed his mom to tell him “No” – to REALLY tell him NO.  He needed to hear, see and feel that his world had limits and that his mom was willing to enforce them.   Having such boundaries makes children feel safe and secure.  From the little glimpse I got, Nathan was living in a world in which he was calling the shots – a wild west with few clear boundaries. 

What Nathan wanted much more than cookies was to know that he was loved and for his mom to show him – clearly and without apology, how far he could go with his four-year-old power and what role she, and by extension, other adults would play in establishing the limits on his power.  These are the boundaries and limits every child wants.  Nathan could then use that information in his dealings outside his relationship with his mother – with his grandmother, at school, and at church; and this knowledge would help him to behave appropriately and to enjoy his relationships with others.  

A few key reasons why it’s so important for Nathan to learn about boundaries and limits now:

  • Without learning about these limits now, how would Nathan understand and follow his teacher’s request that he sit at his desk when he begins Kindergarten?
  • How will he understand how to make and keep friendships without knowing how to respect personal boundaries?  As it is, he is learning that if he perseveres, he can wear down his opponent.
  • How will he know how to respect other peoples’ property once he has more freedom to move about on his own?

So, it may be hard as a parent to say no to our children’s demands  and to limit their freedoms when we know they are going to protest (sometimes loudly).  We do not need to apologize for setting appropriate limits as parents – not ever.  We are making an investment in our children’s future ability to have healthy relationships and in their ability be a functioning part of our society.  It is through our tutelage that they learn these important lessons.  Sometimes, through our fear or reluctance to dissapoint our children we abdicate our role as teachers of these important lessons.  We instead choose to apologize for our roles as parents, which may reduce our anxiety in the short run and short-circuit some of the daily battles we have with our children.  But, in the long-run, we doom our children to lives of anxiety and chaos when we choose this path.  Nathan deserves better.  All children deserve better

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

Structuring Family Life Reaps Benefits for Everyone

Dr. Bill Spaine

Couples with children face many challenges. Balancing the needs of the couple (or the needs of a single parent), work, extended family, and other aspects of daily life can be stressful on both parents and children and may often lead to an overall sense of chaos in the home.

Patients often tell me that they feel overwhelmed from the minute they walk through the door at home. I often hear from them that their homelife feels like “controlled chaos.” Rather than enjoying their family, they just feel stressed. The idea of enforcing rules and setting boundaries can seem like just another burden at the end of a long work day. In reality, establishing a family structure is an investment in their children and in the peaceful coexistence of the family.

To help restore order, I suggest that my patients with children develop a consistent structure for daily life in the home. Research has shown over and over again that children need and want structure and consistency to feel safe and secure.

I suggest that parents start by developing a set of household rules that they will stick to and enforce consistently. Children are reassured by having boundaries within the family and within the home. They also benefit from what they learn about respecting rules and boundaries at home when they are in school or in other settings outside the home.

Here are some simple guidelines I give them to start with:

  • Give each child a set bedtime (and STICK TO IT!)
  • Set clear guidelines and limits for watching t.v. and playing video games as well as using cell phones
  • Each child should be given daily, age-appropriate responsibilities
  • Parents should establish regular age-appropriate chores for each child
  • Define expectations of how children are to treat one another, their parents and guests in the home
  • Establish age-appropriate consequences for each child if they fail to follow household rules.

While such rules may seem obvious, many of my patients find that they don’t really have much consistency in how their family life operates because they are so busy. When a family really establishes a structure and sticks to it, parents are amazed at the difference it makes in their stress level and the outlook their children have.

Copyright © 2011 William E. Spaine, Psy.D.

Family Rituals: Little Things Mean A Lot

Dr. Bill Spaine

In a family life busy with soccer games, business meetings and household responsibilities, many families find it difficult to connect with one another on a regular basis. In the rush to try and get everything done, many families feel like they’re missing out. Parents feel they aren’t really connecting with each other, or with their kids – they’re just going from one activity or responsibility to the next. Most parents see their kids for just a few hours a day, and they tell me those hours are a chaotic blur.

I urge parents to develop family rituals that will help them to connect with their kids in the the precious time that they do have to share each day. Having a strong sense of belonging to a stable and nurturing family provides children with the foundation they need to tackle the challenges they will face in the wider world.

Here are some of the simple rituals I suggest to parents:

Eating meals together as a family regularly.

Meals should include family discussions and time for kids to share their experiences with their family and talk to their parents. Meals should not include televisions or phone calls (by children OR parents). Putting the world “on hold” to share a meal together signals to the children that they, and the family, are important.

Bedtime rituals for younger children.

I suggest parents set up a regular process of preparing for bed that can include reading a story, prayers together, or any other quiet activity that allows parents contact with their children and helps the child “wind down” for sleep. Parents are amazed that when children get into the habit of following a bedtime ritual, getting them to sleep is easier, and they begin to look forward to bedtime as a time to connect with their parents.

Spending time with children individually.

In a busy household with more than one child, getting time alone with a parent means a great deal to children. Individual time allows the child to share his/her interests with the parent, and for the parent to share his/her interests with the child. One-on-one time between child and parent may even minimize the child’s sense of needing to compete with siblings for attention. Parents may be concerned about finding the time to spend individually with their kids, but building a strong connection helps other aspects of homelife go more smoothly – this is a time investment that will pay off now and in the years to come.

There are other family rituals parents can develop to help bring joy and security to family life. These can range from holiday and birthday traditions to weekly family rituals. They don’t need to be complicated and they don’t have to require a lot of work on the part of parents or kids to be successful. Rituals don’t even need to be serious. I know of a family that had a special Green Eggs and Ham breakfast every once in awhile in honor of their child’s love of Dr. Seuss books and as a way to share time with one another. This simple breakfast ritual not only brought the family together, but gave the child the sense that his interests were acknowledged.

Little things can mean a lot over time. Although their son is now grown, this family still laughs about those silly breakfasts, and the son is planning on continuing this tradition when he has children someday.

Copyright © 2011 William E. Spaine, Psy.D. (Excerpted from Pathways, Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates’ Newsletter, 2007, Volume 1, Number 2)