I hear it all the time. “Little Johnny can’t handle not getting his way.” Or “If I tell Suzy “no,” she freaks out.” It’s a very common problem for parents to deal with and one of the most frustrating at that.
In my years of working with children, one thing I’ve been able to deduce is that often when children hear the word “no,” they have their own personal meaning to this. Typically, the personal definition consists of thoughts like “never in a million years will this thing that I want so bad right now ever EVER happen!” …..and cue……the MELTDOWN!
This is an even more prevalent problem for kids that struggle with Autism issues, ADHD, and Anxiety. These kids can have far more rigid and extreme thinking than the average bear and their ability to be flexible in working through hurdles on what they thought would happen or could happen is not nearly as accessible as kids without these issues.
One thing I like to teach kids is that “No,” in almost every situation, usually means “not right now.” It doesn’t mean “You will NEVER get to play outside with your best friend!” It means that, for these several reasons, it isn’t a good time to do that activity RIGHT NOW. It doesn’t mean “You will NEVER get to EVER have ice cream again!” It simply means mom doesn’t have the money right now, or you need to wait until after dinner. It WILL happen, just Not Right Now. When I work with kids on this issue, I ask the question related to their most recent meltdown, usually regarding something like “not getting their pick for dinner” or “not being able to go to the park,” etc. Whether their parent meant they will NEVER get to do this or have that, or if they just meant NOT RIGHT NOW, kids typically are caught off-guard too. They generally have not had someone explain this to them. We then will work through a series of pretend questions they could ask their parents and define whether the “no” meant Never or Not Right Now. They are genuinely shocked to realize that most things they ask for are, in fact, just a “not right now.” The lightbulb comes on, and it becomes clear to them that eventually the things they get upset about not happening now will probably actually happen again…someday at least.
For parents my lesson is the same. I review with parents the concept of kids often hearing “Never in my lifetime will what I want in this moment occur” when they hear that simple, tiny, yet oh-so-powerful word “No.” I then explain in a similar way that typically what we are actually meaning is a more defined “not right now.”
In the midst of daily crises and checking off to-do lists, we find it easier to answer kids’ queries with a firm and curt “no” to just about anything they might be asking. Even in the moments when we have a bit of free time, it’s often simpler for us to dish out a quick “no” than spend our time thinking through a response or what we actually mean. That is …… until THEY respond. At that point, when there are tears flying, flailing limbs and banshee screams, the thought might occur to us that this maybe could have been avoided, had we taken the time needed on the front side of this event. Pausing before the “No” to evaluate the situation and give a more detailed response creates the potential for conversation with your child and the ability to keep things relaxed.
“What if I don’t know yet if it’s a ‘not right now’ or a ‘NO, never gonna happen?’,” you ask. True, things are not always black and white, and this will occur at times. One course of action is to explain that you’re not sure, but you will keep the request in consideration. The biggest thing to remember, no matter what your answer to their request might be, is that your kids really want to feel like they were being HEARD. Taking a moment to listen to what your child is requesting and giving them a more complete response will take your farther than shooting out “no’s” like a Whack-A-Mole game at the arcade. After making your child feel heard, you may find he or she to be more accepting of your response- meaning less arguing and less emotional extremes.
So this week, take a moment to use Lesson #1: to replace the reactive word “No” with the more accurate “Not Right Now,” when it is fitting, to give a more clear picture to kids on what they can expect. Challenge yourself before that quick and easy response comes out to think through what you mean and if this “no” could be changed. You might even find that, when you really take the time to listen to the request, what they’re asking for might even be a “YES!” That would surely help your child respond better. Either way, give it a shot and take note of any changes in the responses from your kids. This is what I refer to as the “Social Experiment.” Happy investigating!
In the meantime, stay tuned for Part 2 to learn the productive conversation with your child that would follow a “Not Right Now” response. Without the rest of the conversation, that “Not Right Now” response will most certainly become the new “NO!” in your home. So….NO! Let’s Do It Better and join me for Part 2!