Saying “NO” to a child can create a reaction that goes on and on. Empathy is the key that unlocks the emotional reactions that occur when parents say “NO” to their child.
All parents know there’s going to be a reaction of some sort when you say NO. Young children tantrum and cry. School-age kids argue and negotiate. Tweens and teens can become resentful and can use hurtful words. Parents react as well.
Is there any way to say NO, without all the reacting? Yes, but there are a few things parents need to do to make that happen.
The first thing a parent needs to know is why a child gets so upset when a parent says NO. Dr. Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center says, “The brain reacts to potentially missing out on something in the same way it would to an actual loss… .”
The National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC says, “Most of the time, as adults, we can manage our emotions by processing them through the ‘thinking brain’—the cerebral cortex. This part of our brain is responsible for self-control and judgement. In children, the ‘thinking brain’ is not fully developed. Children get emotionally flooded much more easily than adults because they process their experiences through the ‘emotional brain’—the limbic system. This part of the brain handles emotional responding and pleasure seeking.” (Institute for Early Childhood Education and Research n.d.)
Understanding what’s motivating your child’s intensity and emotionality when you say NO is step number one to reducing reactions.
Your Secret Wish
Most parents secretly wish their child would just gracefully accept hearing no and acknowledge the logical reasoning behind the NO. Most parents secretly dream of hearing, “Mom and Dad, I was wrong. I accept the fact that you said no, and I realize it was silly of me to ask, I’ll stop bugging you now.” Or “I understand why this is not okay, I apologize and will fix my mistake!” As ridiculous as that is, it’s what all parents would love to hear. No parent likes reacting in order to get their child to listen to and accept their NO.
How to Get Your Child to Accept Your No?
Many parents think the best way to stop a child from becoming emotionally flooded, when they say NO, is to discuss things with them. In theory, that’s a great idea. However, talking when a child is emotionally flooded, crying, negotiating, or slinging hurtful words at you, is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Then as you experience the intense emotions produced as a result of trying to talk to them, you begin linking up to the emotions they’re having, and you react. After all you and child are connected.
In order to stop all the reacting, you need to put aside, for the moment, your desire to enforce the NO, and your desire to control things. Look past your child’s emotional reaction to what’s going on underneath. Be empathetic and address the cause of the reaction, the fact that your child believes that (s)he is missing out on something and will never be able to have that toy, play that game, or hangout with that friend, ever again.
Remember, your child’s brain uses immature thinking. Your child is still developing and will continue to do so until the age of 25. (S)he really believes they’re missing out on something. They really believe that this is the one and only time they will ever have this opportunity. So, no matter how often you tell them that isn’t true, they will still react as if it is. That’s where all the drama and emotions are coming from.
Being empathetic shows your child that their deep need for understanding has been heard, and they begin to settle down and are more willing to accept the NO.
How to Make That Happen in Real Life
Here’s the twist, believe it or not, your child is actually okay with being told no. They accept that you are the wise one, the “all knowing one” in their lives. They know your boundaries keep them safe and allow them to be kids; they’re comforted by that. All they really want is to express how they feel about the NO.
Again, this is where empathy enters the situation. Simply acknowledge the emotional disappointment your child is feeling, without changing your mind. You don’t need to go into long explanations, negotiate or rationalize why said what you said. Just empathize with the fact that they’re experiencing a loss.
Tell them you’re happy to discuss this when they calm down. Ask them to do whatever it is you do in your home to get them to return to a calmer place, and then ask them to come and find you when they’re ready to talk.
If a little one is involved, or if your child tends to get even more upset as they release their emotional tension, stay connected till they calm down.
Real Life Swipe Conversation
Preschooler: You open the freezer and your child sees the ice cream and he wants some. He asks, he whines, then he begins demanding it. When you say no, he falls to the floor and has a meltdown.
Boundary with Empathy: “I hear that you really want some ice cream! I want some, too. But we don’t have ice cream till after dinner. It’s okay to want some. It’s okay to cry. We can talk about what you can have, as soon as you stop crying and can hear me. I am right here. Do you need a hug, or do you want to stay upset for a few more minutes?”
School-Age: Your child sees a new bracelet in a magazine and begins asking for it. You say no, and she unconsciously begins using her age-appropriate skill set to negotiate with you. She says things like, “But I asked nicely! You always tell me that when I ask nicely you’ll give me what I want!” Or she says, “You’re so mean!”
Boundary with Empathy: “I think that bracelet would look nice on you, and I know you’re upset that I said no. I would be upset too, if I was told no. I am happy to talk about how you can earn money to get this, when we’re both calmer. Let’s both take a few minutes to get calm. Come find me when you are ready to talk to me in a way that my ears are willing to hear you.”
Tween/Teen: Your tween or teen asks to extend her curfew by 2 hours, and you say NO. She lashes out and says, “But everyone is doing it. You never let me do anything! You can be such a witch sometimes, I hate you!”
Boundary with Empathy: “I know you want to do what everyone else is doing, and I know you’re mad that I said NO. I do not call you names, and I do not like being called names. I’m going to take a minute to get calm, so I don’t yell, and I suggest you do the same. Come find me when you’re ready to talk to me the way we talk to those we love.”
Empathy really is the key that allows your child to feel heard so they can calm down and work toward learning how to accept your NO and their disappointment, so they can move on.
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Sharon Silver, is a mom, a parent educator focusing on conscious and mindful ways to correct behavior without reacting. She’s the author of “Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Transform Behavior into Learning Moments. She is also a contributor to “Parents Ask, Experts Answer,” PopSugar, Circle of Moms, and Life 360.