top of page

Empowering Kids: Teaching the Importance of Saying No and Refusal Skills

Two boys making a funny face

When we are very young, refusals often come as easy as breathing. “No!” is a favorite word among many toddlers, and their temper tantrums send a very clear, “I don’t want this!” message. However, for many, growing up means learning to play the social game of communicative hide and seek, wherein it’s more “polite” to be vague with our refusals and discomfort, rather than risking someone else’s feelings. 

It’s important that children learn to communicate both “yes” and “no” clearly, which is why We Will suggests refusal skills as part of our curriculum for children aged pre-k and beyond. 

In discussing this topic, one thing is of paramount importance: no matter how clear or vague an individual may be, it is never a survivor’s fault that they were sexually assaulted. It is the responsibility of the individual initiating or perpetuating the sexual act to ensure complete consent between both parties. We teach refusal skills only as a tool, not for an excuse to blame victims. Victim-blaming is wrong and perpetuates rape culture. 

One of the most critical aspects of teaching refusal skills is helping children to understand that it is okay to make people feel uncomfortable. Children should not be made responsible for adult feelings. Teach children to firmly say “no” when asked to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. This might include receiving affection, hearing secrets, being tickled, playing a particular game, and more. 

Even as you work to teach your child to say no, some adults may struggle with your child’s newfound boundaries. Previous generations have not emphasized boundary-setting with children. Grandparents might pretend to cry at being told “no” to a hug, uncles and aunts may resent not being able to tickle, and the parents of your child’s friends may roll their eyes when your child doesn’t want to put on a blindfold for pin the tail on the donkey. 

This behavior is expected, but not not acceptable. Talk to struggling individuals about why refusal skills are important to you and your child. Ask for their graceful cooperation to model receiving a “no” appropriately. If the individual continues to struggle with your child’s boundaries, talk to your child and reassure them that it is not their fault. If your child is developmentally-ready, counsel with your child on what to do if this person continues to not respect their boundaries. Consider giving your child space from these individuals to avoid putting your child in repeated uncomfortable situations. 

If you are struggling with the idea of having a child tell an adult no, or if politeness is a particularly important value to you, you may teach your child to say, “no, thank you.” This allows the child to hold a firm boundary while acknowledging that the individual making your child feel uncomfortable likely had no ill intent. Many times, adults who struggle with children who hold boundaries want to appropriately connect with your child, but don’t know how. With some coaching, they may be able to start modeling more appropriate behaviors. 

One way to teach your child to say “no” when uncomfortable with a situation is to participate in role-plays. Young children especially enjoy playing-acting and can benefit from learning by doing. Give your child a situation, such as being tickled by a friend, and help them practice saying “Stop!” or “No!” in a loud, clear voice. Reverse the situation, and allow your child to tickle you before giving your refusal. This models appropriate refusal behaviors while also giving children an opportunity to listen for the refusal of others. 

In teaching refusal skills, it’s also important to teach children to recognize the refusal signals of others. Not all children (or adults) are particularly skilled at sharing their discomfort, and may say “no” in a variety of maladaptive ways, including, but not limited to: frowning, pulling away, yelling (verbally or nonverbally), laughing uncomfortably, running away, and crying. What might seem to an adult to be an obvious refusal may be difficult for children to decipher, particularly at a young age. 

If teaching children to recognize refusals is difficult for you to do in real-life, consider turning to healthy media to demonstrate (e.g., “See how he just put up his hand like a policeman saying stop? He was asking for space and telling his friend he didn’t want to play anymore.”). Recognize characters who do and don’t respect the boundaries and refusals of others. Help children to see what might be making the character say no uncomfortable, and discuss any real-world applications, such as identifying a friend who responds similarly when he/she wants to say no. 

While teaching refusal skills, try to point out times your child has done well (e.g., “Your friend had a big frown when you kept trying to tag her. You asked if she wanted to play tag, and she said no. You recognized when she was saying no, even before she said it!”). Cheer for your child’s successes, while recognizing that both giving and learning to recognize refusals takes time. By modeling positive behaviors, using role plays, and studying age-appropriate media, your child can learn to set firm boundaries and respect the boundaries of others.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page