Four Steps to Telling Your Mother No

Like many women of a certain age, we’ve moved past being a rebellious daughter and into being a mother in our own families. We tell our children no when they ask for unreasonable or unhealthy things. We tell our partners no when they have unrealistic expectations. We even tell our best friends no when we need more time with our children and partners. Why, then, is it so difficult to say no to our mothers or fathers or other members in our family of origin?

In some cases, we feel obligated to go along with our parents’ requests, no matter the cost to us. She raised us, changed our diapers, protected us from mean neighbor kids, and took us out for ice cream after the dentist. We feel we owe her our allegiance.

In other cases, we feel obligated since she put us first, no matter the cost to them. Maybe they left our hometown and their friends to move us closer to a better school. Or, she skipped work, again, left early, again, and jeopardized their job each time we threw up at school. We feel we owe her our undying loyalty.

But, sometimes, we comply with her demands because we recognize her power to hurt us, even as the grownups we are. We know from experience she can turn our siblings against us, disinvite us to family holidays, or simply send a nasty email that feels like banishment. We feel we need them to survive.

Regardless of our reason for saying no, it can feel impossible. Good news: you can learn to say no, stick with your no, and feel better for it.

First, get clear with yourself that you want to say no. It’s important to you. You feel it in your gut and it matters.

Second, phrase it in the affirmative to yourself. No, I will not cancel my trip to Greece because you want me with you during the anniversary of your divorce becomes “I have a vacation planned and I’m going to Greece.”

Third, practice and be a broken record. Don’t scatter about trying to put out other fires. “I’m going on vacation to Greece next month.” But I need you. “I’m going on vacation to Greece next month.” You’re so selfish. “I’m going on vacation to Greece next month.” Your sister wouldn’t go away when I needed her. “I’m going on vacation to Greece next month.” Rinse and repeat. If you need to, you can add an "I love you" in there but stick to the main message and don’t get sucked in to answering the little accusations and manipulations.

And fourth, reward yourself for your bravery, for taking your needs seriously, and for being a role model for your children. Before long, your children will need to learn to say no to you. You can start teaching them, by example, now.

If you have difficulty navigating relationships in your family of origin, you may want to consult with a therapist.