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Why saying 'no' to your child is okay

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Mother speaking seriously to her son


Speaker, author and academic Dr Michael Nagel explores the importance of saying ‘no’ to children and why it may even be beneficial to healthy emotional development and long term success in life.  

Whether it’s refusing a treat or saying no to the third attempt to delay bedtime, using the word ‘no’ can be one of the most difficult tasks for parents.

Saying ‘no’ to stop, modify or completely change behaviours in children can create feelings of uncertainty or guilt. Parents fear disappointing their child. Evidence for parental angst exists in the 200 million plus results you can find by simply Googling the topic in search of advice about why and how to say no. 

Much of this advice is derived from research and theories in child development and psychology, however the last couple of decades have also provided some important insights via neuroscientific research focusing on brain development.

When looking at how the brain develops and how aspects of a child’s mind matures in the early years of life, the word ‘no’ appears to be a very important tool for ensuring overall healthy emotional development and long-term success in life.

Understanding the developing brain

In order to understand why this is the case some basic understanding of the brain and how it develops is necessary.

At birth the brain is very immature and changing rapidly. Over the first five years of life the brain will begin to evolve into one of the most highly complex mechanisms known to humankind, however, even by their fifth birthday children still have a long way to go before their brain can work like that of an adult.

Full maturation of the human brain does not occur until we are in our third decade of life.  The very parts of the brain that allow adults to control their emotions, make responsible decisions, think abstractly, sustain extended attention and concentration and engage in deeply analytical thinking do not fully come online until long after high school finishes. 

In the earliest days of childhood, therefore, the brain is very busy creating the foundations for survival and learning that will endure a lifetime.

It does so by responding to situations and interactions in the environment and by looking for patterns.  Therein lie two important factors related to healthy development and saying ‘no’ to children. 

The brain is designed to survive and learn, in that order! And, in order to ensure survival, and foster learning, the brain is always looking for patterns. 

At this stage you might be wondering how all this happens.  Well, there are two important structures in the brain that work their magic when it comes to surviving, learning and thriving.

The first of these is the brain stem. It does many important things but perhaps the most important is that it is the relay station for engaging our ‘fight or flight’ responses in times of threat or danger. 

The second important region that works in concert with the brain stem is the limbic system.  The limbic system is the emotional centre of the brain and has structures necessary for memory formation and retrieval.

What is really significant to remember is that these two regions of the brain mature long before the frontal lobes, or higher order thinking regions of the brain.

Why saying ‘no’ can be beneficial

Immature frontal lobes, held at the mercy of survival mechanisms and emotions, are the perfect recipe for children not always acting in socially acceptable ways and why saying ‘no’ is beneficial in terms of learning and survival. 

A practical example of this is the child who asks for a biscuit while dinner is being made.

During this encounter a parent may be inclined to suggest that the child waits for dinner rather than having a biscuit, which in turn can lead that child to a range of emotions, including sadness and anger.

It would not be out of place in this context to see that very child in a fetal position on the floor proclaiming they are starving when they don’t get their way. You see, in the immature mind where time and patience are  not well understood but hunger is, the survival mechanism engages in whatever emotional behaviour it thinks will get it a Tim Tam.

Here, however, is the key to ensuring the healthy development of emotional regulation and limiting anxiety and stress in children.

It is difficult to foster emotional regulation skills or impulse control when the boundaries are shifting regularly. Consistency and predictability are key for a maturing mind and healthy development.
Dr Michael Nagel

The need to be consistent with ‘yes’ and ‘no’

When the types of situations noted above arise and the pattern of behaviour by the adult is inconsistent - ‘yes’ sometimes, ‘no’ others - then the end result is not very desirable for the child’s overall development. 

It is difficult to foster emotional regulation skills or impulse control when the boundaries are shifting regularly.  Consistency and predictability are key for a maturing mind and healthy development.

Impulse control and managing one’s emotions are two of the most important behavioural and emotional skills that children need in their social environments. Such skills are very raw in young children. 

As they grow and mature, children learn a vast array of life skills in the context of rules and boundaries that are consistent and predictable.  We also know that emotions can direct (or disrupt) psychological processes, such as the ability to focus attention, solve problems, and support relationships. 

There are some innate aspects (nature) related to personality, temperament and a child’s capacity for impulse control and self-regulatory behaviour but much of this is also a product of the environment (nurture). 

This is why saying ‘no’ can be so important.  In using this word, parents are assisting in developing the parts of the brain responsible for a child’s emotional and social development. 

However, there are also some very important parameters around saying ‘no’ that need to be remembered in order for healthy development to occur. 

First, remember that the brain looks for patterns and in aggressively searching for those patterns it gives meaning to new or incoming stimuli. 

Therefore, in its role as a ‘pattern-detecting’ device, consistency, predictability and stability in boundaries and borders becomes of paramount importance in terms of learning and behaviour. 

As noted earlier, saying ‘no’ on one occasion and then giving in on another leads to confusion and uncertainty and does not help to establish patterns of, and for, desirable behaviour.  Fluctuating boundaries and inconsistency by a parent can also lead to innumerable opportunities for frustration and stress in both child and parent.  ‘No’, when used, really must mean ‘no’ in all similar situations.

Second, a child's brain has twice as many neural circuits as an adult's brain. This overpopulation of neural matter is purposeful and guarantees that the young brain will be capable of adapting to virtually any environment into which a child is born. 

We also now know that the brain has a highly robust and well-developed capacity to change in response to environmental demands, a process called ‘plasticity’. This involves creating and strengthening some neural connections and weakening or eliminating others.

The degree of modification depends on the environment and the types of behaviour and learning that takes place, with repetitive behaviours and long-term learning leading to more profound modification. 

In other words, what a parent says and does can strengthen or weaken neural connections in the mind of a child and if building positive and pro-social behaviours is the goal then consistency and repetition is a must.

Finally, it is important to remember that saying ‘no’ is just part of the nurturing and learning process that helps to equip children for dealing with all aspects of life.

Parents who provide boundaries and borders that are consistent and fair should never feel guilty when saying ‘no’ given that this is one of the most important things a parent can do to help build a child’s emotional and social capacities in a positive and healthy way.