When Saying NO Causes A Meltdown - How To Say No Without Saying No

brain development in children helping kids listen parenting tips temper tantrums Feb 03, 2022
Does Your Child Meltdown When You Say No?

Do you walk on eggshells, afraid to say no to your child because of how they might react?  I was coaching a client this week with a struggling three-year-old who has not yet developed the skills to be able to handle frustration or express big feelings appropriately.  Whenever the Mom says no, the child goes into a complete tailspin and meltdown.

Does this sound familiar?  I think most parents have faced this at one time or another, so I am sharing some tools that you can put in your toolbox to try next time you find yourself in this situation.  These tools will help you say no, without saying no so you are more likely to avoid the meltdown.

First, please notice that I said that the child has not developed the skills at the age of three to be able to handle or communicate frustration.  This is based on what we know about a child’s developing brain.  Their pre-frontal cortex is under major construction when they are young.  This is the part of the brain that they use to control their body and emotions.  So in most cases, young children are not throwing a fit to get their own way, it’s just that their brain has not yet developed the capacity to consistently handle big emotions and the frustration of not getting what they want.

When you tell your child no, the part of their brain that is on alert for danger processes it as a threat which shuts down access to their pre-frontal cortex, and their ability to control their bodies and emotional responses.

When you are able to remember that it’s not that your child won’t behave, but they can’t — it helps you to keep your own cool during a meltdown.  

That said, you don’t want to give in to every whim and demand.  So what else can you do?  Here are some options.

Say yes for a future time.  

For example, your child may request cookies but they haven’t had lunch yet.  You might respond, yes you can have cookies.  Let me set a couple aside for you and you can have them right after lunch.  

Then you want to shift their focus off the cookies, so you might follow up by giving them some options for lunch, asking them to help you prepare lunch, or suggesting a game to play in the meantime.

That’s a great idea, let’s put that on your list.

You can use this for all sorts of things.  Requests to go visit grandparents or a friend, new toys at the store, special treats.  Keep a piece of paper and pen handy, and literally write down the request on a list.  Your child knows that what they are requesting is important enough for you to write it down and they feel heard and validated.

Some of the items on the list you will never circle back to, but consider using the list as a way to plan a special activity with your child.  You bring out the list on a weekend and do one of the activities together.  It makes your child feel special and helps really build up points in your emotional bank account with them.

Make their request into a wish.

There are times when your child is making a request that isn’t possible. They may want a snack that you are out of, or a red popsicle and all you have left is orange.  They may not want to stop and pick up their toys, or they want to play longer but you need to leave. At times like this, you can respond with a wish.

I wish we had red popsicles right now.  Actually, I wish we had a magic box in our kitchen that had a button on it and when we pushed the button whatever food we wanted would appear in the box.  Wouldn’t that be great?!  

I wish we had more time to play.  I wish we had a whole more hour to play.

 One final note — as parents we tend to want to justify and explain logically why we are saying no, but if you justify why you can’t grant their request, it will take away from your wish.  

Notice if you want to add BUT at the end of your I wish statement.  That will alert you that you are about to add in a justification of why it’s not possible.  For example, I wish that we had more time to play, but we need to get ready to leave.

That BUT will likely be at the tip of your tongue — do your best to avoid it because it will counter the gift of the wish!  Instead, just keep on the wishes thread, and ask what they would wish for.

If you just want to add a few more tips and tricks to your toolbox, I just released a new series of 20 Tips in 20 Days!  There are simple, quick, and practical tips that are easy to try.  In less than 3 minutes a day, you can make parenting so much easier in 2022!  Sign up to get the Twenty Tips at

Happy Parenting!

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