WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR CHILD SAYS “NO!!!!!”: A RE-FRAME
There is a story by a Psychologist named Dr Kelly Flanagan that I re-wrote into a Jewish and more relatable vignette. It illustrates a story about our children saying the word NO to our demand to stop and immediately change course on what they are doing.
There is a son and a daughter in a family and they share a 1,000 piece box of legos. The sunshine from Shabbos is coming to an end, and the daughters’ dollhouse is full of Lego action figures. The legos are sleeping in beds, they are sitting on toilets, they are ‘cooking breakfast’, and one rogue ninja warrior is standing on the roof. While the rest of the house slumbers for the last few minutes of a Shabbos nap, a daughter and her friend are playing dollhouse with the family legos.
Her older brother wakes up, walks into the room rubbing his eyes clear, and sees the legos being defiled by a ‘girly’ dollhouse. A look of horror takes over his face—he becomes upset—and he pushes past his sister to angrily snatch up the action figures that certainly don’t belong in a dollhouse.
The parent, now awake, puts out their hand and tries to intervene for the younger daughter. “Give them to me. NOW!” they tell their son.
The son looks at his parent, and delivers an oppositional “NO WAY!”
The parent gets angry and feels out of control because they are supposed to be “in charge.” How dare they be told “NO”. Internally, they feel like a failure because they are not being respected.
In another relatable anecdote, a parent says to their 6 year old child after dining in a restaurant with the immediate family.
“Hey, Maya, it's time to finish up because we are now going to go to Bubbe and Zaide’s house to visit.
Maya: NO! NO! NO! I am NOT going.
The Parent responds under their breath (because they don’t want the other patrons to hear them): “Oh, yes you are and you will get in the car right this minute or you will not get dessert.”
What do you think the child does after this response?
In her loudest voice so everyone in the restaurant and down the street can hear: “You can’t make me!!”
OOH, that is a tough one…Now, what is the parent supposed to do?
One more scenario that has to do with JHS children:
Parent: You need to get your homework done, Tzvi…
‘Fully-capable academically’ Tzvi answers: “I did it already.”
Parent: (knowing that Tzvi is lying). “If I have to say it again, then there will be trouble.”
A half hour later and the homework is still not touched.
Parent (getting angry): “ I told you do the work, Tzvi. That is it, you are grounded from your electronics for a week”
Tzvi: You can’t keep me from doing anything I want…I know more than you do about technology. Good try,parents. You are so lame with your punishments.”
In all three of these scenarios we have children who are saying NO and acting seemingly defiant. It makes us as parents feel embarrassed, angry, hurt, helpless, ineffective, and like a horrible parent.
Many parents feel like their words to their children should be torah m’sinai’ (an absolute rule). In a perfect world they would be, but that is not how things work, especially nowadays. I am going to identify the reasons why children say NO, help us understand ways to intervene when they do, and attempt to re-frame a child’s saying NO as a potential positive in the path of healthy child development. After all, there has been evidence based material and studies to prove that the perfectly obedient child is the one we should actually be ‘red flagging’, not the child who sometimes says NO. Just to be clear, I am not talking about a child who is pathologically defined by severe oppositional behavior that needs meaningful treatment. I am referring to the children who are in mainstream settings and can still push our buttons, make us nuts, and convince us that we are the most inadequate parent on the block I am talking about relatively healthy functioning Jewish families who are normal, like YOU.
In the field of psychology, it is important to understand the reasons behind WHY things happen. It is often not enough to look on the surface in order to enact change but to look a little deeper at the fundamentals of challenging behavior and see why people respond as they do in different situations.
We need to look at why kids say NO. What is the resistance about and what do we need to do to transform our parenting into a dynamic that is a win-win.
First off, we need to know this very important truism about emotional growth.
RESISTANCE IS NECESSARY in order to learn how to interact with the world, make healthy decisions, and have positive inter-and intra-personal relationships.
Taking this point to its extreme, we don’t need to be told about the prevalence of the domestically abused spouse or the girl who can’t say NO. What about the man who is walked all over in his job and refused a promotion because he is not assertive enough, even though his skills are superb? What about the child that can’t speak up for themselves when being teased? You get the point…..these are examples of how lacking resistance can have a deleterious effect.
The best word I can find to represent the need for resistance (or the ability to say NO) in personal growth is the word: counterwill. What does that mean?
Counterwill is a word first coined by Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank. He explains that: counterwill is what happens when you perceive someone else is trying to coerce you into doing something. This is different from will, which concerns doing what is necessary to achieve your goals. When we talk about a child being “strong-willed”, we usually mean that we are experiencing counterwill. Is that necessary bad? No, says developmental theorists who posit that counterwill can keep our children alive. (see above) Stated in a simplistic way, attachment theory says a child wants to stay connected to their parent if they are being parented well.
For instance, if your child is at a park and some stranger approaches your child and asks them to ‘come to my car for some candy’ your child’s counterwill serves as a buffer from outside influence and becomes a protection. Literally.
In a few more examples of the benefit of counterwill:
An older child (say a budding adolescent) will use their need for increased independence and appropriate detachment from parents to help them realize who they are. They must individuate to be adults. We all know many adults who haven’t finished that process fully and we all know how un-appealing that can be.
In early childhood, counterwill can look like this: A young child can only be attached to one thing at a time which is an important thing to remember. If a parent is asking them to put away their toys the child is not necessarily ignoring their parents on purpose. Rather, they are attached to the toy and can’t hold on to the attachment of the parent simultaneously.
Before we go further, I would like to point out three key points:
The first thing I would ask you to do is to re-frame the word NO or oppositional to the word: counterwill (which sounds so much softer).
The second thing to remember is as noted before: counterwill is strongest when there is a genuine lack of connection, so creating more disconnection will only lead to stronger resistance and thus, more frustration.
The third point is to remind yourself that no one wants to be a control-bot. (a word I took from for the internet). In our first scenario, the parent immediately states: GIVE THEM TO ME NOW! I don’t know about you, but I loathe being controlled. Does anyone like to be ordered and commanded what to do? The same is true for children.
These three points will help us understand what we can do to manage counterwill and have our relationships with our children run smoother and become more effective.
Here are 10 points we can do to navigate the defiant NO away from our children: (very loosely based on the Terrific Parenting website)
Don’t ever take it personally. You need to commit to the habit of hearing the word NO from a place of serenity and not anger. If there is a parent that can tell me that getting upset when a child says NO is NOT an exercise in futility, please contact me.
Consider why they refuse. Could it be they just want some attention from you? Be empathic that it is difficult to stop playing when you are having fun. Could it be that you say NO too many times? Perhaps there is peer pressure to respond NO? Perhaps they have negative role modeling in YOU, their parents. Are they hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT). Do they need more choices?
Talk to yourself, known as ‘self-talk’. For instance, when Moshe is refusing to get dressed tell yourself: “I do not have to yell at him. I will take a deep breath. He is not doing this to make me angry. He may be trying to tell me something else.”
Reflect and honor a child’s feeling and meet them where they are. Calmly say: “ I see, Elisheva, that you really don’t want to get out of the car and your are probably thinking “I am not getting out. Sometimes, I don’t want to do things either but I feel good doing what needs to be done.”
Hold boundaries for unsafe behavior only. Sometimes you can’t salvage a teachable moment in real time. You can say things like: “I can’t let you hit” and then physically remove the child from the situation. You can say: ”I see you are really upset and I really want so hear what you have to say. I am going to wait till your calm and then I am going to listen with both of my ears to you”.
Keep a positive view of your child. Be dan l’chaf z’chus. Say: “my child is still learning. It takes a while to learn new behaviors and make them stick.” Keep letting him know that you trust that he will do the right thing: “I believe in you, Eitan, and know that you have what it takes to do the right thing”. I am going to check back in with you in 5 minutes and see if you are ready then.” If not, say: ‘I see that you need a few extra minutes. Good luck. I know you can calm down.”
Use humor to reduce the power play. If your child refuses to brush your teeth say, “Wow, your mouth just won’t open to brush your teeth. I hope you will be able to still eat”. Or:, “I am worried that you will have to brush your ears if your mouth won’t open”. Giggle with your child when they laugh at your silliness. That will lead to faster compliance.
Don’t use the ‘here and now’ to teach meaningful lessons. Reflect on it later. Let your child know that you will sometimes be saying NO to his requests and that you wait it out so there is no point in them escalating their NO’s to defiance. Remain calm and focused. If you are consistent enough, your child will not gain anything from continually saying NO to you.
Learn to say YES, and ‘not right now’ - at the same time. Here is an example: You want your child to get ready for bed and he has lots of energy and wants to play outside since it is still light out. You know you don’t want him to do that but he is asking you anyway and wants you to say YES. Here is a powerful answer to his question that offers him some validation while still saying NO, but without the struggle
Parent: “Yes, Chana, you can definitely go out to play… but not right now. I would love to be able to let you another time.” The child may be upset or angry but there is still an opportunity for positive engagement.
If the child cries and he wants to know why she can’t go.
You can say: “I see,Chana, you really want to go and you may feel upset that Mom said NO this time because it is late.”
What difference does hearing "yes" make? Therapist Inbal Kastan from the Natural Child Project relates: understanding our children more deeply, we usually feel more connected to them and they to us. People who are connected have a greater capacity to think creatively about strategies to meet their needs, extend their goodwill toward one another, and exercise more patience and tolerance when their needs are not met in the moment. Remind yourself that this is the quality of relationships that you want
Remember your job as a parent is to set limits, not to control how your child feels or reacts to it. Perhaps your family can set rules about how to talk back in a respectful way. Such as: NO sarcasm, no putting down, no rolling eyes. Teach “I feel” statements….
Now that we have learned 10 concrete strategies to deal with the word “NO”, let’s go back to our three scenarios and look at how we can respond in a more effective way using the awareness we just got.
In scenario #1( the legos):
You will remember that the parent tells the son to: “Give them to me. NOW!” and the child delivers an oppositional “No!” In order for the parent to feel respected, here are some possible response that considers counterwill and how to work with it.
Use the joining technique: “I see that you don’t want to give the lego pieces to me. What should WE do now? What are some ways we can solve this problem?”
Maintain gentle control: “Ok, I will let you keep them now but know that I will be putting them away for three days after you play”.
Teach empathy skills: “what do you think your sister feels now that you grabbed them away from her?”
Use humor: “I see that you want me to keep the legos and I am so excited because Dad and I like to play with Ninjago.”
In scenario #2 – (the girl who refused to go to her grandparents house):
Before we offer some responses let’s ponder the following: Giving your energy away in worrying what other think is usually not effective. (i.e. the other restaurant patrons watching you). It will reduce your ability to focus on your child and their needs.
Ask Maya why she doesn’t want to go…? Parents often don’t give their child a voice to express (not so the can make the decision, that doesn’t change, but to share he thoughts and feelings). It may be something really reasonable to consider like she is too tired. Maybe she doesn’t like when Zayde pinches her cheeks to hard and it needs a gentle intervention.
Normalize an explanation: Explain that: “sometimes we do things we don’t feel like doing, but we do them because we are obligated (you can teach: honoring our grandparents is a mitzvah).
Delay a more negative response: If she is making a scene let her know that you are going to wait till you are both outside to discuss further and let her know you will ignore her until then. You have bought some time to have her calm down.
Validate her NO and say: “I can understand that you don’t feel like going, but that is the plan and is not up for discussion.” The key here is to be calm and don’t get into a power struggle. Let her know the visit will be easier and less difficult is she accepts it.
Discuss alternatives: Tell her that you would like to discuss ways to make the visit enjoyable but she has to stop yelling to have that conversation.
Let her know how you feel: “I'm worried because I like getting to places when I say I will.” “I feel sad when you don’t listen well”. “I feel confused what to do because I like I like when you do things you want to do, and I also want to do what I said I was going to do. “ I'm feeling upset because I want to make plans that work for everyone.”
Collaboration: “Would you be willing to think with me about some ideas of what to do that would work for both of us right now?”
Negotiate options: “I see you are very frustrated now. Would you like to get in the car now or in 5 minutes
In Scenario #3- (the homework refuser):
Parents, first a word of advice: If your child is capable you should not be directing your JHS students homework. However, since you already made the mistake of asking about your 13 year old’s homework, this can now be a wonderful time to teach the art of natural consequences:
Teach consequences: Let your adolescent know that the repercussions are his and that you will not be bailing him out. Wish him hatzlacha in his conversation with the principal when they realize he is not doing his homework.
Use humor that can even be appropriately sarcastic: “I will do your homework in exchange for you cleaning all the bathrooms and cooking all the food for the week.” Trust me, he will rush to do his work.
Recognize developmental patterns that are excellent teaching moments: Almost all teens argue with their parents, but it is the quality of the argument that makes the difference. University of Virginia recently published research saying the following: "We tell parents to think of those arguments not as a nuisance but as a critical training ground. Such arguments are actually mini life lessons in how to disagree — a necessary skill later on in life with partners, friends and colleagues on the job.”
While we don’t thank our children for doing what they are supposed to, we do validate our children for doing the right thing. That is why it is imperative that we re-engage and validate our child when they do comply and say YES.
If you catch them being able to reduce their NO’s to some of your reasonable requests, tell them “they rock” and remind them how they were able to say YES to something they couldn’t in the past. Tell them how proud you are of them. The more you validate for YES and ignore the NO, the better outcome you will have because being validated feels a heck of a lot better than being ignored.
I would like to end with a great counter intuitive response as well: After we have just learned to validate when our younger and adolescent kids don’t say NO, we should know that as our children get older and become adults, we, like them, need to know the difference between what is a meaningful NO response that is actually life- affirming and that deserves our true self-validation.
Like when we are correct in:
Not living our lives according to the forceful should of others, but rather by the passionate want of their own hearts,
Not letting everyone else tell our life story
Being aware when we are being used by the world instead of being useful in the world,
When we don’t give into in to the pressure to drink too much, get into oppressive debt, or follow any other addictive behaviors.
Not allowing ourselves to get abused by a boss and end up with long hours at work and a short fuse at home,
When we wrongly cater to our kids’ every need and we begin to resent their demands
Think about your own life for a minute. Here is the paradox and the balance:
In order to say a healthy YES, you have to learn to say NO first. The best thing you can do for your child is to model the right and wrong ways to say NO and they will become healthy adults.