When you say “no” to a child, you know there’s going to be a reaction of some sort.
Young children tantrum and cry.
School-age kids argue and negotiate.
Tweens and teens can become resentful and use hurtful words.
The following quotes help explain part of the reason why kids behave that way. This quote comes from Dr. Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center
“The brain reacts to potentially missing out on something in the same way it would to an actual loss… .”
This quote comes from NAEYC.
“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.)”
When a parent understands what’s motivating their child’s intensity and emotionality, they’re far more capable of not reacting. That’s what today’s topic is about, How to Say “No and Be Heard.
Shhh…you have a secret wish.
Most parents secretly wish their child would just gracefully accept hearing no, and acknowledge the logical reasoning behind the “no.” They dream of hearing, “Mom and Dad, I accept the fact that you said no, and 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!” Even though you know that’s beyond unrealistic, you still have a secret wish that it would happen.
How do you turn a potentially emotionally volatile situation around? Many parents think the best way to stop a child from being emotionally flooded is to discuss things with them. I agree. However, timing plus one other thing is the key to making it all work.
If you try talking to a crying child, or a child who is negotiating, or a child who is slinging hurtful words at you, your words are like putting gasoline on a fire.
Your child’s thinking and emotional reaction stems from believing that they are 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 brain is still developing and will continue to do so until the age of 25. (S)he really believes they’re missing out. They really believe that this is the one and only time they will ever have this opportunity. And no matter how often you tell them that isn’t true, and because of what’s already been stated, they will still react as if it is.
The brain is funny like that. The emotions and the brain work together to produce a version of reality that isn’t necessarily accurate. And that’s what your child is reacting to, and where all the drama and emotions are coming from.
When you experience the intense emotions that show up as a result of saying no to your child, you might begin linking up to the emotions they’re having. After all you and child are connected. Once you’re emotional you tend to begin searching for ways to stop all the reacting and drama. You either begin using logical thinking to justify why you said no, or you become emotionally flooded and react.
What to instead?
When a child becomes emotionally flooded, they think no one understands how they feel. When a parent tries to justify why they said no, the child experiences the focus being shifted from their feelings of loss to the parent’s need to explain their position; they feel emotionally abandoned, which causes them to argue, cry, or negotiate in order to feel heard and understood.
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 are comforted by that. All they really want is to express how they feel about the no. And that’s the key.
That’s where empathy enters the situation. Simply acknowledge the emotional disappointment your child is feeling, without changing your answer. 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 return to center, to the calm place, and then come and find you when they’re ready to talk.
If a little one is involved, or your child gets even more upset when releasing emotional tension, stay connected till they calm down.
Here’s a swipe conversation showing you what it sounds like.
Preschooler: You open the freezer and your child sees the ice cream. 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.
Using a boundary with empathy: “You really want some ice cream! I want some, too. But we don’t have ice cream till after dinner. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to want some. 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 new 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!” Using a boundary with empathy: “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 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!”
Using a boundary with empathy: “I know you’re mad that I said no. I would probably be mad too, if my mom 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 you know you should.”
Empathy is the link that allows your child to feel heard so they can calm down and work toward learning how to accept disappointment and move on.
Sharon Silver, is the mom of two adults, a parent educator, and 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” and PopSugar, Circle of Moms, and Life 360.