One thing that dramatically affects how much we enjoy the company of a child is how they react when they ask for something and are told “no.” Being able to handle disappointment gracefully is a very advanced skill, and one that doesn’t necessarily come easily or naturally. Nevertheless, having that skill is something that will really serve these little people as they go through life, and will make our enjoyment of them that much richer. So what can we do as parents and caregivers to help children develop this skill?
Children under two (or even 2 ½) have very little control over their emotions. So the best thing you can do is to avoid establishing negative patterns of tantrums, whining, etc. that will be hard to break when they’re older. Ironically, one of the best ways to do this is to avoid saying “no” as much as possible. One of your biggest tools in this area will be to have a strong daily rhythm. When kids know exactly how things will go, they are much less likely to resist what’s going on or want something different.
Even with a strong rhythm in place, however, kids at this age want things all the time that they can’t have. So how can you say “no” without saying “no”? One great way is to say “yes” in imagination, and then take them on an imaginary journey that ends somewhere else. Here’s one example I used with a mom just the other day:
Your little boy wants a toy airplane that his older brother is playing with. He winds up to start throwing a fit. You say to him, “You really want that airplane. You want it RIGHT NOW! You LOVE airplanes, and you hate waiting!” Say it really emphatically, so that he knows you ‘get it.’ You might have to say it a few times. When he’s paying attention to you, you can say, “If I had another airplane, I’d give it to you right now.” (you’re saying yes in your imagination.) “If you had an airplane RIGHT NOW, what would you do with it?” He looks at you quizzically. You go on, “If you had that airplane RIGHT NOW, I bet you’d fly it all around the house. What room would you fly it into?” Pause for a moment to let him think about it, then go on, “I bet you’d fly it into the livingroom. Vrrroooommmm! You’d go around the coffee table, the around the couch. Then you’d fly it past the diningroom table! Vrrooommm!” Continue in this vein, taking him on an imaginary journey until you can tell he’s really into it. Then change the direction slightly. “Then you’d fly it past the cat! Do you think she’d like that?” Pause and watch him, then answer: “No! Kitty doesn’t like airplanes at all! If she saw you going by, she might run away and hide!” Then, “In fact, where is kitty? Do you think she’s hiding in the livingroom right now? Let’s go find her!”
Like I said, this technique takes some work, but the more you practice it, the better you get. If you can use this type of distraction and re-direction, you can limit how often you say “no” to your child. And by the way, with a little finesse, this technique can work with older kids as well. It’s time to leave a play-date at the park and your four-year-old doesn’t want to. “You want to stay here forever? OK!” (saying yes in imagination). “That would be funny! What would you eat for dinner? You could ask the squirrels if they would share their nuts with you! And where would you sleep?” Look around. “I know! You could sleep underneath the tire-swing. You could make a big pile of wood chips and burrow into it, just like a little mouse.” You get the picture.
By the time kids are approaching three, they’ve usually figured out what works to get you to change your mind when you say “no.” Maybe throwing tantrums has worked well for them. Maybe if they whine long enough you get tired and give in. Or, they’ll explain and explain why you should change your mind, wearing you down until you do change your mind, or they end up in tears. So how to establish good habits around reacting to being told “no”?
I know I go against popular culture here, but I believe that children do not benefit from lengthy discussions of why they can’t have what they want. A simple explanation is fine, but after that it simply draws out the bad feelings of being told “no,” and keeps them from moving on. And in practical terms, it greatly increases the amount of time the two of you spend disagreeing with one another. Helping your child to accept “no” gracefully, and move on, will benefit you both. So how do you do that? Well, if your child is used to lengthy explanations, it will take some time and effort to change that pattern. Be patient and don’t give up.
Use Humor. When a child asks for something that they know they can’t have, don’t give them a long explanation about how they know they can’t have cookies before dinner. Don’t even be disapproving. From their perspective, it was worth a try, right? So simply laugh while you say no. “No…..Silly girl!” And give her a smooch. You don’t even have to remind her that she can have one cookie after dinner, just like always. She knows.
Be Matter-of-Fact. Kids often take their emotional cues from us, so watch your tone. When a child asks for a sugar cereal in the grocery store, a cheerful “Nope!” or “Not today,” is surprisingly effective, especially if you follow it up with a comment leading them in a different direction. You don’t need to explain about how sugar cereals are bad for you, how they’ll rot your teeth or give you a tummy ache. The less discussion you give it, the faster they can move on. Note: if you have traditionally changed your mind after pleading or nagging in the past, your child will take awhile to change his response. But if you practice, and are consistent that once you’ve said “not today” you don’t change your mind, your child will learn to accept this without question unless it feels really important to him. I say “not today” at Rainbow Bridge all the time, and the children simply accept it and move on. It is part of our culture there.
Be Empathetic. Sometimes I’ll say “not today,” and a child will burst into tears. I will immediately stop what I’m doing and take them into my arms. “Wow, you really wanted to do that, huh?” I’ll say. “You thought I’d say yes, but then I said no instead.” They’ll nod tearfully. Now, at this point there’s a huge urge to either 1) explain why they can’t get what they want, 2) bargain with them/bribe them with replacement items, or 3) give in. Put all of those urges on hold, and simply give them some love, instead. “I love you sooo much.” Give a kiss on the top of the head, and start humming a song as you rock back and forth. Stay with them as long as they need, simply pouring in the love without trying to solve anything. They are learning to handle disappointment, and that’s a big task! In a minute or two, they’ll calm down. “Would you like to help me unload the dishwasher?” you might ask.