Saying No: Creating Healthy Boundaries

Understanding why a child struggles to say no is the first step in empowering them to use their voices.

Girl holding up her hand to stop

Saying no is often hard for children (and adults!). Understanding why a child struggles to say no is the first step in empowering them to use their voices. Perhaps they fear repercussions for positively asserting themselves or have learned to earn love and acceptance by obliging others. Maybe they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or they haven’t been encouraged to prioritize their needs. Perhaps the only “no” they’ve experienced comes with yelling or disrespect and they don’t have the tools to say no in a healthy way. Find out what prohibits children from saying NO so you can address the root cause and empower them to create healthy, life-giving boundaries.

  • If a child is struggling to say no, see if they can name why it feels so hard. What is the fear behind it?
  • Avoid shaming their reluctance or minimizing their fears. Affirm that you understand this is hard for them and are proud of them for learning how to have hard conversations.
  • Dispel fears. Is a child afraid that by saying no they will lose a friend? Disappoint someone? Never be invited again? We can’t know the outcome, so it’s best not to promise a child a certain ending. However, we can dispel many fears and encourage children to remember the “why” behind saying no.
  • Tell children about a time when you said NO, even though it was hard, and why it mattered to you.
  • Practice! Does a child have a difficult “no” on the horizon? Role-play. Let them practice saying no with you. Teach them different ways they might have the conversation. Keep practicing until they feel confident.
  • What happens if the person doesn’t accept your no? Remind children to stand firm in their decision regardless of how the other person responds.
  • Create a “No Club.” Learning how and when to say no takes practice. By creating a “No Club,” children can work alongside their peers to discuss the decisions weighing on them and practice their responses. (Special thanks to Jessica Bennett at The New York Times and Dr. Dolly Chugh at New York University for inspiring this idea.)
  • Teach children about people like Rosa Parks and Malala who said “NO” through their words and actions and changed the world for the better!


Download this FREE Coloring Sheet you can use with your students to remind them that:

I can use my words
if someone looks down on me
for the color of my skin
or the makeup of my family.

I can say “No!
there is no room here
for hate, injustice,
unkindness, or fear.”

Written by Jenny Simmons.

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