How to say “No” effectively

Never say No!

Last night I went to an interesting evening on “How to say No! Effectively” organised by my daughters pre-school and hosted by a couple of psychologists. A group of c. 30 mums, most looking tired and harassed, 3 lone fathers, and one couple, gathered in the hope of finding the magic cure for toddler tantrums when our repeated use of “No” has no effect. But, joking apart, the topic is a serious one as anyone who has ever had to deal with a toddler tantrum will well know.

I’ve pulled out a couple of the themes from the evening which I thought were helpful to share here on Kalila Community. You may or may not agree with all of the points and that’s great. Every family is different and has its own dynamic. These are quite simply some areas for healthy debate.

Identify if it’s a tantrum or a “need”:

Too often we perhaps misinterpret our child’s tantrum, when in actual fact they may have a genuine need; hungry, tired, thirsty, need the bathroom, in pain etc. Allow the necessary time to investigate with your child what the cause of their outburst is as it may be something solvable which by default will calm them.


Adapt our adult schedule to that of our child:

They talked lots about us adults believing our children should fit in with our schedule when in fact it should be the other way round (at least in the early years). With busy lives it is often hard to fit everything in but where possible they recommended working out what schedule best suits our children with regards to eating, sleeping etc. Examples of this included:

  • our child having a major tantrum everyday at 6:30pm as they wait for dinner at 7pm. Why not make dinner 6:30pm? The tantrum could simply be a sign of hunger (as per the point above re identifying if it’s really a tantrum or a need). Be flexible. Adapt to the child’s schedule.
  • being late for work and trying to coerce our child into dressing quickly etc which may then trigger a tantrum as they don’t understand the urgency. As the adult, the advice was to organise our schedule better, get up 15 minutes earlier, to allow time to fit everything in. Take control of the situation and limit the likelihood of a tantrum.
  • Daddy’s on his way home and wants to see the children before bed but it’s late and the children are getting cranky. Their advice was put them to bed. Much as its lovely for daddy to seem them, ultimately this is addressing his wish rather than meeting their need.


Give them space to experiment

Children are creative and they need space to try new things. Let them eat and don’t worry about the food dropped on the floor. Let them dress themselves and don’t worry about the higgledy piggledy outfit they chose. Let them paint and don’t worry about the mess. The idea being communicated was that we often put our own restrictions on children eg. if they drop food it means we (or someone) will have to clean it up and so rather than create hassle for ourselves we limit what our children can do. “No, I’ll do it!” And invariably this can lead to a tantrum which in actual fact is just their way of telling us “hey, let me try!”


Make a rule and stick to it

Consistency is king! Or queen! If we give a rule, then we need to honour it. We can certainly explain why the rule exists (to older children) but we shouldn’t deviate. Routine is an important learning ground for children and even if they have a tantrum about a specific rule, if the rule stands firm, then over time their tantrums will diminish and they will simply accept the rule. The example given was holding hands whilst crossing the road. One mother explained that her daughter had a tantrum every day on the way to nursery because she didn’t want to hold hands whilst crossing the road. Having explained her route to nursery it seemed that it was about “freedom” for her daughter (aged 3yrs) who loved the excitement of being free to explore. However, the rule was there for her safety so the psychologist was very clear on the need to honour the rule and not to say “ah today there is no car and you can cross by yourself”.


Should we punish a tantrum?

This debate, as you can imagine, went on for a long time. Should we punish children’s bad behaviour? What constitutes a punishment? And so on and so forth….

Having gone through all of the above, the verdict was that there are simply occasions where a child will have a tantrum to be wilful, because they can, to get a reaction etc. And on occasion, you may need to punish them and let them know that their behaviour is not acceptable. The general consensus was to punish “thoughtfully” and the next two points address this.


Give a clear “timing” for any punishment

Some parents have a tendency to send their child away (physically and psychologically) when they have had a tantrum eg. “Go to your room!” “don’t talk to me!” “ I don’t want to see you or hear another sound from you!”. There is a natural reaction to want to distance ourselves from a conflict, especially child tantrums which can be difficult to resolve as you cannot reason with a child the same way as with an adult. The advice was to be very clear with any punishment given and to stipulate a time for the punishment as a young child has no concept of time and can become further distressed by being sent away indefinitely eg. “Sit on the step and count to 20, and they we can talk”


Don’t punish tantrums by withdrawing affection

After a tantrum or after being punished (sitting on the naughty step as per the above example) a child may the seek comfort and a cuddle. However cross we may feel they advised against withdrawing affection and saying for example, “I am not cuddling you because I am cross”.  Draw a line in the sand and move on.  It is important to let children know that if they have a tantrum, there is a punishment but once completed everything goes back to normal.


Distract but do not reward bad behaviour

Sometimes an effective way to stop a tantrum is to offer a distraction. Take the example of children playing and having an outburst over a toy or game. Rather than let the outburst run on, then it can be useful to offer and alternative e.g “if you calm down then we can play this other game together”. Be careful what you offer as a distraction. Avoid rewarding them with food or television. Keep these things as they are; food is simply food and the television is simply something we watch sometimes. Don’t turn them into treats!


So these were some of the more interesting points which caused the most discussion. How do you deal with toddler tantrums? Write to us at kalila community and tell us your story.