Many young parents must have had such devastating experiences:

It is difficult to say ‘no’ to your child. On the occasions you must say no, how will he/she respond? They usually don’t take it well. They may talk back, cry, scream, or have some of the worst tantrums that only those who have experienced will know of. In general, children respond negatively to ‘no’s regardless of context. Even more embarrassing, children are ‘smart’ as they know how to put on a show in public. They tend to make unreasonable requests where there are many people, and to respond to your ‘no’s with a dreaded tantrum. Passers-by may give you a judgmental look that makes you feel embarrassed and at the same time sorry about your own parental skills. It is one of parents’ worst nightmares to have their child lose control and make a scene in public. 

Our behavior analysts often receive letters from parents calling for help: Should I just give in to my child all the time? How can I say ‘no’ to my child’s unreasonable requests in a tantrum-free manner? How do I get my child to listen to me?

The answer to these questions is positive. Let’s get into it now! 

First of all, as a parent, you know your child’s likes and dislikes. Pull out a paper, draw a scale of preference, and rank their likes and dislikes of what they like to eat and play on the scale.

Then let’s start to practice in real life!

Step one, WAIT for a good moment.

For example, wait until your child approaches you and makes a request, such as, “Mom, I’d like to have some Chips Ahoy! cookies.”

Step two, TALK to your child in a calm tone, “No, Mom doesn’t have Chips Ahoy!, but you can have an Oreo.”


At first, the alternative item you offer to your child must be FUNCTIONALLY identical with what he/she asks for. If your child wants something to eat, then it means that he/she is hungry. If you give him/her a toy, you are not meeting his or her needs.

Second, based on the preference scale, you also need need to make sure that the alternative item is the second or third preference to child’s requested item. Imagine what will happen if your child asks for Chips Ahoy! cookies and you give him/her a meat bun? The functions of a cookie and meat bun are the same, but the latter is not anywhere close to the cookie on the preference scale. Of course, he/she will be unhappy and throw a tantrum.  

Third, for children who simply can’t stand any ‘no’s from their parents, the parent can try to replace the requested item with something the child likes even more. To use the same example, when a child says, “Mom, I want to eat Chips Ahoy!” You can respond, “No sweetie, I don’t have Chips Ahoy!, but I happen to have a piece of chocolate. You can have it if you want.” Most children will forget about the Chips Ahoy! and be perfectly happy with the better alternative.  This also helps them start to understand that when Mom says ‘no’, she may have a better alternative. 

Finally, when the child gets used to your saying ‘no’, you can gradually downgrade the alternative items to what is equally preferred.

Step three, OBSERVE your child’s reaction.

If your child accepts the alternatives, Mazel Tov! Give your child the alternative item right away. You may also want to give him/her some verbal compliments. An “Attaboy!” might well suffice. Our behavioral analysts encourage parents to seize opportunities to train their child to get used to ‘no’s. However, DO NOT overdo it. You don’t want to seize EVERY opportunity for training. Even adults do not like to be rejected all the time, let alone children. Once you feel that your child will be more or less receptive to alternatives, try to have other family members use the same strategies with your child. After all the family members have passed this phase, you can move on to the next stage, which is to replace the requested item with an alternative that he/she may not like as much. To still use the same example, when your child asks for Chips Ahoy!, you can respond with something like ‘No, I don’t have Chips Ahoy! right now, but you can have an animal biscuit.” If your child accepts, don’t be stingy with your compliments. Feel free to pat his/her shoulder, caress his/her hair and say, “You’re doing great!”. Finally, it’s time to get in touch with reality. It’s time to replace the requested item with no alternative, like ‘No, I don’t have any Chips Ahoy! now”. When your child accepts this fact without any crying, you should give him/her acknowledgement and encouragement, like, ‘Good boy, we are going to buy some Chips Ahoy! this weekend.” Some parents might ask, what’s the next step? When can we move on to the stage without any compliments? The answer is that we always should continue complimenting the child when they respond well.

Step four, ACCEPT that reality is definitely more difficult than the ideal scenario. 

If your child doesn’t accept any of the alternatives you offer, he/she will spare no effort in making you feel that saying ‘no’ is the worst decision. If this occurs, it is high time that you stick to the plan. Do not give in or offer anything he/she requests. In the meantime, make sure that your child does not hurt himself or others. Stay calm and try your best to ignore his/her unreasonable behaviors. Keep out grandparents who may be unable to bear one teardrop from your child. It is crucial that all family members stick to the intervention plan. Otherwise, all your efforts will be in vain. If any one of you gives in to your child, his/her behaviors may become even worse next time. Why? Because your behaviors give him/her the wrong notion that if he/she cries a little bit harder, he/she will get what he/she wants. In other words, the negative behaviors have been reinforced. Once your child has calmed down, you should offer him/her the alternative items rather than the requested one. 

Please note:

When you are beginning to train your child to accept ‘no’, his/her tantrums will become worse before they get better. That’s what behavior analysts call an “extinction burst”. To take the same example, if it normally takes your child crying for 3 minutes from him/her to get his/her favorite Chips Ahoy! Cookies, what do you imagine will happen if you don’t give in when the 3-minutes is up? He/she will certainly try to cry for another a couple of minutes to get what he/she wants! This is normal. There is no need to question the validity if the intervention plan that we’ve just taught you. It will work eventually. These extra couple of minutes are just something that you have go through in order to get to the end.

We can imagine that most parents cannot wait to try all these tips out on their children. However, we suggest that you carry out the training at home before doing it in a public place. There are too many uncontrollable factors in public places, especially if your child likes to throw horrible tantrums in front of strangers. Moreover, it can be dangerous if you accidentally lose your child in the crowd when that happens. Being embarrassed by your child in public, you may also feel pressure to give in to him/her. 

Training your child to accept ‘no’ is not easy, especially if your child has a long-time habit of crying accompanied with aggressive behavior. In these cases, an individualized intervention plan may be something you need. As a parent, you know if the situation with your child can be handled at home or by professionals. If the latter is the case, find a qualified behavioral analyst to help you as soon as possible. The longer the behavior is reinforced, the harder it is to change.Start now, and don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to your child.

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