“No!” says your child as they stomp their foot in a state of strong conviction, holding their ground to your request to pick up their toys, brush their teeth, be gentle with the dog, or anything really. Or even worse, they calmly meet your gaze with a nonchalant no, as in “No way, not doing it. End of discussion.”
This resistance seems to stir up big emotions within parents. Being told no doesn’t feel good, and in fact, it can be downright infuriating when such a big, dug-in no comes from such a tiny package. It seems that at some point in a child’s development, no becomes their valid answer for everything, even those things that aren’t a question or a command.
But then again, our children are often reflections of us, mirroring our mannerisms and words. Experts say that the average toddler hears the word no about 400 times a day. No tends to be our quick response and we are likely unconscious of how often it slips our lips.
Not only is this exhausting for the parent (400 times is a lot!) but, when used continuously as an attempt to reform behavior, no loses its power, becoming a bit like Charlie Brown’s teacher, Wah wah woh wah wah. It simply gets lost as they tune the word no, and us, out. And as parents, that is the exact opposite of what we want. Often we find ourselves thinking, Why won’t my child just listen?!
Developmentally, children transition through various rites of passage where they explore their thoughts and feelings, exercise their independence, and forge ahead with their own agenda … perspectives and mannerisms that may differ from our own. This can sometimes lead to a battle of wills. And when we are both pulling on different ends of the rope, no one is getting what they want, and no one wins.
When no is said without further explanation, children receive a message that their behavior is undesired. But what isn’t said, is why the behavior is undesired, and how they can choose a new way. No becomes a dead end and does little to build their developing brain with higher-level skills.
What Our Kids Hear When They Hear No
Oftentimes, we unintentionally plant idea seedlings into our children’s heads with the words we use. “When we get to grandma’s there better be no jumping on her couch! She doesn’t like it.” No sooner do you get to grandma’s house and there is jumping. It is enough to bring a parent to a state of bananas.
When you look at the neuroscience of the developing brain, it becomes clear that children, especially toddlers, are concrete learners. They find processing abstract concepts an arduous task. And so, our words serve as a highlighter to illuminate what we desire (or what we don’t).
When we lead with what we don’t want, we get more of it. For example:
- “No running” … you get more running
- “No, don’t eat the crayon” … the crayon becomes a snack
- “No hitting” … the dog gets hit
- “No whining” … you guessed it, you get more whining
Our children’s brains skip right over the no and move into the actionable step. Not only is this lacking a concrete platform, but it is often ineffective. How many times have you found yourself saying no to the same undesired behavior one, two, twenty times without reform? It is no wonder they are tuning us out, and no wonder our emotional state becomes elevated!
No’s, should’s, have to’s, and need to’s are often trigger words that can send a child straight to their brainstem. These impulses further sprout tantrums, big emotions, and undesired behaviors.
And our children aren’t just hearing our words, they are also hearing our tone and body language. So, when no is met with elevated emotion such as our anger, our child is more likely to either resist, run away, or completely shut down, all of which seems ineffective for 1) the child attempting to find their own way and 2) the parent attempting to guide their child through regulating emotions and behaviors.
No Is Not A Bad Word
No is not a bad word. In fact, it can be a powerful word. It can be a complete sentence, especially when used to set boundaries. It is our birthright to examine what serves our highest and best and to decline that which does not resonate with our happiness and well-being. What are we willing to do/stand for/be and what are we not? We can set that boundary, and so can our children.
Sometimes, a strong and simple no is needed. And other times, we can choose a more effective way to say no. Telling your child, “I am unwilling to play Legos right now” is a fine boundary to set. Yet telling your child, “I am cooking dinner and I will play Legos with you when I am finished” seems like a clearer message of what you are willing to do.
What To Do When No Doesn’t Work
1. Save your no’s for when you mean it
If we want our children to hear our no responses, then use them sparingly and when needed. This may include moments where safety is concerned such as if they were running towards the street or in the moment preceding them hurting another.
2. Give a clear directive
Research has shown that not only is it easier to tell our children what to do (as opposed to what not to do), it is more effective. Giving our children tangible steps helps them process the request. Our children are wired to ask, “What can I do?” And when we give abstract information like “No hitting,” it leaves wide-open space for interpretation. Does “no hitting” mean I can kick?
This goes back to the whole “our words are highlighters” concept. Rather than expending your energy and attention on the undesired behavior, focus on the desired outcome. So,
- “No running” becomes, “Walk slowly like a turtle.”
- “No, don’t eat the crayon” becomes, “The crayon is for coloring. Let’s color!”
- “No hitting” becomes, “Gentle hands.” (as you model what gentle hands looks and feels like)
- “No whining” becomes, “Please use your powerful voice.”
3. Give a conditional yes
Instead of giving a flat-out dismissal or declination of what your child is asking, say no with a yes. Instead of saying, “No, we can’t have the cookie right now,” say, “The cookie is for after dinner.”
4. Use a when/then
Another way to set a concrete boundary without saying no is to use the when/then approach. Instead of, “No, we can’t read a book right now. You have toys to clean up,” say, “When you pick up your toys, we can read a book.”
5. Make suggestions
The next time you want your child to stop doing something, reframe the behavior. If your goal is for your kiddo to cease jumping on the couch, you may offer alternatives such as, “You seem like you are in a jumping mood. You can jump on this pillow on the floor, or we can go outside and jump in the grass.”
6. Teach your child to say no respectfully
It is also important to model and teach your child how to say no respectfully. If we want our children to have the skills and self-confidence to trust their intuition as they enter teen years and adulthood, we must create the opportunity to practice now, with us. “Did you know it was okay to tell me no if something doesn’t feel good to you?” Your child has the right to respectfully decline and state what they are willing and unwilling to do, and you as the parent have the right to structure the container for the behavior.
7. Allow for all emotions
As you set your boundaries with your child and redirect behavior, respect your child’s emotional process. They may have big feelings around your requests, and you can be the safe vessel for them to feel and process those emotions as you hold firmly to your loving limit.
If no, don’t, and stop are part of your daily parenting language, you are not alone. But if you find that these phrases are not-effective, know that you have other tools. Being intentional with our words and giving clear instructions to our children helps us set boundaries and affirms the desired behavior.