What Happens When A Child Hears ‘No’

Nothing changes a happy parenting scene as quickly as a child in the throes of a meltdown.  Often the trigger for that public display of emotion?  When the child hears “no” or is prevented access from something they want.  Yet hearing “no” and learning about boundaries is a critical part of parenting and a necessity in becoming a successful adult.  The tasks of balancing your child’s happiness with their growth and development is a tough one for parents, but we hope to make the task just a little easier.

First, we need to break down what happens when a child hears the word “no.”  A child who hears the word “no” often may be reluctant to try new things, or feel less open to new experiences.  Contrarily, children who hear “yes” more often have emotional balance, resilience, insight into understanding, and empathy for others.  When a child does have to hear the word “no,” it helps to understand the why and rationale behind the “no,” rather than just shut down.

Children, particularly children who may be disruptive or impulsive, tend to respond best to reward and incentive, as opposed to punishment.  When a child comes to you with a request for permission, use communication and problem-solving skills to collaborate with your child.  “How can we make that happen? What steps do we need to accomplish?  What should come first?”  This helps model decision making, and helps the child understand all of the factors into a decision.

Attempt the rules of improv comedy when discussing permission with your child.  The “Yes and…” principle means agreeing, and adding on to the original statement.  Perhaps your child has asked if he can skip school today.  An automatic “no,” makes sense – he doesn’t have a fever, and school is expected.  Try the “Yes, and…” tactic instead.  “Yes, and we can talk about why you don’t want to go, and how you will make up your work.”  Explaining that this won’t just be a vacation day helps communicate the family expectations.  You might also hear why he doesn’t want to go to school – perhaps he is having trouble with peers, or feels misunderstood by his teacher.

Sometimes the alternative to saying “no” is about giving choices.  “Can I have a snack before dinner?” doesn’t always have to mean a “no.”  Instead, by taking the time to explain the choices, you can help a child problem solve and make the right choice for themselves – a critical skill for adolescents and adults!  “Well, you always like to have dessert before bed.  I’m worried that if you have a snack now, you won’t finish your dinner, and you won’t be able to have that dessert.  Do you think you’d rather have a snack now, or dessert later?”  Be sure to offer choices that you can live with!  Natural consequences and experiential learning are valuable teachers.  When she chooses the snack first – and is then faced with the rest of her dinner while everyone else enjoys ice-cream – she will learn that saving her appetite was probably the wiser choice.  Choices are valuable in the classroom, as well.  Innovation, group collaboration, and flexible thoughts are benefits from school based choices.

Of course in situations of safety, “no” is the appropriate response.  When a child is faced with danger, such as reaching for a hot item on the stove, a quick “no” is the only response you have time for to protect the child.  But when “no” is reserved for truly off limits situations, it is less likely to be ignored, and more likely to be learned from.  Childhood is about learning our limits, learning how to problem solve, and learning how to reason.  Taking the time to explain and allow children to make safe choices are important building blocks in their cognitive and social development.