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How to Say No to Preteens

When kids are young, it's easy to set limits on conduct that may put their health or safety at risk. If the seat belt is unbuckled, the car doesn't start. If the helmet isn't worn, the bike stays in the garage.

That can even work with behavior that may lead to obesity, such as eating too much and exercising too little. For example, get the junk food out of the kitchen. Keep TVs out of kids' rooms. Parents have to say no a lot less if you make it a safe environment.

But as children grow older, risks get more complex and restrictions harder to enforce. That's especially true when working parents can't always be around to be disciplinarians.

What works for young children doesn't work for preteens. And being over controlling can make the problem worse.

Kids age 9 or 10 are entering a phase of independence. Parents cannot simply say, "The doctor says you're overweight, so we're never going to have sweets again." The kids will just go over to a friend's house. The key is moderation. Parents must reinforce the good decisions and be able to discuss, calmly but appropriately, the not-so-good decisions. It's the same with a whole range of temptations, from cigarettes to sex.

Parents need to remain approachable. Many experts observe that just when kids seem to deserve love the least is when they need it most.

Lay down the law--but do it gently:

  • Be relaxed and open-minded when you talk about troublesome behavior.

  • Offer choices that help set limits but give kids a chance to exercise independence.

  • Reward good behavior with praise, which promotes self-esteem. Don't use food as a reward.

  • Be a good role model. Kids are great imitators.

  • With older kids, let minor mistakes cause natural consequences. If your teen uses his lunch money for something else, for instance, he goes hungry. Step in only when their actions are dangerous, illegal, or harmful to themselves or others.