When Kids Say No

One of the most frustrating experiences parents encounter occurs when a child gives an outright “NO” in response to a simple request. These moments can often evolve into an ugly exchange between parents and children, as parents escalate their efforts to force their children to comply.

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As I have emphasized in recent articles, we often speak to children as if we have control over them…and we do not. Eventually, almost all kids try to teach us this simple lesson. The key is learning to develop a way of communicating where you ask with respect, respond with clarity, and allow consequences to teach. In this way, you can learn to maximize your influence in being a healthy guide for your kids.

I was recently sitting in the Miami Airport, and observed a classic example of the power struggle that can emerge when kids say NO … and we try to force the issue.

First the story however: Mom and Dad appear to be from Australia, and they have two young children. Both parents were likely tired and frustrated. Let’s just say they weren’t at their best. We all know those moments.

Peter tells his Mom he’s hungry, and wants his Big Mac. Mom directs her son, Peter (which everyone in the airport came to know), to “SIT DOWN NOW!” Peter, approximately age seven, simply looks at his Mom and shakes his head. Mom repeats…with voice raised… “I SAID SIT DOWN NOW!” She did not want Peter eating his Big Mac standing up and running around the airport.

Peter just stares at his Mom and doesn’t budge. He’s now digging in. Mom gets furious…quickly furious. She states, “YOU SIT DOWN NOW…DON’T YOU DEFY ME… I SAID TO SIT DOWN NOW!”

Peter looks resolute. He doesn’t budge. Most of Terminal C is now involved in this dialog.

Mom eventually pushed her son into the seat, and literally threw his Big Mac into his lap.

The whole thing was a disaster. No one was happy. Several simple shifts can eliminate such exchanges, even with the most oppositional and difficult children. We must start from a position of truth and integrity however, or many times such exchanges can turn to disaster.

How To Avoid The Power Struggle Over “NO!”

Rule #1. Never try to teach during crunch time.

It is important to keep in mind that what occurred in the airport, is only the tip of the iceberg. It is clear from the exchange between this parent and son that this was not an unusual situation. They had done this a lot, and they are still doing it today (most likely).

If at all possible, you don’t want to end up in an airport, and having to use your email newsletter from Dr. Cale, as a solution to dealing with an oppositional “NO” from your child. If you have to, you can do it. But the real work occurs in the day to day exchanges at home, and in establishing a parenting framework where the critical lessons have already been taught. Then, it is very unlikely that such oppositional “NO’s” show up when you are in the airport.

The first point to remember is that this is a training process, and it can’t wait until its crunch time and expect the magic to just be there. This has to be a way of dealing with your kids on a day to day basis, and then they get it. (Not only do they get it, but more importantly you get it!)

Rule #2. Your kids are not control-bots.

Notice how this Mom began the exchange. Her first communication with Peter was, “Sit down now”. She is speaking to her son as if young Peter is her personal robot, or as I like to call it a “control-bot”.

We don’t have control of our kids. We can influence them. We can teach them. We can reinforce and support and nurture them. But we don’t control them.

When we start out using controlling and demanding language, we will often get an oppositional response, particularly from certain types of kids. Those of you who have kids who are more oppositional in nature MUST get this critical lesson.

None of us like to be controlled. None of us like to be “TOLD WHAT TO DO.” None of us like to be ordered around. The same is true for children. And it is especially true for children with a more oppositional inclined nature.

I doubt that this whole exchange would have ever occurred, if Mom had gently asked Peter, “Peter, it’s time to eat something. Please come and sit down beside me, and enjoy your meal.”

There is tremendous difference between the power of a request versus the power of a demand. Many parents fall in the habit of using controlling and demanding language, when they don’t even know it. When tired or frustrated, many of us get short with those we love. As things begin to spiral out of control, and children listen more and more poorly, many of us fall deeper into the habit of using more controlling language, rather than treating the children with greater respect and simply asking.

I have seen this time and time again in my practice. There are times when the biggest change that is made in a home has nothing to do with patterns of reinforcement, how you use consequences or any of the other parenting magic. It is simply when parents change their approach, and you see immediate changes in how kids respond.

Does it work all the time? No…of course not. But it’s the foundation for establishing respect. Treat your kids with respectful language…and it’s MUCH MORE LIKELY that they will grow up treating you with respectful language.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We all know this to be true. I know of no place where it is more true than in the way that you communicate with your children.

As I said, this will certainly not eliminate all situations where children say “NO.” The next step is to…

Rule #3. Make it a habit to ignore the “NO.”

In the wide majority of situations, there is no damage that is being done when children are saying “NO.” This was a great example of that.

If Mom had asked Peter to sit down, and he had said “no,” she still had his Big Mac in her hand. She could take care of the rest of the family, and still keep her eye on Peter. She could allow him to resist with little consequence

Prior to her yelling at him, Peter had not been making a scene. He was not calling attention to himself, or doing anything particularly problematic. All she had to do was wait him out.

“But I can’t accept my kids saying “no” to me!”

I can hear many of you now. That’s just unacceptable. Well, it’s time to get over this.

Let’s join reality here. It’s not a matter of whether you accept it or not. If you stay in reality, you can’t not accept it. Your child has already said “no”. What is not to accept?

You can pretend that they are not supposed to say that, when they have already said it.

You can pretend that you are not going to accept something that’s already occurred. It just happened.

You can even say out loud, “I will not accept you saying NO to me.” And when you do, did anything just change? Did you saying that somehow erase what has already occurred? Does it make your child immediately acquiesce, and say…”I’m sorry Mommy. I take that back” … and somehow it all disappears.

I suggest not. Stay in reality here. It just happened. To say you accept or not is only a matter of how much upset you will experience. It will also likely to affect how useful your next choice will be.

To get upset…to argue with…to resist the “no” is only an exercise in futility.

If you don’t believe me, just keep trying it. Try it as often as you like, and see if it ever goes away…by refusing to “accept” what has already unfolded.

Trust me. It doesn’t just go away. This doesn’t mean we agree with it. It just means that you stay in reality, and now choose what to do next. There is a way to teach your son or daughter that such a response to a reasonable request will not serve them. If your child says, “No” then make it a habit to respond with…

Rule #4. Establish in advance…“You say NO…I say NO.”

Before you ever get to the airport or ask them to clean their room or invite them to help out at the community center, establish a very clear and simple rule for your family. Whenever your kids say “no” to a reasonable request, let them know that you will be saying “no” to any and all request that they make UNTIL they say “yes” to what you have asked for.

Let’s go back to the example. If Mom and Dad have created a rule of thumb, where the kids understand that when they say “no” to a request from Mom or Dad…that Mom and Dad will say “no”, then Peter’s request to eat his Big Mac while he runs around the airport would be met with a calm and simple “no”.

Peter would have come to understand that “the automatic no” is the way that Mom does business when he’s refused to honor Mom’s request to sit down.

If Peter were to ask for his Gameboy, or to want a sip of juice, these would all meet with the automatic no…until he agrees to sit down. The moment that Peter sits down, he has now said “yes” to Mom’s request. From this point forward, Mom can now say “yes” to Peter’s request.

Simple.

Simple, but remarkably powerful.

But let’s be clear. The real magic here is in establishing that this is the way you do business at home…in the car…shopping at the mall…and in the airport. You must establish a strategy where you don’t invest your energy in the oppositional tendencies of your kids. Don’t’ go there! When you do, you end up feeding the very behavior you don’t want!

This can be remarkably powerful for teenagers who refuse to pick up their dirty dishes from their bedroom. Their friends were over on Saturday, and now it’s Sunday. The kids ask to go to a movie, or to the park, or to get on the computer. The answer…”No…I’m sorry but you haven’t picked up your room yet.”

Avoid these toxic power struggles by NOT trying to control your kids, and instead focus on control of the environment and the resources they enjoy.

But let’s get back to Peter for a moment, because one more step will add further power to your approach. As soon as Peter agrees to say “yes” to Mom’s request, it becomes extremely important to…

Rule #5. Re-engage (give attention) once children say
“YES” to your request.

Regardless how long you must wait, stay out of the oppositional behavior (unless imminent danger…of course). Give it no energy…walk away…ignore the NO coming from your kids.

Be patient. Wait them out. They are now living with parents who have established the “You say No…I say NO” way of doing business. They will come around.

Once children say “yes” to a parental request, then not only do you say yes to them, but you can begin to reengage and give energy and attention to your kids. As long as children are in the process of staying firm with their “no”, parents need to make sure that they continue to give no response, give no energy, and give no attention to their children during these times. [Again, the only obvious exception would be when a child is engaged in a behavior that would put their safety or the safety of others at risk.

I encourage you to try this out. It’s an approach that builds with time, and demands that you become a parent of action…not words. This is a simple approach, which takes advantage of several key principles offered in the Terrific Parenting Programs that I offer. If you haven’t checked out the new programs available on my updated and revised website, please do so.

This is an especially important concept for those children who are strong-willed, independent, and oppositional in nature. Such children need to learn that the world is not going to battle them and try to control them. Instead, the world (“Mom and Dad”) will try to teach them that the world will not respond well to such wasted oppositional behavior. You want to model what the world will eventually give them when they say NO….and that is NO-THING.

One final note: Steps 3,4, and 5 will be ineffective, if you can’t take responsibility and full ownership for the way that you speak with your children. If you tend to be demanding and controlling in your language with your kids, you’ll find that you’ll be battling for the rest of your life with your children. It will come back to you…in truckloads…as the kids get older.

If you can give that stuff up, then you’ll find that steps 3 and 4 become magical, in that even the most difficult and oppositional inclined children become much more compliant and responsive within a matter of several weeks.

Best of luck with this. Let me know how it works out…but keep in mind, it takes a few weeks for most of these approaches to have maximum impact. Let me know how it works out. Read more about the concepts behind these approaches in the PARENTING PROBLEMS section of the new website.

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