I don’t know anyone who likes to accept ‘no’ for an answer, do you? Even us parents get that internal churning feeling when we’re told no about something in the grown-up world. And let’s face it, all children want what they want, when they want it. How much more so for our children from hard places, coming from early trauma, neglect, and loss. These hurt children of ours can react to ‘no’ with intense physical and emotional pain in a way that completely overwhelms their system, causing them to strike back with intent to take us down with them. A simple ‘no’ from us sends them into a tailspin of defiant behaviors, and we have no idea what underlying pain they are feeling when all we see is their anger. Oh, the intense anger. Or maybe your child shuts down instead, saying, ‘that’s ok, no big deal, I didn’t really want it anyway.” This response is tricky because it appears he’s fine. In the future I’ll write about this ‘freeze’ response.
Something that adds to this brewing mess is our expectations that our children should just accept ‘no’ in obedience to us. Traditional parenting says ‘do it just because I said so’. That may seem to work in kiddos who are very securely attached to parents, but demanding obedience is the special sauce of disaster for our insecure children. Why can’t they just trust us that we know what’s best for them?
One of the reasons accepting ‘no’ is so hard for children from trauma backgrounds is that, despite now living in safe homes with caring parents, our children often remain haunted by feelings of being unloved, unwanted, and un-cared for in the past. And when the abuse/neglect happened to them before they were verbal, these memories get stored in their bodies absent conscious awareness of time and place.* Research tells us these earliest memories of neglect and loss are buried deep within and are carried as vague impressions and feelings without clear events associated to them.* What can happen then is, they can react to today’s ‘no’ by reliving all the ‘nos’ of yesterdays gone by. They react to you saying ‘no’ in this moment but heap on all the past times when they did not have what they needed. “No, you may not have a cookie 10 minutes before dinner time” feels to them like the years of having to go without any food for long periods of time. No wonder they freak out.
There are several proactive strategies to gently lead your child to accept no. Today I’ll focus on just two. This works preventatively not only for accepting no, but for any number of behaviors that stem from feeling of loss and pain. Again, these are pro-active, meant to build trust and internal resources before events occur. They are not stop-the-behavior-when-it-happens strategies. We can talk about those in later posts.
Offer lots of practice accepting ‘no’ in a gentle and kind way. If meltdowns, whining and screaming have been the ways your child communicated in the past, it may be the only thing they know to do. Sometimes they need to see a better way to know what you expect. One of my favorite ways to teach new skills to a child is through role playing with puppets or stuffed animals/toys. This turns into not only a great teaching/reinforcing lesson, but it is also an amazing connecting activity. Puppets or stuffed toys help to not make the activity about your relationship with the child, or what they have not done correct in the past – the toys do all the talking; they do the hard work.
You start by ‘teaching’ one of the puppets/stuffed toys how to be gentle and kind when accepting no, as your child watches the puppet ‘practice’. Take turns with your child and let him also teach to a toy. Then repeat with showing the toy the not gentle and kind way of accepting no. Here is where you can get as silly as you want to, demonstrating funny ways of not accepting no very well. Your child can come up with a few more ‘wrong’ ways, and don’t be surprised if they may even include some of their own. You and your child’s toy could then role play mom saying no, and child accepting no in a kind gentle way. The idea is to make it fun and connecting, not shaming. Keeping it fun and silly when you practice will help in the real-life moment too by helping to diffuse the situation next time you do have to say ‘no’. The key to this kind of learning is that you do it when your child is calm and regulated and stop before it loses it’s fun. Practice often with the gentle and kind way to reinforce positive behavior. Praise your child when you see any improvement in real life.
Give lots of ‘yeses’ whenever you can. This is like ‘money in the bank’ or in this case, good feelings in the bank. The more times you can say yes to even the little things, the better it will be when you have to ‘withdraw’ from the emotional bank by saying ‘no’. I have been guilty of telling my children ‘no’ just because it was easier for me, when really it would have been ok to let them have or do whatever it was they asked for. What helped me was to take a breath before answering their request, so that I have that extra time needed to think about it before the automatic ‘no’ that all of us parents sometimes get caught up in. This won’t make you a permissive parent, but it will open your eyes to more opportunities to say yes to them. Some families find success in creating a YES JAR. Once you fill your jar, tell your kids about it and be willing to say yes anytime they ask. Watch as Kayla North of Empowered to Connect discusses the simplicity of adding YES to your communication with your children:
Van Der Kolk, B., (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.