The word No often triggers tantrums and arguments in children.
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 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.
You will learn how to say No using a proactive approach.
I am going to show you a proactive approach to minimize/reduce tantrums, arguing, pleading, etc. while still not allowing something you are uncomfortable with.
You say no without actually saying no.
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 proactive changes in your approach, that will allow you to remain in control while also seeing improvements in your child’s behavior, keep reading.
What is the approach to say no without saying no?
I am going to show you how to say no without saying no, using the following method:
empathetic statement - brief explanation - choice - reminder
With some children, you need to be consistent for a period of time to really see the benefits of this approach. With others, you will notice improvement immediately.
Let’s look at a clear example:
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 her body and mind need 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 in four steps.
- Empathetic statement – “I know you want more candy because it’s so good.” (this makes her feel understood).
- Brief explanation – “But our bodies need more nutritious foods, so we can only have one piece a day.” (reiterating the rule).
- Choice -“If you are hungry, you can have an apple or yogurt .”(offering choice/making her feel valuable)
- Reminder -“ You can have a piece of candy again tomorrow” (reminding her that she will enjoy some candy again soon).
It is helpful and educational to tell the child what is expected (e.g., “It is good for our bodies to eat nutritious foods, so we can only have one piece of candy a day.”) rather than what is not expected (e.g., “You can’t have candy because it is bad for you.”).
What if your child asks for something they can never have?
“Mom, can I eat this berry (it’s outside and likely poisonous)?”
If it is something your child can never have, use the same approach described above, without the last step (the reminder step).
What if my child or student still protests?
If your child or student argues 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.
What if saying no is just easier and more natural for you?
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.
I use this approach with hundreds of students and clients, and with my own children. I can tell you from personal experience that it is very effective.
Unrealistic expectations and false beliefs impact people’s ability to give up the word no.
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. It is a natural part of child development to test their environment. This is how they learn and take in information about their rules, routines, surroundings, likes/dislikes, etc.
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 own needs.
They get stuck on the fact that they can’t have something without seeing the whole picture.
With this proactive approach, our guidance and support teaches them how to see the situation from different angles.
It also helps them gain knowledge, make decisions, solve problems, and accept adversity, all while connecting with us.
People often say that parents who don’t say “no” end up with spoiled kids.
This can be true if the parent gives their child whatever they want. However, 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 they are hoping for, which will lead to the ability to better accept no as they get older.
I have found this to be true with my own children who are (almost) five and nine at the time that I am writing this article.
Where does this ‘Saying No Without Saying No‘ approach come from?
This proactive approach to saying no, is based on the premise of positive behavior support, which is a research-based philosophy that stresses the importance of empathetic responses, teaching alternatives, and phrasing things in the positive (say what the child can have instead of what they can’t).
These methods 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 with my clients (and now my own children) for over 20 years with success.
Think about how you can start using this proactive approach to saying No today.
How can you 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 used this approach with my two-year-old and he responded 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 food options when you give the choice).
How to Prevent and Handle Temper Tantrums
Top Ten Discipline Tips for Kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder
How to Use Natural and Logical Consequences to Improve Children’s Behavior
Top Five Reasons for Behavior Problems in Kids
I Hate The Word No! An Story to Teach Kids How to Calmly Respond to No
Education and Behavior – Keeping adults on the same page for kids!
Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”