When Your Child Says "NO!"

It’s time for a bath, and your child says, “No!” It’s time for bed, and your child says, “No!” It’s time for your child to clean her or his room, and your child says, “No!” It’s time to do homework, and your child says, “No!”

“No!” heard as a rejection can trigger a lot of emotions as you ready for another struggle and confrontation with your child. And sometimes the rejection triggers additional memories such as what happened the last time your child said “No,” and what happened to you earlier that day, and even your memories of what your parents, grandparents, and teachers did when you said, “No!”

Your child’s “No!” can be heard as terribly disrespectful. After all, you are the parent; this is your child, and your child is not obeying your wishes. Talk with your friends and there is considerable agreement: A child’s “No!” directly challenges your authority. What do they do when their children do not comply? What did your parent do when you did not comply? What do you do?

Parents may believe their job is to keep things under control by making their children behave. When children don’t, parents may use various forms of power such as punitive threats or demands: “If you don’t stop this right now, I will ….” Parents may withhold their love: “I will not love you if you do not do as I say.” Alternatively, parents may offer moral tomes such as: “You’re not being a good boy.” Coercion in the form of praise and a promise of a reward is also a use of power: “Now, be a good girl, pick up your toys, and I will give you ice cream.”

No one – and this includes children – welcomes the exercise of authority. We feel resentment, we feel manipulated, and we resist when we feel we have no choice. The fact is, we – children and adults - only do things only when we are ready. In addition, children can only do things when they are developmentally able and when they have learned how.

The opposite of authority is understanding, compassion, empathy, and acceptance. These are part of an alternative way for how to respond to a child’s (and an adult’s) “No!” This alternative comes from a compassionate language called nonviolent communication (NVC). NVC is based on mutual respect, on learning from one another, and on being willing to contribute to another’s well being.[1] NVC was developed by the late Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg. He taught NVC to individuals and organizations throughout the world, and he qualified hundreds to become NVC trainers. Today people are learning NVC and using it in their personal relationships and in their work in, for example, schools, government positions, corporations, health care, prisons, and social change agencies.

A basic understanding in NVC is that behaviors are the strategies we use to satisfy our needs. An NVC insight is that when someone (your child or another adult) says “No!” they are not rejecting you. They are not being stubborn or obstinate. Saying “No!” is a strategy for saying “YES!” to meeting their own needs. When someone says “No,” they are saying “YES!” to something that is important to them in this moment.

Instead of trying to make others do what we want; instead of assuming our parental role is to be authoritative and in charge, we can connect meaningfully with children (and adults too) and work together so that everyone’s needs are met. This requires us to not judge or evaluate our children (and adults too) as right or wrong, as good or bad. Dr. Rosenberg explained it this way: “We need to be able to tell children whether what they’re doing is in harmony with our needs, or in conflict with our needs, but to do it in a way that doesn’t stimulate guilt or shame on the child’s part.”[2] 

The intent of NVC communication is to honestly express ourselves to others and to empathically hear others. Honesty and empathy are expressed through four parts: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. At first, NVC may sound like a formula and feel unnatural. Soon, however, it will feel ordinary. 

Inbal Kashtan, an NVC trainer, offered this example with a parent and her two-year-old:[3]

Parent: Hey, it’s time to leave to go to Grandpa’s.

Child: NO! NO! NO!

Parent: Are you enjoying what you're doing and want to continue doing it? (Instead of hearing the “no,” the parent listens with empathy and understanding and hears what the child is saying “yes” to by guessing her feelings—pleasure, and her needs—play and choice.)

Child: YES! I want to keep gardening!

Parent: You're really having fun gardening?

Child: Yes!

Parent: I'm enjoying seeing how fun it is for you. I'm worried because I like getting to places when I say I will. (Instead of coming back with her own “no,” the parent expresses her feelings and her need for responsibility.) 


If we want to get to Grandpa’s when I told him we'll be there, this is the time to leave. So would you be willing to get into the car seat now? (Mom offers a solution request that lets her daughter know what Mom would like at this moment that may help Mom meet her needs.)

Child: NO! I want to garden now!

Parent: I'm confused about what to do. I like when you do things you enjoy, and I also want to do what I said I was going to do. (Mom is showing her daughter that she cares about meeting both their needs.)

Would you be willing to go into the car seat in 5 minutes so we could get there soon? (Mom offers another solution request that might meet both their needs.

Child: Okay.

The four components of Nonviolent Communication are: Observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

Observations

An observation is what we have seen or heard. Observations differ from judgments, evaluations, or interpretations. For example, it’s time for a bath, and your child says, “No!” A judgmental response would be to say, “Don’t say ‘no.’ That’s being rude.” But we – and children too - dig in our heels when we are judged; we may disagree, deny, or even become aggressive.

In NVC, an observation is linked to statements of feelings and needs and without evaluation: “When I say it’s bath time, and I hear (an observation) you say “No,” I wonder if you are feeling irritated (the child’s feeling) because you want to continue playing (the child’s need)?” Your child may reply, “Yes!” Children recognize when they have been heard without judgment, and they are often more open to hearing more including our own feelings and needs.

You see your older child take toys from her younger sister. A judgmental comment would be, “Stop that! It’s wrong to take her toys.” Alternatively, a statement of observation is linked to statements of feelings and needs: “I’m frustrated (the parent’s feeling) when I see you take your sister’s toys (an observation), because I have a need for cooperation (the parent’s need) when you play.” Instead of demanding, “How many times do I have to tell you to clean up the kitchen,” say, “I am feeling frustrated (the parent’s feeling) when I see the kitchen (an observation), because I really need support (the parent’s need) to keep the house clean.”

Feelings

Feelings are our emotional experience and physical sensations associated with our needs that have been met or that remain unmet. Remarkably, when our needs are satisfied, we feel varieties of happiness. We may feel excited, inspired, joyful, peaceful, grateful, and living. When are needs are not met, we feel varieties of unhappiness. We may feel confused, tense, annoyed, afraid, embarrassed, and sad.[4]

We can name and connect with our feelings, describe our inner experience, and not describe our evaluations and judgments of other people. We could say, “I feel sad,” rather than blame another: “I feel like you don’t care for my feelings.” When we describe our feelings, we also express what’s important to us. We could then connect with empathy and together meet both of our needs.

Needs

Needs are an essential part of our shared human experience. Needs are what is most important to us core values, and we engage constantly to satisfy our needs. We have physical needs such as food, shelter, sleep, and safety. We also have needs such as compassion, connection, communication, independence, meaning, understanding, play, affection, love, and peace.[5]

NVC instructs that the needs of one person cannot be satisfied at the expense of another. In other words, I cannot use personal or other forms of power to meet my needs. I cannot blame, criticize, threaten, or demand. I can accomplish my needs through non-violent means, and this requires your needs are satisfied too. This is not compromise; this is not sacrifice. Instead, we can connect with one another, cooperate, and work together. We can communicate and creatively resolve issues that otherwise prevent both of us from satisfying our needs.

Requests

We can express our feelings and needs. Expressing empathy compassionately connects us with another’s feelings and needs. We then more deeply understand one another, connect, and work together so that both of our needs are met. We do this by making requests. Requests in NVC are an alternative to making judgments, evaluations, and demands. Dr. Rosenberg described the difference:

One of the most unfortunate results of making our objective to get our children to do what we want, rather than having our objective be for all of us to get what we want, is that eventually our children will be hearing a demand in whatever we are asking. And whenever people hear a demand, it’s hard for them to keep focus on the value of whatever is being requested, because, as I said earlier, it threatens their autonomy, and that’s a strong need that all people have. They want to be able to do something when they choose to do it, and not because they are forced to do it. As soon as a person hears a demand, it’s going to make any resolution that will get everybody’s needs met much harder to come by.[6]

NVC identifies two types of request: requests for connection and requests for solutions. We connect first, then strategize how to meet our needs.

It’s bath time, and your child says, “No!” You reply with empathy, “When I see hear you say ‘no,’ are you feeling irritated because you want to continue playing, and would you like more time?”

Next comes a connection request to determine if you will get some cooperation for a strategy you have in mind to meet each ones needs. You ask, “Would you be willing to stop playing in five minutes and talk with me about bath time?” If your child agrees, you can then share your needs and offer a solution request: “It’s important to me that you are all cleaned up, and I know you want to keep playing. Would you be willing to take your bath in five minutes?” These are not compromises; you are intent on hearing your child’s feelings and needs. You can make a connection request: “Would you tell me how you feel about this?” You may make a connecting request for your child to hear your feelings and needs too: “Would you tell me what you heard me say?”

Parental demands may not take as long. “I said, take your bath.” But demands leave everyone frustrated, resentful, drained, and more. Speaking with compassion makes meaningful connections; expressions of joy and love are more likely to occur. Children, when heard without judgment or evaluation, know they are accepted and cherished. They will, from a very young age, participate in developing strategies with you so that their and your needs are met.

You have to be willing to hear their “No!” and understand they are saying “YES!” to their own needs. We then work together to meet both of our needs. Children as young as two or three are able to offer strategies that meet everyone’s needs. Younger children are able to give feedback to strategies offered by parents. In time, children become confident that their needs are respected by their parents; children become confident that they are respected. They then naturally consider the needs of others and readily act to meet them.

We have this choice: We can hear our child’s “No!” with judgment and evaluation, and then make threatening demands. Or, we can connect with empathy and understand our child also has needs. We can make observations, express our feelings and needs, make requests for connecting, and then strategize for having both of our needs met. When life is not about reacting to demanding dominations, life is about expressing joyful love and acceptance. 

References:

[1] Marshall Rosenberg. Raising children compassionately. https://www.cnvc.org/Raising-Children-Compassionately

[2] Marshall Rosenberg. Raising children compassionately. https://www.cnvc.org/Raising-Children-Compassionately

[3] Paraphrased from Inbal Kashtan. Hearing the “yes” in the “no.” https://www.cnvc.org/yes-in-no

[4] Feelings Inventory. http://www.cnvc.org/Training/feelings-inventory

[5] A needs inventory. http://www.cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory

[6] Marshall Rosenberg. Raising children compassionately. https://www.cnvc.org/Raising-Children-Compassionately