By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)
“You’re so mean.”
“I hate you!”
“Daddy lets me.”
“You like him better than me.”
“Why should I?”
“You can’t make me!”
“I don’t want to.”
Kids say the darndest things, but sometimes also the most hurtful things. It can be surprising what comes out of your child’s mouth when she decides she wants to do something different than what you’re wanting her to do! Especially as your child starts going to preschool, playdates, and other places where they’re around other children, they start picking up on other behaviors and bringing them home. I’ve heard “No!” many times from my children, but I was shocked the first time my four-year-old daughter threw her arms up in the air, said “Hmmph,” and stomp away after a request — until I observed one of her playmates do the same to her mother. The light bulb turned on in my brain: Oh, that’s where she got it. And she’s brought home a lot of other behaviors and phrases since then.
How to Respond to Toddlers
Young children do these behaviors as they explore their independence. They are not meaning to be hurtful — just trying to find their way in the world and test out different phrases and behaviors to see what the consequences are. For my child’s playmate, as described above, her consequence was getting what she sought. For my child, her consequence was not getting it until she gave an appropriate request.
There are four tips to responding to toddlers (these are taken from the Appelbaum Training Institute) who like to say any of the variations of “No!” back to us:
- Honor the boundaries you’ve set — Teach your child that he won’t be getting what he wants without an appropriate request (without whining, hitting, tantrumming, etc.), and sometimes not at all, depending on the request, such as eating sister’s holiday candy. But remember not to force the child to do what you want her to do; according to Attached at the Heart by Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, “your goal is not to break a young child’s will, but to help instill the desire to be ‘good’ and develop his own will to make good decisions. This will mean that he can feel good about having some control in his life that can lead to better cooperation.” Try playful parenting or nonviolent communication to avoid a power struggle while continuing to honor your boundaries.
- Focus on the positive — Tell your child what he can do, rather than can’t. Provide a brief explanation. Say what you need him to do, not what you want him to do; phrase it as “I need you to…”
- Give your child choices — Have her choose between two toys, two drinks, two snacks, etc. I also have my children choose their shirt to wear for the day and then the choice of two pairs of pants that match the shirt. I also have them choose between two colors of drinking cups, bowls, and more. It’s sometimes better to have two choices, rather than more, so that it doesn’t become overwhelming to the child, but as the child gets older, preschoolers can often handle more choices.
- Make transitions fun — Transitions are hard for young children, because they become engrossed in their activity and don’t want to switch. This is why any of the variations of “No!” come out often at times of transition. Try making it fun by playing the “Freeze” game, during which the children “freeze” for a moment when you call out the word; or sing a song with actions such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”; or walk like an animal, drive a car, or fly like a bird. Before naptime, demonstrate to the child how to melt into her napping surface — it makes this often-difficult transition fun!
How to Respond to Preschoolers
As toddlers grow into the preschool years, their needs become more complex, and “No!” may mean more than frustration with a transition. There are generally three reasons why your child is telling you any of the variations of “No!”:
- Independence — the child is learning they have a voice. This is your basic “No!”
- Attention-Seeking — the child is looking for attention. This can be hurtful, such as “I hate you!”
- Self-Protection — the child is trying to avoid the consequences of his behavior. This may include the other spouse or another caregiver, such as “Daddy lets me.”
For every behavior, there is a function. Once the function — one of the three reasons above — is identified, here are some guidelines to dealing with the behavior:
- Independence — Don’t dwell on the behavior, but teach the child how to respond respectfully. For example, instead of “I want that now,” how about “I would like a turn with that toy”? In reply to “No!” or “I don’t want to” or “You can’t make me,” offer the child a choice between tasks.
- Attention-Seeking — Affirm to the child that she does have value. Spend more time with your child. During discipline, be consistent and give a brief explanation of your expectations.
- Self-Protection — Demonstrate a genuine interest in the child. Tell the child what you need, and ask the child to repeat back to you what you asked of him. When addressing comments about other caregivers’ rules, explain that right now, you need your child to follow your rule, such as “That is your daddy’s rule when I’m not home, but my rule right now is…, so I need you to…”
What Not to Do
There are five behaviors we, as parents and caregivers, should never do in response to the hurtful and defiant phrases or actions given to us by our children:
- Defend ourselves.
- Become sarcastic.
- Lose our cool.
- Roll our eyes.
Remember to bite your tongue, as children pick up on our behaviors, too, and will repeat them back to us!