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How can I help my child understand “NO” in a kind way?

Families Mental Health

Q: With school closures and working from home, I feel as if I am always saying no to my young child. How can I help my child understand “NO” in a kind way?

A: Acknowledge feelings, help meet your child’s needs, and use nonverbal communication.

Dr. Carolyn Broudy of the Family Connections Center provides a beautiful framework for thinking about this challenging situation.

🤗 ACKNOWLEDGE FEELINGS: Describe how the child feels in your own words. For example: Frances wants to watch TV but their time is up. You might say, “You liked learning about bats on TV and now you are feeling sad that we can’t watch this anymore.” As Dr. Broudy notes, you may not always get it right, but your child will pick up on the fact that you are trying to understand what they mean.

📏 HELP MEET YOUR CHILD’S NEEDS: Be clear about what your expectations are around the situation. Even though you empathize with your child, it does not mean that you accept the behaviors. For example: You can say to Frances that it was not a good choice to throw the television remote. You might say, “Our family rule is that we take turns watching TV. After our 30 minutes, you will get another chance to watch a show for 15 minutes.” This sets boundaries around the situation, clearly sets the expectation for the child and allows them to know what will happen next. If your child is not yet talking, you may need to demonstrate options. For example, if a child wants a glass cup, you can offer a plastic one instead.

☁️ USE NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION: Nonverbal cues matter (think body posture, facial expression, tone of voice, volume of voice). For example: If you ask Frances, “Is it OK if we wait 30 minutes to watch TV again” this may convey uncertainty. The child therefore may perceive this uncertainty and feel anxious about the alternative. If however, you state, “After 30 minutes, we will watch something else. I am excited about watching something fun at that time,” the child will likely have a more positive association with the alternative.

This is a simple framework to apply to challenging NO moments. They should be applied in order so that your child learns you care, that there are expectations in the home, and that there are alternative ways to resolve conflict.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, when you may be trying to also work from home, this can be challenging. Talking to your child about COVID-19, about their frustrations and how you can cope as a family is critical. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has an excellent book for young children (about two friends, Trinka and Sam, and their experiences during the pandemic) to help open the conversation.

Of course, applying the core rules with a pandemic caveat is very important. For example: You are on the phone for work because you are working from home. Your child would like to color with you. If you follow the steps, you can say, “I know you want to color right now and it is frustrating. Once I am done with my call, I can help you color. I can’t wait to color with you!” And Dr. Broudy notes that working through these steps seems repetitive but can help children learn to tolerate disappointments and eventually help you support the growth of a more adaptable child.
Stay Safe. Stay Sane. And Say No with Love!

With Love,
Those Nerdy Girls

Referenced Article: Dr. Carolyn Broudy “The COVID No”

Additional Resources:

CDC. Talking with children about coronavirus disease 2019

Child Mind Institute

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