What To Do When Your Child Has A Hard Time Accepting ‘No’

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Even though your child is now safe with caring parents, accepting no is still hard for children haunted by feelings of being unloved, unwanted, and uncared for in the past. Research tells us that sometimes when the abuse/neglect happened to them before they were verbal, these memories get stored in their bodies and are carried as vague impressions and feelings without clear events recalled, or a time and place associated with them.* They can react to today’s no by reliving all the no’s of yesterdays gone by. “No, you may not have a cookie 10 minutes before dinner time” feels to them like the years of having to go without food, comfort, safety, or connection.

Here are three strategies that have proved sucessful to help children accept no:

1)Validate those feelings.

A powerful way to help children accept no the future is by validating the feelings they have now, right in the moment. “I know you really want (whatever it is he wants but can’t have) and I understand how hard it is for you to not have it” is an empathetic message that doesn’t give in, it acknowledges the struggle.  Remember that when their flight, fight, or freeze response kicks in, in their world, at that moment it is the worst possible thing they can experience. What they need now from you is compassion for their histories and empathy with their deep feelings. A hug, eye contact, getting down on their eye level are all ways of staying connected with them in the moment, offering them your strength and safety. It is hard to accept no. Whenever you can enter into your child’s world and acknowledge their deep pain, you bring them connecting compassion, which helps them better accept no the next time.

2)Practice accepting no in a gentle and kind way.

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A fun way to teach a child new skill or reinforce a lesson is through role playing with puppets or stuffed animals. This helps to not make the activity about your relationship with the child, or what they have not done correct in the past because the toys do all the talking

You’ll demonstrate to the puppets the better way to accept no and then encourage your child to teach it again to the puppet or toy. This reinforces their learning. Then repeat with teaching your puppet 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. Invite your child to come up with a few more not gentle and kind ways.  Your child and the toy can take turns each being mom or the child, demonstrating both ways. 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 moments too, next time you have to say no. This role playing is best done when your child is calm and regulated. Stop before it loses it’s fun.

3) Give lots of ‘yeses’ whenever you can.

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Giving ‘yeses’ as often as possible to your children 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. We’ve all been there, telling our children no just because it was easier, when really it would have been ok to let them have or do whatever it was they asked for. What can help is taking a breath before answering their request, to get that extra time needed to think before the autopilot no. This won’t make you a permissive parent, but it will open your eyes to more opportunities to say yes to them.

* Reference:

A., V. D. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.

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