Is your child struggling with accepting “no” for an answer? Are you exhausted and at your wits end with dealing with tantrums and melt downs every time you tell your child they can’t have something? If so, 1) you’re not alone and 2) keep reading because I have some tips for you in this blog post!

In my private practice as a behavior analyst, one of the most common skills I teach to the children I work with is how to accept “no”! By accepting “no”, I mean responding appropriately (without engagement in tantrums, crying, whining, etc.) when told “no” following a request for a preferred item or activity. This is something that many children struggle with. Younger children and children with special needs may struggle even more with accepting “no” appropriately. Therefore, it is important that we teach our children how to accept “no” rather than engage in problem behavior. Yes, I said “teach” because accepting “no” is a skill that is often difficult for children to acquire.

And if we’re being honest, no one likes to hear the word “no”. Even adults have difficulty accepting “no” and dealing with rejection.  We even have trouble telling other adults “no” and often say “yes” to things that we don’t desire or later regret because we want to avoid conflict or awkward moments.

So really we shouldn’t be surprised when our children have trouble in this area as well. Nonetheless, this does not make it any less frustrating, stressful, or even embarrassing for us as parents. Therefore, below I have included a very effective strategy for teaching little ones to accept “no” appropriately without engagement in problem behavior.

Step by Step Strategy for Teaching Your Child to Accept Being Told “No”:

  1.  When your child requests for an item or activity that is unavailable, calmly respond by saying “No” and immediately offer an alternative option that is at least as equally (if not more) reinforcing (aka, preferred or valued) as the item requested. For example, “No, you can’t have a cookie right now but you can have a gummy.”
  2. Evaluate your child’s reaction to your offer. Did they seem to tolerate or accept the alternative? Or did they     engage in problem behavior or have trouble accepting the alternative? – If your child accepted the alternative (without crying, whining, snatching, hitting, etc.), provide enthusiastic praise and give them the alternative item. Using the example above, give your child the gummy bear.
  3. If your child did not accept the alternative and instead engaged in problem behavior (crying, whining, snatching, saying no, yelling, etc.), he or she has lost access to both items (cookie and gummy bear). Do not allow your child to have these items and be sure not offer anything else.
  4. Do not give attention to (aka ignore) any problem behaviors that are not harmful to themselves or others.
  5. Practice “accepting no” several times throughout the day and with a variety of items/activities to allow for your child more opportunities to acquire this skill.
  6. Once your child can appropriately accept alternatives that are as equally preferred as the initial item requested, it is time to gradually shift the value toward a more neutral option. For example, introduce an item that is a little less preferred and then slowly decrease the value of the alternative item offered until eventually you can respond to your by saying “no” without offering an alternative item or activity.
  • The gradual progression may look like this (please note, this is just an example, every child is different and preferences will vary):
    • “No, you can’t have a cookie right now but you can have a gummy.” (alternative is equally reinforcing/preferred)
    • “No, you can’t have a cookie but you can have goldfish.” (alternative is a little less reinforcing/preferred)
    • “No, you can’t have a cookie but you can have a cracker.” (alternative is even less reinforcing/preferred)
    • “No, you can’t have a cookie.” (no alternative is offered)

Other Considerations & Tips

  • Be consistent and be sure NOT to give in. If your child begins engaging in problem behavior (i.e., a tantrum or whining) after being told “no” and you give your child access to that item or activity, you are in essence teaching your child that tantrums or whining will get them what they want. In other words, mom/dad doesn’t mean what they say and tantrums or whining will continue to work for me in the future to get what I want. Be strong momma, ignore these problem behaviors and do not give in!
  • Additionally, it is also important to remember to no longer offer access to the alternatives if your child engages in problem behavior (i.e., whining) when the alternatives are initially offered. If you were to still give them the alternative item or activity following problem behavior, you are teaching your child that they can still get something even if they engage in problem behavior.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away. I know ignoring problem behavior or even repetitive requesting or nagging can be difficult, so feel free to walk away from your child during this time. If your child is safe and not engaging in behavior that is harmful to themselves or others, it is okay for you to walk while they calm down.
  • Be aware of the “extinction burst”. An extinction burst occurs when a behavior that was previously reinforced (in other words previously “paid off” for the child) is no longer reinforced (or working for them) so the behavior may temporarily increase in frequency, intensity or duration. For example, let’s say your child previously engaged in tantrums after being told “no” for candy and previously you would give in and give them the candy. However, you have read this blogpost and no longer give your child candy after they engage in a tantrum. Your child may begin engaging in longer or more intense tantrums to see if that will get him or her what they want. Again, stay strong and don’t let this behavior “pay off.” These behaviors will eventually decrease when your child realizes they aren’t “working” for them anymore. So remember behavior often gets worse before it gets better.

If your child is engaging in intense problem behaviors that may be harmful to themselves or others, be sure to seek consultation or support from a certified behavior analyst like myself or someone in your area.