When Kids Can’t Accept a No Answer

“The answer is no.” How does your child respond to that statement? Handling disappointment is part of life and knowing how to respond well to limits is part of maturity. But some children have a difficult time when they don’t get what they want. They pout, throw temper tantrums, cry, or simply get overwhelmed by their emotions.

It’s a Heart Issue

Learning how to accept no as an answer is a heart issue. Not only can children learn to live within limits, but they can also learn flexibility and contentment, two heart qualities that help them address the challenges they may face internally.

Furthermore, children who learn to accept no as an answer are more likely to respond well to limits when they get older. The character needed by a teenager to say no to the many temptations, comes from the ability to live within limits. Much of the work needed to be successful handling disappointment and temptation later in life, can be developed in the early elementary years as kids learn to do what’s right when they don’t get what they want.

To help your child most effectively in this area, first identify tendencies your child has when faced with some kind of limit or disappointment. Some kids become so overwhelmed with emotion that they retreat and bury themselves in despair and sadness, while others become vicious with anger-filled revenge. Others stay calm but view their parents as obstacles to their goal and pursue with badgering or arguing. Still others simply whine and complain, making others miserable because they don’t get what they want.

Be Careful about Demandingness

So what is a parent supposed to do when the child is overwhelmed with emotion? It’s not wrong to change your mind, but be careful that you don’t encourage a negative pattern of demandingness in your child simply because you want to keep the peace. Kids who whine, badger, or argue usually do it because it works. In those cases you might use a strategy to help your child recognize the line separating socially appropriate dialogue from rudeness. To do that you’ll want to leave the issue and move to the process. The process is the way the child is treating you in the situation.

Some parents encourage the child’s arguing because they like the drive they see in their child. Although that’s a good quality, those children often don’t understand the difference between determination and demandingness. When you move to the process you’re addressing how a child is responding to you. You might say, “I’ve said no but you’re continuing on. That’s not right and can be perceived as rudeness. You need to stop asking and arguing and find something else to talk about.”

Some parents encourage unhelpful patterns by engaging their children in debates. They stay on the issue too long, discussing reasons, providing logic, or giving evidence. It’s not wrong to dialogue with your kids. In fact, in most cases it’s wise to engage your children in discussions about life. However, when a child uses dialogue as a manipulation, you’ve left helpful conversation and have begun to encourage a negative pattern. Moving to the process stops the dialogue and teaches the child that a line has been crossed and what he’s doing is wrong.

Don’t Get Sucked In

The child who gets overwhelmed with anger or sadness needs to learn to stop the escalation. It’s important that you, as a parent, don’t contribute to the intensity with your own emotional response. You want to keep the problem the child’s problem. If you start yelling at your child or having your own temper tantrum, then you’re no longer handling the situation as a heart problem in your child. Now, you’ve moved the situation to something completely different. Instead of helping your child deal with the heart problem of demandingness, you are now engaged in conflict and need a whole different plan that involves conflict management training. Try to keep the problem the child’s problem by remaining firm and calm. Yelling isn’t necessary but firmness is.

The child who’s overwhelmed needs to take a break and disengage from life until she’s able to settle down and reestablish emotional control. If the issue happens in public, you may need to leave the situation, but most importantly, you’ll want to make a mental note of the problem, recognizing that your child needs help in this area. Setting boundaries at home and offering more no answers may be necessary to practice a better response.

Children who get upset or resort to demanding techniques need firmness but they also need training. Be sure to work with your child to develop a plan for the next time he’s disappointed. Disappointment is a common emotion and kids need a number of strategies for dealing with it. Likely the plan will match your child’s uniqueness. For some children, the solution is to walk away. For others, it’s to be quiet for a moment. Some children benefit from saying things to themselves such as, “Okay, maybe next time,” or “I’m disappointed but it isn’t worth it to get upset.”

Be Firm

Coaching your child through the process of responding well to a no answer takes time. Make the plan clear and continually talk about it and adjust as necessary. You may need to give a consequence to motivate your child to work on the problem. Your firmness over time teaches that the demandingness doesn’t work and actually hinders progress toward the goal. Continue to balance firmness with relationship.

Paul gave some valuable advice in Philippians 4:11-12 when he said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

The very next verse is an important one for a child who struggles in this area. Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” The reality is that you can live without wearing that shirt today or without having a milkshake with your lunch. It takes work, but contentment and handling disappointment are qualities that a child needs to develop, and now is the best time to work on it.

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