What to say instead of no? Learn positive ways to say no to a child that will help you avoid power struggles and tantrums.
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The best way to avoid tantrums is to avoid power struggles and the best way you can avoid power struggles is to first know what goes on behind the scenes. Why does your child act the way she does? The secret lies in her mind.
How many times today have you said “no”?
Does it ever make you feel like you’re a broken record? A scratched CD? An mp3 song that didn’t buffer all the way to the end?
For many parents of young children, the toddler phase is also called the “No Phase” – they’re mobile, they’re curious and they don’t take no for an answer.
But because we feel the need to teach, correct or discipline, we say “no”.
Again and again and again.
A simple word that rolls off the tongue and feels like the easiest way to get your point across.
Never mind that it doesn’t work (because if it did, we wouldn’t need to say it so often). We keep doing it and hoping that one would stick and our little tyrant would somehow, suddenly, listen.
Hah! And they do…when pigs start flying.
Why parents say no to everything
Among other things, as parents, we want to make sure that our children:
✦ Survive – They’re newly minted human beings. They don’t know that if they run into a busy road full-tilt, they’d probably not be alive. We do, though, and we try our best to impart our wisdom of the general rules of convention onto our precious offspring.
✦ Fit in – We know how difficult life could be if people treated us as a pariah and we don’t want that for our children. We went them to fit in with a social group and be accepted by their peers.
✦ Grow up – We want them to have the skills they need for when they become adults.
These all require knowing when it’s acceptable to do something and when it isn’t.
This is why we’re obsessed with tips and tricks to handle a tantrum because such a public display of emotions is frowned upon in most cultures.
This is why we worry when our children won’t share or when they hit, kick, bite and yell.
This is why we’re so concerned when our children aren’t potty-trained yet, or brushing their teeth or getting dressed on their own.
So we say “no” when they cross boundaries, when they make requests, when they do something we feel they shouldn’t.
Actually, most of the time, we parents tend to say no to everything.
Or maybe not, but to our kids, it certainly feels like it.
Unfortunately, most of us never bother explaining why.
If the true reason for saying “no” is education, then we’re missing the education part of it.
(And no, saying, “Because I’m the parent, that’s why!” teaches them absolutely nothing).
Why can’t you say no to a child too often?
Oooh, I can hear parents all over the world starting a revolution over this particular statement.
I don’t actually mean that you should absolutely never say no.
I mean, your child obviously needs to learn how to have firm limits in certain situation, right?
And also, what about those times when you just blurt it out because your son just tried to run across the road, right into incoming traffic? That merits a no, surely?
Well, I don’t know if the situation actually merits a no but I imagine, screaming “no” whilst frantically grabbing at your child will probably be an instinctive reaction.
That’s not what I mean at all.
What I do mean is that saying no by using the word no too often isn’t particularly effective.
Aside from that, did you know that the prestigious University of California once conducted a survey on how many times a one-year-old child hears the word “no”?
Take a wild guess.
Do they hear it 4 times a day?
Yep, you heard it correctly. Your child hears “no” on an average of 400 times a day.
Imagine someone telling you that practically everything you’re doing is wrong and shouldn’t be done, how would you react?
Would you think (assuming you can, which we all know by now that a toddler cannot), “Oh, my parents must love me so much they don’t want me to get hurt. That’s why they say no all the time.”?
Or would you instead, feel frustrated and angry and, in true toddler form, release those frustrations and anger in the only way open to them – the famous tantrum?
And then, of course, you also now have to contend with the fact that you’ve just modelled to your child that it’s acceptable to say “no” in a manner that is wholly disrespectful – abrupt and with no regard as to why they were acting the way they were.
Children, being the great imitators that they are, will then turn around and say “no” to your face when you need them to do something.
Remember that time you really needed them to eat everything on their plate now so you’re not late for school? Remember how they yelled, “No!”?
Now, didn’t it sound familiar?
In fact, many parents who say no to everything discover that the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” has never worked. Not for any children of any age.
Every time you’re tempted to do something in front of your child, remember that they will likely copy it.
Is it really something you’d want them to do to you or to someone else in another setting (and have to then hear about it in the school’s office or their workplace)?
Examples of saying no without saying no
So, what to say instead of no, if you can’t actually say no?
You might be thinking, “Well, it’s easy for you to preach to the rest of us but children can’t get everything they want. None of us can and they need to learn that.”
I agree completely. They do need to learn how to handle it when they can’t get or do what they want. But you don’t need to throw them to the wolves in order to do that.
You don’t have to be cruel to be kind.
They’re your children, after all.
So, if you really need to decline their request, do so creatively, kindly and judiciously. You won’t like being told that everything you want, you cannot have. That’s a sure recipe for making anyone feel powerless and resentful.
Also, most of us say “no” out of habit.
No running (in a big empty field with no cars or other people around?)! Why not?
No screaming at the top of your lungs (in a private beach strip where it’s just you and your child?)! Why not?
No jumping on the bed! If you’re there to catch her and the bed isn’t likely to break, what’s the harm?
Could we maybe say yes to some of those requests? In fact, could we maybe (gasp) join them?
Race your child to an imaginary finish line of his choosing.
Scream as loud as you can and laugh your head off whilst you do it – and let her tell you to be quiet for a change.
Sing “Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed” with your child and jump on the bed when it’s your turn.
It’s okay to play with your kids and have a little fun.
When you have the impulse to say no, see if you can transform that into a yes and if not, then find words to use instead of “no” (to a toddler), like the ones below, that make them want to listen.
Side Note: This is only a short list containing examples of how to say no without saying no. I’m sure you can think of other things that you can use.
Of course, you can have chocolate! Right after breakfast.
We use this one most often. And for precisely the reason you’re thinking of.
My little Tasmanian Devil would wake up in the morning, bright and cheerful, and announce, “Mam, I’m hungry for chocolate.”
Do we say “no”?
Sure, we do – if we want to engage in a power struggle that will end in a tantrum right after waking up.
No, we agree but put a better time on it.
Did you want this chocolate cake now (before breakfast)? Or a Kinder egg after breakfast?
Just like Katie Higgins, we believe that chocolate is good for you – real chocolate and not the candy you get in most shops today.
So, when we have something healthy to hand – like one of the many chocolate-based recipes in Katie’s Chocolate-Covered Katie, instead of saying no to a child, we can give an alternative that makes everybody happy.
Sometimes, he tries the boundary and asks for both cake and Kinder egg.
Or tries to reverse the alternatives: What about Kinder egg now and cake after breakfast?
Or insists that it’s the Kinder egg he wants and he no like chocolate cake.
What can you do?
You love chocolate, don’t you? What do you like most about chocolate?
Sometimes, for young children, the thought is as good as reality.
Try acknowledging how they feel. you can even agree with how they feel. Chocolate does taste good, after all.
Unless of course, you don’t like it (which is another kettle of fish altogether).
And then ask them a question.
Why do they want it now?
What do they like most about it?
Sometimes, it’s enough for them to let it go.
Other times, you need to do something else. In How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, the authors talked of drawing a picture of whatever they want that they can keep in their pockets.
I’ve tried it myself and was pleasantly surprised that it worked.
You’re crying because you’re disappointed that you can’t get chocolate just now, aren’t you?
I agree! I love chocolate too.
I wish we can have as much chocolate as we want, whenever we want it.
What a silly rule!
Hey, it’s true! Some rules are silly anyway.
Doesn’t mean you can break them but you can agree that it’s silly.
So, feel the feeling.
It is sad that you can’t just eat whatever you want.
Then take turns consoling each other and move forward.
Darling, you know the rules. They’re not going to change.
How about some pretend chocolates instead?
I can give you a million chocolates – as much as you want.
Here, this is one hundred chocolates, two hundred, now you have a million.
All for you!
If your child is old enough to appreciate the game of pretend, then you can try this.
I use Lego in this chocolate pretend game. Doesn’t always work but when they do, it’s amazing.
Another alternative is if your child is into pretend games with dolls.
Let’s ask Leon.
Leon, do you want chocolate?
Oh, after breakfast?
Do you want to eat chocolate with Gabe after breakfast?
IOUs or lists
I can see how badly you want chocolates. Here, (I’ll) write a note so I don’t forget: Mam will give me exactly 4 pieces of chocolate after breakfast.
Even if they cannot read, somehow they understand the value of the written word so when you write down what they want so you don’t forget, it shows them how much you value their wants and desires.
And when you follow through with what you’ve written, they know they can trust you to keep your word.
A few other examples of saying no without saying no (plus other things you need to remember)
As you can see, there are many ways to say no without saying no.
What you choose to do will depend on your own knowledge of your child but there are things you need to remember, regardless of your choice.
Connect with your child.
The first thing you need to remember is that you want to protect your connection with your child.
And barking out a “no” with no thought as to what your child is feeling or trying to accomplish is the fastest way to tear at it.
The act of attunement, of letting the other person know you understand, is essential but often missing in parenting.
Instead of no, send the message that whilst you set and hold a limit, you understand what they’re trying to do, where they’re coming from and why they feel the way they do when they realise that the limit is set and can’t be moved.
Instead of: “No, stop kicking me!”
Say: “I’m sorry, darling. I know how badly you wanted to stay in the play park and you really didn’t want to go home. You were having so much fun and now you’re upset with me for making you go. The problem is, people are not for kicking. But you can kick this ball as hard as you can instead.”
Provide the required information.
I mentioned this in a previous post about talking with young children but it’s worth repeating here:
“We all think with imagery, and children even more than adults. If I say, “Don’t run in the street,” what’s the image that comes into your head?
Now, how about if I say, “Please walk straight along the sidewalk.” The word “don’t” is a modifier that is very weak compared to the strong image created by the rest of the phrase.
This is why, if you say “Don’t jump in the puddle,” the average two-year-old will go directly to the puddle and jump in it, and be slightly puzzled as to why you’re annoyed.“ – Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers, Faith Collins
Instead of: “No screaming inside the house.”
Say (and demonstrate): “Inside the house, we speak softly just like this.”
Young children are notorious for asking, “why?”
Explaining why, instead of expecting immediate compliance after saying “no”, helps kids learn to make better choices in the future.
Think about this, when they’re driving you up the wall: When your young child becomes a teenager, you want him to to know why he’s not supposed to do anything instead of just going with the flow.
You want her making the right choices even when her peers aren’t.
If so, then you need to start when they’re young and you’re still the centre of their universe.
Instead of: “No, stop it!”
Say: “Oh dear, the baby isn’t a toy, so we need to be very gentle with her. She’s so small and delicate, see? We don’t want to hurt her and make her cry.”
Practice effective communication.
To communicate effectively with a young child (in other words, if you want to be heard), you need to ensure that you’re not railroading your child into shutting down or goading her into rebellion.
Either will lead to power struggles and resentment, which will weaken your connection with your child and with it, your authority.
Would you respect your boss’ authority if he rejects every explanation outright without first listening to what you had to say?
Of course, you wouldn’t.
And you probably would actually start rebelling against such behaviour, (not) doing little things because “what does it matter?”.
And your child is the same.
Instead of: “No, we don’t just grab things from other children.”
Say: “You wanted to play with him and his toys so you started taking the toys away. He didn’t like that, see? Have you asked him if you can play with him? No? Shall we try?”
Be creative (but don’t lie).
I already mentioned the importance of saying “no” judiciously” and it’s usually because children tend to ignore something when they hear it too often.
Come to think of it, so do adults.
So, if you don’t want your words to transform from meaningful guidance to mindless blah-blah-blah, resist the impulse to say “no” all the time.
That said, don’t lie.
If you tell your child that you’ll give her chocolates after breakfast, you’d better make sure that you give her chocolates for dinner – even when she doesn’t remember.
That way, the next time you tell her that she can eat chocolates after breakfast when she asks first thing in the morning, she’ll be more inclined to believe you.
Instead of: “No, we don’t eat chocolates before breakfast.”
Say: “We’ll eat breakfast first and then we’ll all eat chocolates.”
Use new words in an even tone.
A young child’s job is to explore the world around him – that includes (unfortunately, for parents) testing limits. It’s frustrating but totally normal.
Instead of: “No!”
Say: “Pause”, “stop” or “freeze”.
The idea of replacing “no” is to lessen the numbing effect it has on your child. That way, when you do have to say “no” (like when you see your young child about to clobber his playmate with a train), they’re more likely to pay attention.
Also, making sure that your words do not judge or shame will go a long way towards getting the cooperation you’re looking for.
Don’t forget that when children feel bad, they act bad.
And when children feel good, they act good.
How do you want them to act?
Final thoughts on the importance of saying no without saying no
It’s always good to remember that parenting is a long-term game.
You need to think that the child you’re raising right now will eventually become an adult.
What kind of adult do you want them to be?
Will acting the way you do now help them become the kind of adults you dream of them being?
Do you want them to be the kind of adults that are so entrenched in what they believe that they don’t care about what other people feel or think?
Or do you want them to develop the strength to be empathetic towards other people, able to understand why others do what they do, feel what they feel – and open to learning and understanding?
Do you want them to act as if might is right and that if they’re bigger, richer, more powerful, they have the right to force others to do what they want?
Or do you want them to know that if they are bigger, richer, more powerful, they have at their disposal, all the tools needed to improve upon the lives of those around them?
It all begins with us.
Finally, the most important thing to remember about parenting is that you don’t have to be perfect to do it well.
Of course, you’ll slip up and say “no” anyway.
Of course, you’ll lose your temper and yell when you should be calm.
You’re human. You have feelings. You have limits.
And sometimes, you just want to say one thing and have your children do it.
I totally get it.
So be gentle with yourself and don’t worry if you sometimes say “no”. For many parents in this generation, the word is a reflex because we ourselves heard it growing up. By osmosis, we were taught that it’s the best way to teach children right from wrong.
It takes self-awareness and continuous practice to change.
Don’t worry if you trip up. Trust me, your child will give you another opportunity to do better next time.
What about you? Have you used these techniques before? Or do you have alternative ways to convey a no?
Pop them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2019 and has been completely revamped and updated for relevance and comprehensiveness.