Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Just Say "NO!" to Threats

“If you don’t stay in your room and get to sleep, I am going to put a gate up!”

"If you don't put all these toys away, I am throwing them in the trash."

Most parents have resorted to threats like these in a desperate attempt to get their kids to cooperate.

But this tactic often backfires because children pick up on the negativity and react to it.

It sends the message to your child that you are already anticipating that she isn’t going to comply and that you’re in for a fight. This puts kids in oppositional, power-struggle mode, especially children who are more defiant by nature. Negativity and threats tend to amplify their resistance and they just dig in their heels more firmly. (Not to mention that most of the time parents have no intention of following through on the threat and the child knows it.)

Instead, practice using a positive tone and approach when giving your child a direction.

It can make a big difference because it puts children in a more cooperative state of mind. Today’s newsletter offers a few strategies for getting your child to say “Yes!” way more than “NO!”

Offer "two great choices": “Tania, it's so awesome--you have two great choices! After lights-out, if you choose to stay in your room, your door can stay open. If you choose to come out of your room, we will be helpers and escort you back to bed. Then we'll put up our friend Mr. Gate or Mrs. Monkey Lock who will help you stay in your room so you can get yourself to sleep. You get to decide which choice you want to make.” Versus: “Tania, if you come out of your room after lights out the gate is going up!” (When I told a friend recently about this approach, he responded, "Oh yeah, I did that all the time with my kids. I called it the "choice of no choices"!)

Another example: "Brandon, you've got two great choices: if you choose to cooperate with tooth-brushing, we will have time for an extra book before bedtime; if you choose not to cooperate, I will need to brush your teeth which means we won't have time for the bonus book. You decide." Versus: “Brandon, if you don’t brush your teeth, there won’t be any books tonight!”

When you end your presentation of choices with the positive phrase, “you decide”, it reinforces the idea that you are not the one making the choice—your child is. You are just implementing the consequences of his decisions. When children feel forced to do something, the impulse is to refuse to comply as a way to maintain some sense of agency or integrity. And remember--you can’t control your children or make them do anything—and they know it. What you can control is the situation by setting clear boundaries and limits that you are able to implement. That is what guides and shapes children’s behavior. If your child makes a good choice, it results in a positive outcome for her. A poor choice leads to a less-desired outcome.

Direct, don’t correct: Children—especially highly sensitive, reactive children—tend to feel shamed and overwhelmed when being corrected. When they hear “no!” their brains become flooded with emotion and they are unable to think or problem-solve. This makes it much less likely they will comply and change their behavior in positive ways.

Instead, skip the “no” and go straight to what the expectation is—what they can do. For example, if a child gets up from the table before mealtime is over, instead of saying, “No getting up to from table. Sit back down right now or there will be no more food,” you might say: “Oh, we’re still sitting at the table” (as you tap his chair to provide a visual cue). Or, if a child goes for a toy when you’ve told her it’s time to get pjs on, you might respond: “We’re putting on pajamas now” (as you gently steer her away from the book and towards the task); versus, "If you don't get your pajamas on right now there will be no books." Last week at a preschool, there was a three-year-old who was desperate to push...anything, including friends. It was clear he wasn't doing this on purpose to be hurtful. His body just craved this sensory experience. I said to him: "Henry, you love to push. It feels so good to your body. Let's see how hard you can push against this wall." He immediately got into this activity and some of the other kids joined in. Then we made it a game. I showed them how to push themselves away from the wall and clap, to add a new dimension.

An important feature of this approach is that it requires a lot less language than we tend to use when we are frustrated and trying to get our children to cooperate. We launch into a lecture thinking we can convince our children to do the right thing, but this tends to have the opposite effect. When a limit is being set it’s stressful for kids—they have to stop doing something they enjoy in order to comply with someone else’s agenda. The more we talk, the more agitated and overstimulated children become, which escalates their frustration and interferes with their ability to regulate themselves and comply. This strategy also helps you self-regulate—all that lecturing tends to increase parents’ emotional intensity. Providing a clear direction is simpler, keeps everybody calmer, and makes you a more effective limit-setter.

First/Then: This strategy lets children know that there will be a time when they will be able to have or do what they want in the near future which can engender more cooperation. For example, Jason is headed for the basket of balls before he has put away his other toys. Using “First, Then”, his dad says, “Oh, do you want to play with the balls? Great idea! First we need to clean up these toys and then we can play with the balls.” Another example: "Ruby, you are thinking a lot about how much you want to go to the playground. First nap and then we're off to the park!" When you acknowledge and validate your child’s desire and confirm that she will be able to do what she wants to do eventually, you reduce the stress she typically experiences when she can’t get what she wants right away. This calms her and puts her in a more positive frame of mind, which makes her more willing to cooperate

I hope these suggestions help! If you have strategies you have found effective for engaging your child's cooperation, please send them along so I can share them in future newsletters.

Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: When It’s Not Okay to Say, “Okay?”

I have to give my mom credit for this insight. On a visit when my son was three, she pointed out that every time I gave him a direction, I ended it with “Okay?” She wondered why I would ask a question when I was not intending to give my son a choice (Sam, time to leave the playground, okay?) and noted that this might be confusing to him. Once I was aware of this dynamic, I realized that it had become a totally unconscious, reflexive response that I used constantly.Sam, time for bath, okay? Sam, time to get in the car, okay?I also began to notice that this was a pervasive phenomenon in every family I worked with. Twenty-five years later, as I visit home after home, I can confidently report that nothing has changed. We all fall prey to this pitfall. And it’s a problematic one, because it is confusing to children: they hear that they are being given a choice even though this is not their parents’ intention. When children don’t comply, it results in a lot of frustration and anger. I was at a home visit recently during which a mom kept asking her 2-year-old to, “Please take your feet off the kitchen table, okay?” After several requests the toddler turned to her mom and simply said, “No, I like them on the table.”

While it seems simple to just kick this unhelpful habit, that’s not how we operate as parents. These knee-jerk reactions tend to be pretty persistent. The only way most of us are able to make a change is to become conscious of what is driving us to act as we do—what the trigger is. Otherwise, the impulse wins out over what we know is “right” almost every time.

For me, and most parents I have talked with about this phenomenon, the root of our reaction lies in a discomfort with giving directions. It feels dictatorial and authoritarian, which is inconsistent with who we are and who we want to be as parents. We know how important it is to nurture children’s sense of agency and independence. Telling them what to do feels contrary to that goal.

The mental shift we need to make is seeing that children thrive when they know exactly what is expected of them. The same is true for adults. We feel less anxious, more in control and better able to complete tasks at work when our boss is clear about what the expectations are. This is precisely why children tend to behave better at school than at home: good teachers have no problem giving directions, and children love them all the same. Making marching orders crystal clear gives kids the information they need to make good choices. They clean up after snack so they can move on to an activity; they put the sandbox toys away so they can earn the privilege of playing with them the next time they go to the playground.

What to do?
Teach your child that a choice is something she gets to pick, while a direction is something she has to do. A choice might be offering her a cheese stick or apples slices for snack. A direction might be: “It's time to come to the table for dinner.” Labeling choices and directions helps your child understand the expectation: “Charlie, I have a direction for you: it’s time to put away the Magna-tiles and wash hands for dinner.” Or, “Laila, you have a choice: do you want to brush teeth before books or after books?” You can also call directions "jobs" as kids tend to respond very positively to this concept. It makes them feel important and competent: “Omar, your job is to put all the blocks back on the shelf.” When communicating a direction, be very careful not to start with, “can you” or end with “okay?” (“Can you get into you pjs?” Or, “It’s time to take a nap, okay?”)

You can also build choices in to the task you are directing your child to do.It’s time to set the table. Do you want to put the napkins down first or the plates?Or,It’s time to leave the playground. Do you want to hop like a bunny or take really big steps like a dinosaur to get to the car?

Click here for more on providing clear choices and expectations.

First Feelings: The Foundation of Healthy Development, Starting From Birth

Claire Lerner LCSW

It's so important for parents to help their child learn how to cope with their feelings. Learn how parents are their child's guide in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges, starting on day one.

It wasn’t that long ago that the conventional wisdom was that babies were pretty much blobs who didn’t think or feel much before they could speak in words around age 2. The idea that a 6-month-old could feel fear or anger, no less sadness and grief, was preposterous. But thanks to an explosion in research on infancy in the last 30 years, we now know that babies and toddlers are deeply feeling beings. Starting in the earliest months of life, well before they can use words to express themselves, babies have the capacity to experience peaks of joy, excitement, and elation. They also feel fear, grief, sadness, hopelessness, and anger—emotions that many adults understandably still find it hard to believe, or accept, that very young children can experience. Research has also shown that children’s ability to effectively manage their full range of emotions, also known as self-regulation—is one of the most important factors for success in school, work, and relationships into the long-term.

So a critical first step in helping your child learn to cope with her feelings is not to fear the feelings, but embrace them—all of them. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Sadness and joy, anger and love, can co-exist and are all part of the collection of emotions children experience. When you help your child understand her feelings, she is better equipped to manage them effectively.

One major obstacle in doing this that I see quite often in my work with parents is that they are operating under the false assumption that having a happy child means he needs to be happy all the time (something I still have to keep reminding myself despite the fact that my children are in their 20s!) Muscling through difficult experiences, mastering struggles, coping with sadness and grief, builds strength and resilience, and is ultimately what brings children a sense of contentedness and well-being.

What can parents do?

Starting in the earliest months, tune in to babies’ cues—their sounds, facial expressions, and gestures—and respond sensitively, which lets babies know their feelings are recognized and important. This might mean stopping a tickling game with a 4-month-old when she arches her back and looks away, signaling she needs a break. Or taking a 9-month-old to the window to wave good-bye to Mom when she is sad to see her leave for work.

Label and help toddlers cope with feelings.

Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, and disappointment can be overwhelming for young children. Naming these feelings is the first step in helping children learn to identify them, and it communicates to children that these feelings are normal. This might mean acknowledging an 18-month-old’s anger at having to leave the playground as you help him into the car seat; validating a 2-year-old’s frustration at his block tower falling again and again; or empathizing with a 3-year-old’s sadness that his grandparents are leaving after a long visit.

Don’t fear the feelings.

Feelings are not the problem. It’s what we do—or don’t do—with them that can be problematic. So listen openly and calmly when your child shares difficult feelings. When you ask about and acknowledge feelings, you are sending the important message that feelings are valued and important. Recognizing and naming feelings is the first step toward learning to manage them in healthy, acceptable ways over time.

Avoid minimizing or talking children out of their feelings.

This is a natural reaction—we just want to make the bad feelings go away. Don’t be sad. You’ll see Joey another day. But feelings don’t go away, they need to be expressed one way or another. Acknowledging a child’s strong feelings opens the door to helping her learn how to cope with them. You are sad Joey has to leave. You love playing with him. Let’s go to the window to wave good-bye and make a plan to see him again soon. When feelings are minimized or ignored, they often get expressed through aggressive words and actions, or by turning them inward, which can ultimately make children anxious or depressed.

Teach tools for coping.

If your 18-month-old is angry that iPad time is over, guide her to stamp her feet as hard as she can or to draw how angry she is with a red crayon. Help a 2-year-old who is frustrated at not being able to get the ball into the basket brainstorm other ways to solve the problem. Take a 3-year-old who is fearful about starting a new school to visit the classroom beforehand—meet the teachers and play on the playground—so that the unfamiliar can become familiar.

The fact is that our children’s emotional reactions trigger our own emotional reactions, which can lead to a knee-jerk need to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our child distress. But it’s important that we manage our own feelings and avoid this temptation, as it creates a missed opportunity to help children learn strong coping skills. Instead, see these experiences as teachable moments to help your child learn to name and manage the emotions—positive and negative—that add depth and color to our lives. Show your child that a full, rich life means experiencing both the ups and the downs. Feelings are not “good” or “bad”—they just are. You are your child’s guide in in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges. And it starts on day one.Most important to keep in mind is that having that second child is a gift to your first-born; it is not something that should make you feel guilty. At the same time, it’s important to be aware that your first-born picks up on the changes he senses are on the horizon, which causes anxiety about the unknown—how his family will change and what that means for him. Being sensitive to this will help you provide the support and reassurance he needs to adapt to this major life transition.