by Travis Hopgood

How to say no to your son

Have you ever said “yes” to your son and then regretted it, knowing there’s no going back?

Have you ever said “no” to your son then – as he rolled his eyes and stomped off to his room – regretted the way you said it?

Saying “no” to your son is tough, and saying “no” the right way is even tougher. When your son asks for something that you can’t afford, asks to go somewhere with kids you don’t know, or asks for freedom that he’s not actually ready for, it can be a challenge to process the information and react appropriately in the moment.

When you say “no” (or “not yet”) the right way, you inform, instruct and inspire. Your son may not like your answer, but he will respect it, and you.

However, when you fail to say “no” the right way (something we have all done – particularly when taken by surprise/in busy moments), the communication breakdown that occurs can send your relationship with your son into a tailspin.

Here are a few tips to help you stay on track:

  1. Listen carefully and ask for more information

Remove distractions and listen carefully to your son’s request. Try not to interrupt him. When he’s finished, unpack his request and ask for any extra details. This will give you more information and, importantly, more time to consider your response.

Saying no to your son is tough, and saying no the right way is even tougher.

Observe your son’s words as well as his body language – is his request to attend a party or have his own smartphone actually about wanting more independence or freedom? Can you provide this in other ways? Consider what’s behind your response as well – are your letting your own past ‘stories’ influence your decision to say no?

  1. Provide the ‘why’

When you say “no”, you need to provide the ‘why’ – this will help your son feel respected and will help him respect your decision too (well, eventually). Be clear about the exact behaviours that are valued in your family, but avoid lecturing, patronising, making empty threats, or whining about his whining. And remember to be concise, otherwise your son may tune out before you get to the most important bit.

  1. Be grateful, honest and clear

The fact is your son came to you and sought your permission. That is fantastic. Tell him you’re grateful and tell him that you hope you can continue being honest and open with each other. If the answer is “not yet” (rather than a flat out “no”), be clear about what needs to happen (time passing, the parametres and boundaries that need to be in place etc.) in order to change the answer to a “yes”.

  1. Remove physical and psychological barriers

If your son doesn’t accept your decision, try to remove physical and psychological barriers between you in order to keep the channels of communication open. Go for a drive, turn off the radio (and his phone) and talk it through when you are both looking straight ahead – many boys find this less confronting than an eyeball-to-eyeball chat. Every so often, glance at your son and show him you value his opinion. Be fair and reasonable but stick to your guns.

  1. Know your role; play your role

If your son continues to argue, lash out, beg or badger you after you’ve told him “no”, stay firm. You are the adult with experience to make the call. Your job is to set the limit, not to control how your son feels about it or reacts to it. Tell your son that his behaviour isn’t going to get him what he wants, and walk away. And remember to take care of yourself. Do something that will help you deal with the stress or frustration you’re feeling, such as calling a friend or taking a walk.  

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Travis Hopgood is a father of two teenage boys. He’s also Deputy Head of Middle School at Brighton Grammar – an all-boys’ school in Melbourne. This article is about

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