A little two-letter word with so much power. When children begin to talk that is often one of their first words. A word of defiance letting parents know they have their own wishes. For parents, it is a word of authority intended to stop certain behavior, or as a response to a child’s demands.

Advice to “just say no,” has been promoted as a method young people should use as a way of rejecting drug use or early sexual behavior. This of course depends on their ability to use the internal controls that parents provide externally while children are developing.

Does saying no accomplish any of its intended purposes when used by parents or children? It can be effective with young children as a way of interrupting potentially dangerous behavior — such as a child about to run across the street.

It is a powerful word for little children who often feel powerless in the face of their big parents. Saying no becomes a way for them to assert themselves. Defiance is part of a process of establishing oneself as a separate person. Defiance may be part of that process for teenagers as well, although by then the “no” may be acted out in more ways than words.

Young adults’ ability to use “no” as a way of rejecting self-destructive behavior depends on aspects of their development. Known about adolescents is their inability to judge risk, and their belief in their own immortality, which can get in the way of their ability to monitor their own behavior.

Parents often complain about the fact that children continue to engage in behavior or to demand things after parent have told them no. Apparently, the word begins to lose its power when used by parents although not by children when refusing to comply with parents’ wishes.

For this reason, saying no is a powerful provocation for confrontation. Parents get frustrated when children don’t comply with their requests. They then have to find a way to deal with the unacceptable behavior, and their reaction to having their authority challenged. This can lead to an escalation of the conflict as parents seek stronger ways of asserting their authority.

When saying no is counter-productive there are alternatives. For young children, distraction — interesting them in something other than what they want at the moment — is often successful. As children develop greater cognitive and language skills there are ways of saying no without sounding like being the boss. Showing compassion for their inability to get what they want is almost always a good first step.

Although finding a compromise is not always possible, letting children know that you understand what they want can help them feel that there is a possibility that their wishes may be met — if not now, perhaps at some point.

Is no in a direct form ever useful? Several parents spoke about children who as young adults expect the kind of support from their parents — financial and otherwise — that no longer seems appropriate. In many ways this is a replay of the same kind of conflicts that existed earlier — except that now expectations of the grown children are different.

What is the same, is that parents who may not have trouble saying no to their children about certain things, find it hard to say no when it comes to withholding what their children want. As parents, we want to give to our children, and this can get us into trouble with little children as well as big ones.

Saying no is emotionally loaded, both in its power and lack of power.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.