How to Prevent Temper Tantrums by Changing the Way You Say No

saying no

It is often difficult for younger children to accept the word “no.” Older individuals with developmental or emotional disabilities may also have difficulty accepting the word “no.” The word ”no” often leads to temper tantrums, arguing, and/or pleading.

When your three-year-old daughter old asks you for more candy after she already had a piece and you say “no” she may cry, scream, or beg.

When your seven-year-old son asks you to buy him a toy at the store and you say “no” he may plead with you over and over in the hopes that you will eventually give in.

I am going to show you how to use empathetic statements, explanations, choices, and reminders to say “no”, without using the word no. Using this approach will lead to less tantrums, arguing, begging, etc. If you are not open to making changes in the way you tell your children/students no, then this article is not for you. If you want to make changes in your approach that will allow you to remain in control while also seeing improvements in your child’s behavior, keep reading.

People often have a hard time giving up the word “no” because they feel children need to accept it without argument since this will be expected in the “real world” when they grow up. This is an unrealistic expectation on the part of the adult. Young children or children with developmental or emotional disabilities often have a hard time seeing past the word “no” and thinking of alternatives to meet their needs. This is why they beg and plead. They get stuck on the fact that they can’t have something without seeing the whole picture.

When you apply empathetic statements , explanations, choices, and reminders, you generally get a child who accepts your answer without arguing, begging, or having a tantrum.

People often say that parents who don’t say “no” end up with spoiled kids. This can be true if you give your kids whatever they want, but using this “saying no without saying no” approach allows the parent or teacher to remain in control while helping the child feel respected and understood. It also helps the child visualize other scenarios than the one she is hoping for, which will lead to the ability to better accept “no” as she gets older.

Let’s look at a clear example:
So your three-year-old asks for more candy after you have already told her she can only have one piece a day. You have explained the rule “She can only have one piece because candy is sugary and it is important for her body and mind to eat nutritious food.”  She already had her piece of candy for the day but comes to you asking for more.

Here is how you can say “no” without saying “no”.

  1. Empathetic Statement – “I know you want more candy because it’s so good.” (this makes her feel understood).
  2. Explanation – “But our bodies need nutritious food, so we can only have one piece a day.” (reiterating the rule)
  3. Choice  -“If you are hungry, you can have an apple or yogurt .”(offering choice/making her feel valuable)
  4. Reminder  -“ You can have a piece of candy again tomorrow” (reminding her that she will enjoy some candy again soon).

It is important to tell the child what is expected “It is good for our bodies to eat nutritious food, so we can only have one piece of candy a day” rather than what is not expected “you can’t have candy because it is bad for you.” This type of negative phrasing leaves more room for arguing or talking back.

If it is something your child can never have, use the same approach without the last step (the reminder step).

This approach may sound like a lot of work compared to just saying one word “no” but it saves a lot of time because children who get this type of response are much less likely to argue, cry, or have a tantrum. If they do argue with your response, you can simply say something like, “We have already talked about it, let me know what you choose to do” or “I already gave you the options. We cannot argue about it.” and do not engage in discussion about it anymore. If they are extremely upset, you can offer a calming object (e.g., favorite toy, blanket, favorite book, hug). If they don’t want it, let it go and just wait until they move on/make a choice. I use this approach with hundreds of students and clients, and with my own two year old son. I can tell you first hand that it is very effective. It is based on the premise of positive behavior support which stresses the importance of being understanding of feelings, teaching alternatives, and phrasing things in the positive (say what the child can have instead of what they can’t).

Think of how you can use this approach in different scenarios at home or in the classroom. Language may need to be shortened or modified for very young children or children who have language based difficulties (e.g., offer a choice rather than saying no).  However, I use this approach with my two year old and he responds well, so it depends on the child. You may need to tweak what you say to see what your child/student understands best. Additionally, very young children or children who have language based difficulties, may have trouble visualizing the choices and may benefit from seeing their choices (e.g., show them the apple and yogurt when you give the choice).

The strategies I shared in this article were taught to me in graduate school while getting my master’s degree in education and my certification in school psychology. I have used the strategies in this article for over 20 years with success.

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