A parent is stumped that her almost 4-year-old says ‘no’ to everything — daily transitions like going to or from school, attending a birthday party, even receiving a gift. “Sometimes it is as simple as an emphatic no,” she writes. “And sometimes this increases to more of a tantrum with crying and lots of no, no, no.” While she acknowledges and describes some dramatic upheavals in their household over the past two years, she is confused by her son’s behavior and wonders if Janet has any suggestions how to deal with it.
Transcript of “My Child Says No to Everything”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have a question from a parent that I received in an email about her child who is four years old, and seems very stuck in this resistant negative response. He keeps saying no to everything, even things like presents. And this parent is frustrated and feels like she’s maybe not handling it in the best way and has asked for some help.
Okay. Here’s the note that I received:
Hi Janet, my husband and I are relatively new followers of your work and I’ve learned so much from your podcasts. I have a question that I have not seen addressed in any of your work so far and I’m hoping you can help.
My son soon to be four years old has always been a bit emotional. He’s our firstborn and we have a two-year-old daughter. However, I’ve seen an increase in his emotions progressively over the two years. And we have a new behavior that I am totally stumped by.
When my daughter was two months old, my husband suffered a massive stroke and this event was a catalyst for a series of rough months with my son. He would have pretty major tantrums, lots of crying and whining and lots and lots of “no!” This was all very understandable given the shakeup of a new baby and then dad being very sick. My husband had a long, tough recovery, but after life started to settle back in to our new “normal post stroke”, we were able to work with our son on the tantrums and they seemed less and less frequent.
However, this “no” behavior continues and has gotten even worse over the last six to twelve months. Every single thing we ask of him is “no.” It’s time to go to school. No. It’s time to go outside. No. It’s time to go home. No It’s time for a birthday party. No. It’s time for Santa to come. No.
Sometimes it is as simple as an emphatic no. And sometimes this increases to more of a tantrum with crying and lots of no, no, no. Every day starts with him saying, “No, I don’t want to go to school.” Usually with some crying at drop-off. Then when we pick him up it’s, “No, I want to stay.” With crying on the way home.
We have tried ignoring, acknowledging, redirecting, talking about it, but no matter what we have done, it seems the “no” behavior continues. He even says no to getting presents. In fact, when it comes to giving my son anything new, he not only says no, but adds that he wants to throw it in the trash. He’s very adamant about not wanting it. I usually tell him, “We don’t throw presents or clothes in the trash, but we can put this away. You don’t have to keep it.” Once it’s out of sight. He is sad and says, “No, I do want it.”
Any thoughts on how to best deal with this?
Okay. First, I’d like to give a little context and talk about the word “no,” and words like it that our children use. What’s going on here? What does this mean? And then I’ll offer some suggestions for responding in a way that’s helpful, and maybe talk a little about what gets in our way as parents.
So first a little about the word “no.” This word is one that children realized very young has some oomph to it, has some power to it. Because it’s usually the first word they hear from us where we’re stopping them, correcting behavior. Even if we say it very, very calmly, there’s an edge to it. No. They sense the power in that word.
When they become toddlers and have a developmental need to be more autonomous, then they often latch onto this word “no” as a way of asserting self. Asserting… Well, I have a different point of view than you. This is me. So it’s a very positive word in that sense, if parents could see it that way. I know it’s hard when it seems like our child is just defying us or resisting us. But it is an expressive, powerful word that children use, even in situations… I remember Magda Gerber used to always say, “You offer your toddler an ice cream cone, your toddler’s reaching for it, and while they’re reaching for it, they’re saying,”No!” They need to assert that will. And disagreeing with us is one powerful way to do that.
So, “no,” it’s often more about a feeling for young children than it is a true command. And in this case, it seems this boy is definitely using no to express a feeling or feelings of overwhelm. I can’t handle this right now. I’m not sure. I’m feeling stuck. I don’t have control over this situation. We don’t know exactly what he’s saying. Although the fact that he has a two-year-old sister is certainly a big part of i, and his father having a massive stroke. Yes, there are very out-of-control feelings that children have when their environment changes like that. When the dad that was always very able to take care of them and pick them up or whatever, can’t do those things necessarily, and other family members are frazzled and upset.
All of that is going to feel like a big whoa to a young child. It’s going to be overwhelming. And that’s okay, they can pass through this, but not without some struggle. And what he seems to be expressing in all these situations is that struggle, that emotional struggle that is, again, much more about feeling flooded and overwhelmed about this than actually being decisive and commanding saying, “No, I’ve made this choice and I don’t want this.” It’s not coming from that reasonable place.
And again, that’s often the case with children in these early years, as they struggle to self-regulate. And that’s still a process that goes on until children are adults in their mid-twenties, before we mature in our prefrontal cortex. So we don’t have this ability to control our emotions and be reasonable when we are overwhelmed.
So he’s showing that, yes, he’s still processing these changes in his life, still processing the sister. And the rapid development of his sibling in these first two years means that the older child is going to continue to feel off balance in their expectation of what this child represents in terms of a rival or a force to be reckoned with or someone to deal with.
And then of course our responses as parents… I mean, these parents have gone through an awful lot and it doesn’t make for us to be able to respond calmly as we wish to a lot of the time. Again, that’s totally understandable and okay and nothing to feel ashamed or even concerned about. It’s only for us to be aware that that has an effect on our child. That he’s even more likely to be overwhelmed himself and have more of a struggle to regulate himself, especially in transitions and novel situations that he doesn’t feel complete control over.
So again, I can’t say from this without asking a lot more questions… and even then I may not be able to figure out why this seems to be escalating over the last six months, she says. But what I do know is that receiving this expression, this no, as a feeling that he has and accepting it and acknowledging it as we carry on helping him to school or whatever it is… we don’t take it as a directive… but to really receive it fully as an emotional response is what’s going to help him to stop doing this. It’s going to help him to feel more understood and therefore settled, even in these unsettling situations.
I mean, the transition to and from school is still very challenging, even for a four-year-old, for a six-year-old, for a five-year-old, for a middle schooler. It’s a lot. It’s like they’ve got to pump themselves up to step up into that situation, that challenging situation. And then they’ve got to decelerate and let go when maybe they’re really into it at that point. Or what often happens is they’re very, very tired by the end of it. They’re exhausted from all the stimulation and the learning and everything. It’s exhausting for a young child to be dealing with all these different people. And this parent says her child is sensitive, so even more so for him. And then it’s like you’re too tired to leave the party once you’ve gotten yourself there. This is a whole other transition that he has to make — to let go of that and go back in the car.
So these things that just to us as reasonable adults seem so easy, for young children and sensitive young children who have had some shifts and difficulties in their family, it’s very, very challenging. And even if we didn’t already know that we know that it’s challenging for him because of the way he’s reacting. He’s showing that he’s challenged. That he needs help.
So what does this look like to accept “no” as a feeling?
“It’s time to go to school.”
“You’re not feeling it. You don’t feel ready to go to school or you don’t feel like going to school. You’re saying no to that right now.”
So just letting that have a life. We don’t have to fix it. We don’t have to say, “But you really got to go.” Because that’s going to be implied by us moving forward and saying, “Okay, here’s your shoes. Do you need some help? Happy to dress you if you have time to do that.” Being available for that is a wonderful way to connect before he leaves the house. But not getting intimidated by the no. Uh-oh, he doesn’t want to go to school. What are we going to do now? Maybe it’s the wrong school for him. All of this. I mean, if we have the reasons to believe that, and we get reports from school… Those are reasonable things to decide, but not based on him having this emotional reaction.
That happens sometimes as parents is we get afraid of that. Uh-oh, he doesn’t want to go. So this is a problem. And he’s saying no, so we shouldn’t go.
It’s a feeling. It’s a momentary feeling in this case of overwhelm, some dysregulation. Might not be major, but on some level he’s having what one of my friends called a wobbly. He’s having a wobbly moment around this. So acknowledge the wobbly with love and carry on helping him to get out the door. Don’t take it as fact, take it as feeling.
She said she did try acknowledging, but I’m wondering if she was really able to acknowledge and hold the space for that. Meaning, I’m not sitting here waiting for you to say no until you stop. But I’m letting that feeling have a life and letting it hang in the air without me trying to distract him or squash it, as we of course want to do as parents, because we’re reasonable. And we don’t want to hear that when we’re trying to get out the door.
So, allowing it that space, it takes a lot of bravery on our part, because it feels like if we let the no in, the no is going to win, right? And I still feel like that sometimes when I acknowledge feelings. But what happens is actually the opposite. When we agree with our child’s right to feel no, or to feel whatever, then they’re able to pass through it and feel better. Any feeling.
And sometimes these smaller feelings, these nos, and these words children say are harder to accept than the big tantrums or big meltdowns, because those are easier to recognize as: Oh, okay. My child is having feelings and it’s better for me to just let them be and support them to have these feelings. But these little ones… it is so hard to see it as a feeling, when they’re saying something so wrong and unreasonable and unfair to us. Like, “Come on, you can’t say no. We’ve got to take you. Here’s all the reasons why you shouldn’t say that.” It’s much easier to fall into that with these more minor ways of expressing emotions.
Anyway, I’m not saying this is easy to remember at all. But that can be our goal, that we’re going to be very imperfect at reaching, I’m sure. But seeing it that way, reminding ourselves after, Oh yeah, I did the normal thing, which is telling him all the reasons he needed to go and his friends are going to be there, and come on, doesn’t he want to? Instead of just not being intimidated and welcoming him to say it. “You’re saying no today you got that nos. Yeah, you’re feeling that no this morning. I get it.”
And honestly, I do get it. As I’ve often said, I really get these feelings. I have them too. Oh no, I can’t possibly do this. I don’t want to do this. Why did I sign up for this? All those feelings come over me. I don’t usually shout no at people, but I have those feelings and it’s overwhelm.
So let’s give some other examples of how to react.
“It’s time to go to school.”
“So, ugh, you’re not feeling school this morning. Yikes. Yeah. That’s tough, my love.”
Then at some point make it clear, “We’re still gonna move you forward. We still got to get there, but you can share with me whenever you don’t want to do something. I always want to hear that.”
What’s implied is that we as parents are making the ultimate choice in these situations and children need us to.
“It’s time to go outside.”
“Wow, it sounds like you’re not ready or you’re not sure. Well, okay. I’m going to take your hand and let’s get out there because I think you’ll feel better when you’re out there. But you’re feeling fuzzy about this. You’re feeling unsure about this. You don’t know if you want to go right now.”
So that one, maybe there is some room for some choice there. I don’t know. But again, either there is or there isn’t and it’s not about that we have to worry about that he’s saying no.
“It’s time to go home.”
“Ugh, It’s so hard to leave school. Yeah, you’re having so much fun.”
But moving him forward, not waiting for him to change his mind because again, it’s a feeling and feelings aren’t for us to put the brakes on for they’re for us to hold space for. Oftentimes in these situations we have to keep moving forward. So we’re helping him to the car. We’re not getting stuck ourselves in the no and letting him stop us. So he can be stuck, but we have to be ideally confident helping him through the transition while welcoming the no.
So there’s no perfect sentence to say, but in the beginning, just to get more comfortable with this, it might be just nodding your head and looking him in the eye and going, “I hear you. I hear what you’re saying, saying no to this.”
And also in this, it seems that this feeling is a bit directed at the parents. And that could be because of the sibling situation, the sister, because there is a feeling that children have of betrayal. Again, it’s a thing of, you brought this other cute person home and you love them as much as you love me. And you said that now I have to share with them. And it does feel like this tremendous betrayal. So it’s normal for children and, I would even say, healthy for children to have these push-us-away behaviors.
But if we take them at their word, at face value, if we take them a little bit personally like that, seeing it as a reasonable choice, rather than an expression of a feeling, then, without meaning to, we tend to increase the discomfort for our child. It’s really almost out of their control when they say these things. But this no is a kind of a no to us. No, everything’s not okay in my world. I’m not happy about everything going on. So in a way it can be a reflection of our child’s hurt feelings too. And that’s what it’s kind of feels like to me in some of this, especially when he says no to getting presents and she says at the end, in fact, when it comes to giving my son anything new, he not only says no, but adds that he wants to throw it in the trash. So that’s a real dig at the parent, coming from such a hurt place though. “No, I don’t even want your presents. I don’t even want the good stuff.” Pushing it away. If we think about it, we can relate to that hurt in that, right?
And one thing to remind ourselves of as parents is that when something is so unreasonable like that, it’s very clearly emotionally based. It’s very clearly about a feeling that he’s expressing. So this feeling of, I felt pushed away from the baby maybe, or I felt pushed aside when we had to focus on daddy’s health or you were impatient with me, because you had your own issues to deal with, understandably. But not to him. He still has feelings about it. “I don’t want these things. I’m going to throw them in the trash.” So what this parent does is so normal and understandable. She says, “We don’t throw presents or clothes in the trash, but we can put this away if you don’t want to keep it.” And I’m sure she said it so kindly, but that is seeing it as a more reasonable decision than it is.
If we see the little hurt child here pushing us away in this awkward immature way, then we can just hold space for the feeling and say, “You really, really don’t want this. You don’t want these presents. I’m going to keep them right here and see maybe you’ll want them later. But yeah, you don’t want them at all.” Accepting that feeling.
Yeah, It’s so hard, so challenging not to get hooked in from our reasonable heads with our children. “What do you mean you don’t want these presents? Okay, I’ll put this away.” We’re going to do that. We’re going to do it a lot. So this is just another awareness for us to reflect on — that many of these things, when our children say them, aren’t coming from a reasonable place. So we don’t want to take them that way.
And this is interesting too… In a recent podcast, I shared a parent’s success story about her child’s tantrum and how she handled it. It’s called, “Healing a Child’s Anger (a Powerful Success Story).” And there was a lot of discussion afterwards, especially on my Instagram page, I think, about the fact that this boy had said in his hurt feelings, he had said to his mother at the beginning of these explosive feelings that he had, something like, “I need space, go away.” And so many people were concerned that he was saying he needed space and that he wasn’t giving consent for her to stay next to him, that she should have listened to that and not stuck with him as she did.
And my point in this discussion was that wasn’t coming from a thoughtful place. “I need some space and I need you to back off.” It was him blurting out, from a place of hurt, things that would be pushing his mother away. It was an expression of his feelings. These weren’t thoughtful decisions or facts or things that were actual needs of his.
And this is what I want to get into a little about what gets in our way. One of the things is what I was saying about, it’s easier to see a big meltdown as a child releasing feelings than in all these little small moments where it does seem quite reasonable what they’re saying. So that’s one of them.
And this other one is that if we’re kind of seeing it as reasonable, we feel like we’re supposed to follow that direction, right? We get stuck there. We get afraid that, oh gosh, we’re not respecting our child’s boundaries or we’re not respecting his words. When he’s saying no, we should really consider that. This is where we have to work on going beyond the words and really tuning in to the feelings, seeing the state our child is in. And maybe considering, if this is a pattern, why our child would be saying those things, why would my child be asking for space and telling me to go away when he’s upset? Why would he not want me there? Sometimes it is because we have impatience. We are not as accepting of the feelings as we want to try to be. And so all of our discomfort is coming out and that’s even more flooding for our child. They don’t want that.
So that’s a possibility, and I would look at that rather than saying, Oh, I’ve got to heed whatever words my child says. I mean, we can all relate to… Sometimes we say, “Go away. No, I don’t want you. I don’t like you.” And we’re not asking that person to leave forever or to even leave now. What we want is for them to understand that I’m expressing feelings and I can’t express them to you if you go, actually. I need you to be here so that I can share how angry I am with you and how upset I am. With children, that’s especially true because getting distance from us is really never going to be helpful for them in these early years.
So anyway, it was an interesting discussion and reminded me how challenging it is to see beyond the words and tune into where the words are coming from, what kind of feelings are there.
The good thing about that too, is that the feelings our children have are very relatable to us as adults. The way that they express them or act on them isn’t as relatable because we’ve matured, most of us. Although I still know people that shout no before they say yes. And I always wonder about that. Maybe they didn’t have encouragement to be in an “I don’t know” process. Maybe they felt rushed or they felt they had to make a decision. And I feel like saying no a lot, but I don’t usually say it. But I get overwhelmed.
So I think most of us relate to the feelings. And relating to our child is how we’re going to connect. And we’ve all heard this a lot — the importance of connection. The more we can connect accurately with our child, the more settled they feel, the safer they feel, the calmer their behavior becomes.
So welcome the nos just like any other feeling. But when it’s about a transition, keep moving forward confidently. Not trying to put an end to the no and then move forward, let the no happen while we’re moving forward. Let whatever feeling it is continue to be expressed the whole way in the car to school or whatever. It’s all good. It’s all positive. Whenever children are expressing feelings, it’s the best thing that could happen for them and for us, because we’ll get the calm at the end of the storm, both in that situation and overall.
I really hope some of this helps.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes & Noble and in audio at audible.com. You can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.