How to say “no” to kids

Do you feel like you’re always saying “no” to your child and not getting the response from them that you are looking for? Do you end up repeating yourself over and over, so frustrated you begin to yell or just given in to your toddler’s demands? Unfortunately, I hear this way too often from moms, so I wanted to give some tips on the art of saying “no” that will get your child to cooperate, understand and be safe.

To begin with, kids do much better when there are clear boundaries, routines, and structure to their day. Consistency is critical, not only with what you say but what you do. Your child is always watching you. The goal of discipline, especially in a young toddler, is to teach them to understand to get the desired result, it is not a punishment. So here’s my advice and strategies to making “no” count.

Tips on saying “no” to your child

Say no less often. Really? (Yup, it’s true.) Use it only when you mean it and when necessary. For example, to avoid dangers such as your toddler touching a hot stove, running into the street, hitting or biting. They will quickly learn that “no” means “no” — so don’t overuse it. Saying it all the time dilutes its effectiveness and confuses kids as to its importance.

Distractions work. Instead of repeating “no” over and over when they want something they can’t have, try distracting them with another item or engage them in a new activity. Be sure not to get into a battle with them (most toddlers are great at manipulation until we lose our patience and cave to their whining).

Catch them being good. So, you probably think you do this. And you probably do use praise. Most parents don’t realize it, but they tend to more often tell their child what not to do or what they are doing wrong rather than praising accepted good behavior. I recommend accentuating the positive way more often than the negative. Give a lot of attention and praise to the good behavior and efforts. If your child is playing nicely with his toys, give her a shout out that you noticed how attentive she is with her dolls. It also doesn’t have to be verbal praise — sometimes it’s just a touch or squeeze on their arm with a smile. Yes, this is called positive reinforcement, and it works!

Ignore bad behavior. I know this seems counterintuitive, but it works. Attention around a child’s misbehavior increases the unwanted behavior. At every age, kids like attention and sometimes they will even try to push your buttons to engage with them — even if you’re yelling, making idle threats or seem angry. Their goal is to be heard, get their way and to pay attention to them. How should you respond? I suggest “planned ignoring,” but it will only help to shape a child’s behavior if the child is getting positive attention most of the time. (see tip above) In addition, once the undesired “bad” behavior stops, step in with positive attention.

Here is an example: Your child is dropping food onto the floor from their high chair. Instead of saying, “No don’t do that,” ignore the action. As soon as she returns to eating appropriately, point it out and give some positive attention. With a smile say, “I love the way you use your spoon. Or say, “How clever you are to feed yourself,” rather than focusing on your child throwing the food on to the floor. By doing this, you continuously shape the behaviors you want to see more of, and the negative behaviors disappear.

Consistency is key. One of the hardest things is being consistent, especially when you are a mom with 1,001 things to do before the day ends. I advise to pick your battles and don’t make idle threats (follow through is very important). If you have a house rule that you only want kids eating in the kitchen and not in the TV room, you need to enforce it daily not every once in a while, or your little one won’t be clear on the rules. Also, be a role model for your kids because kids are always watching and your actions speak louder than words.

Parenting is hard, as a mom of three (one with special needs) I truly get it. I know how chaotic days can often be. Try your best to keep positive. Your children will make mistakes and test your limits. They will be loud at times, whine, stomp their feet and want everything their way. This is part of child development and an ongoing learning process. Fill most of the day with love, affection, and consistency. Shaping behaviors, just like healthy habits takes time, energy and patience. I guarantee it works.

Jennifer Trachtenberg is a pediatrician and can be reached at Ask Dr. Jen.

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