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What Do You Do When Your Child Says No?

Here’s a question that was recently posted to my facebook page:

“So what do you suggest our response should be when it’s a flat No from our kids (and a No that when pushed against to leads to explosive behaviour?) It’s difficult to train a strong-willed child that doesn’t want to be trained. I agree that practice does help but some kids are really wired differently.”

And here’s what I said in response!

Thank you for this comment! I agree wholeheartedly that some kids are really wired differently, and it isn’t easy to train a strong-willed child, because they do not want to be trained!

It’s not really possible to suggest a specific response that you could apply in your situation, without knowing a lot more about your situation. But generally speaking, when kids just refuse and say No, you need two things: One, you need an effective accountability system that you apply when the child doesn’t listen. This may mean, Consequences. And two, you need an effective response to their explosive response to that system.

This is where so many problems come in – it’s not that accountability doesn’t work with strong-willed or oppositional kids, and it’s not that explosion-management doesn’t work – instead, it’s that the accountability system and the response to the child’s push-back aren’t 1) designed or 2) implemented correctly. A lot of the mainstream approaches to accountability and anger-management don’t work with these differently-wired kids. As an example, when it comes to accountability, a lot of parents think that taking special things away works. It doesn’t. As another example, when it comes to explosive behavior, a lot of folks subscribe to approaches like feelings-identification, or using your words, or taking deep calming breaths. These things don’t work when emotions are running really high, as they often are with strong-willed kids.

So the things that are actually effective with strong-willed kids, can be counter-intuitive, and effective interventions, while they aren’t rocket science, they do have multiple components. As an example, an effective accountability system needs to be delivered in a neutral, objective way – otherwise, you’re engaging your child’s resistance.

When I work with families we always start with the explosion management, because you can’t train a child who melts down unless you first know how to handle the meltdown. “Handling a meltdown” means different things for different families, but the general principles for meltdowns are, allow them, don’t resist them, normalize them – AND, enforce safe expression. This usually means a designated place – even if it’s just a tent in the living room or a couch in the corner – where the anger can be expressed safely.

And then, of course, you need to teach your child to use the safe alternatives. A lot of kids resist this at first, but kids’ resistance doesn’t mean the strategy won’t work! My practice is focused on strong-willed, oppositional and defiant kids, and I work with a lot of kids with aggressive and/or violent behavior. The broader strategies I’ve described here work very well with these kids, but as you know, when it comes to practical application, there’s no one-size-fits-all tool out there, and it does take a minute!