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BLOG: Sick of saying "no"? Turn the negatives into positives

Woman and girl smiling at each other
Question: I'm so sick of telling my kids "no" all of the time. How can I say "yes" more often?

Telling your child "no" is one of the easiest forms of discipline, but it isn't always the most effective. Saying "no" limits conversation and becomes ineffective if overused. As many parents know all too well, saying no often leads to a power struggle. And, if said too often, your child may just stop asking.

So to answer your question, yes, there are alternatives to the word "no." It just may take some time, effort and practice to think of them and get used to saying them to your child.

First, to change the negative message into a positive one, try using positive direction. Here's what I mean . . .

Instead of saying, "Stop yelling," try "Use soft voices inside."
Instead of saying, "Don't jump on the couch," try "You can jump on the floor."

This approach let's your children know what's allowed and gives alternatives if you'd rather they not do something they're asking to do. Here's another example. Instead of saying, "No, you can't have a cookie now," you can try "You may have a cookie after dinner."  

Your relationship with your child will benefit from a little more "yes" and a little less "no." When you are able say yes, your child knows they have value and that you care about the things they care about. By using “yes” as a parent or caregiver, you are respecting the emerging autonomy of the child, their sense of themselves, and it shows you accept them as an equal human being. This will help reduce defiance and anxiety while creating moments of collaboration, creativity and even silliness.

As the parent, it is up to you to create the structure and limits for your child, which can also be done without saying no. For example:

  • “People are not for hitting, biting, pinching. You can pound the clay.”
  • “Walls, tables and floors are not for drawing on. Paper is for drawing on.”
  • “Tables and chairs are not for climbing on. You can climb at the park outside.”

Setting limits without saying “no” gives your child a chance to correct his/her mistake without feeling judged. You accept the child, but not the action. Your child looks to you for direction. Setting limits shows them how to do what they want to in an appropriate manner. You are giving your child the opportunity to do it in a different way.

Sometimes, of course, you need to say no. In these times, it is helpful to remember the acronym ACT:

  • Acknowledge the feeling: “You seem really mad.” Let the child know you hear them.
  • Communicate the limit: “I am not for hurting.” The limit is set without judgment and spoken in a matter-of-fact manner. It is stated firmly, calmly, and is reasonable and consistent.
  • Target an acceptable alternative: “You can hit the Play-Doh. ” Refer to another way that is safe for the child to work through the feeling. This is where the child has an opportunity to learn other ways to express a feeling, want or desire.

Acknowledging, reflecting and validating your child's feelings and needs may stop their negative response. Limits are successful when:

  • They are reasonable.
  • They are minimal and enforced when necessary.
  • They are kind, but firm.
  • They are consistent, when the child knows what is expected and can trust the adult.
  • They are neutral and not emotionally charged.

You are the model for your child. Talking to your child in a respectful and positive way, setting limits, providing choices, and modeling the behaviors you want to teach provides the foundation for helping your child become self-aware and self-regulated.

This will result in an internal control (making choices internally rather than needing external control, like an adult to tell them), which will guide your child’s choices well into adolescence and beyond.

Claudia Morona is a senior therapist at Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach County.