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No, You Can't Have Ice-Cream for Dinner! How to say No to Your Preschooler

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal 10 Mins Read

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal


Your child's pleading for your smartphone again or asking for another bar of chocolate, but you don't have the heart to deny her request. Use these strategies to say No without ever saying the word

Toddler to Parent
No, You Can't Have Ice-Cream for Dinner! How to say No to Your Preschooler

No! Perhaps one of the most frequent words to come out of your mouth when you talk to your child.
Saying No helps draw a safe fence around your child, lets her know what to expect, and helps her learn how to behave appropriately. It also helps your child learn valuable life skills, such as learning to wait, dealing with discomfort, and evaluating her demands.

Find alternative ways to say No. Here, Muhil's mother could say, "Definitely, sweetie, you can eat ice cream after you finish your dinner." This is a good way of turning a NO into a YES and teaching your child to meet you midway.However, many parents find saying No to their preschooler an uphill task.
Let's examine some of the reasons why parents find it difficult to say No to their child:

  1. I don't want to upset my child.
  2. I'm very tired and cannot handle the power struggle.
  3. I'm scared my child may throw a tantrum.
  4. My child should get what I didn't.
  5. My child will love me more if I say Yes.

Now let's understand these reasons, why they don't hold, and what we can do instead:

Reason 1: I don't want to upset my child.

Muhil, a 3-year-old, wants ice cream for dinner. His mother, feeling guilty due to not being able to spend time with him owing to her 14-hour workdays, doesn't want to say No. In the few moments they spend together in the evenings, she doesn't want to see him upset.

This reason may emanate from your desire as a parent to see your child happy and smiling all the time. And while that may be something most parents across the world aspire to, remember that you don't need to make your child happy all the time.

When you focus on raising happy children, you end up implicitly teaching them that anytime they're not happy, life is bad. It's this attitude that makes you act against your better judgment, letting your child eat ice cream for dinner, letting him watch TV beyond the agreed-upon limit, or giving in to every whim and demand that he makes.

But what your child learns from this is that a lack of happiness can be fixed with stuff that comes from the outside, that things can make him happy.

What you can do instead: Find alternative ways to say No. Here, Muhil's mother could say, "Definitely, sweetie, you can eat ice cream after you finish your dinner." This is a good way of turning a NO into a YES and teaching your child to meet you midway.

Reason 2: I'm very tired and cannot handle the power struggle.

Samara, a 4-year-old, wants to ride on the carousel at the fair, just when it's time to return home. Her father, after being out the whole day with her at the fair, is tired and wants to skip the long queue. But he knows that she won't give in without a huge fight.

Sometimes, it's just easier to give in to your child than to explain, reason, or argue. Moreover, it's just easier to say Yes when your child is determined to have her way.

But a child's need to rebel arises from her unfulfilled need for power and autonomy to make her own choices. This means, your child may yell at you or defy you when she's feeling powerless and seeking a feeling of control.

What you can do instead: If your child needs power, it's okay to give her power. Just do so within your parenting boundaries. One of the most effective ways of giving your child power is to enable her to make choices. Samara's father could say, "I wish you could ride on the carousel. The problem is it'll make us late and Mom would worry about you. You can either read a storybook in the car or play for an extra five minutes here."

If Samara rejects both options, then it's perfectly reasonable to put the onus on her. Her father can say, "Well, we're here for another five minutes. What else can you do?" This allows the child to think and make her own choice an absolute win-win!

Reason 3: I'm scared my child may throw a tantrum.

Mansi and her mum went to the supermarket to buy veggies. Just as they were checking out, the 5-year-old spotted a candy cart and started pestering her mum to buy her some candy. Her mum didn't want to buy candy, but she was scared of the impending tantrum (and the embarrassment that it would cause her in public).

Tantrums are the bane of every parent's parenting journey. But the trouble starts when you perceive a tantrum as misbehavior. Tantrums are actually your child's way of expressing his overwhelming feelings, those big feelings he can't express through words. If the tantrum is intentional (that is, the child's way of getting what he wants), don't negotiate or give in; instead, set firm limits. If the tantrum is emotional (that is, the child is struggling with big feelings and doesn't know how to express them), no amount of reasoning or logic will help. In such a situation, your best bet would be to support your child through those feelings.

What you can do instead: Following ParentCircle's P.E.A.C.E. process can help. It entails:

  • Pause: Stop and reset, don't react. Keep your cool, tell yourself it's not an emergency.
  • Empathize: Don't say, "Stop it! What are you doing?" Instead, connect to your child by saying, "I know you're upset. I'm here for you."
  • Await: Help your child calm down. Try saying, "Would you like a hug?"
  • Communicate: Once your child is calm, he'll be more receptive to your feedback. Talk about what you observed and how you felt when he had a tantrum. Allow him to explain himself.
  • Engage: Now that your child has heard you, you could help him understand how he could handle his big emotions next time without throwing a tantrum. Use this opportunity to help him learn about appropriate behavior. (And by the way, if you skip the previous steps and go straight into trying to set boundaries, it can fall flat!)

Reason 4: My child should get what I didn't.

Ravi, a 4-year-old, is pampered by his father, who spends thousands of rupees every month on buying his son toys, clothes, and accessories. Coming from a household where his parents struggled to make ends meet, Ravi's father is determined not to let his son experience hardships. So, he says Yes to all of Ravi's demands.

This reason arises from fear. Fear that your child may miss out on the good things of life. Like Ravi's father, most parents are driven by the mistaken belief that they can completely control their child's experiences, or that they can shield him from every discomfort or pain. Shielding your child from the everyday stresses of life may give him short-term gains, but in the long run, it's unlikely to be helpful. If your child has always been shielded from pain, hell not know how to handle discomfort. If he never knows what it's like to have to wait to get what he wants, he'll never appreciate anything he has.

What you can do instead: Instead of preventing your child from experiencing pain, equip him with the skills he needs to overcome pain:

  • Empathize with your child. You can say, "I understand you really want the doll. I know it's disappointing you can't have it now."
  • Help your child express painful feelings of disappointment, frustration, and anger by naming the feeling. This allows your child to develop an emotional vocabulary that will help him talk about his feelings. Also, provide opportunities to identify feelings in others (That child was just pushed off the swing. What do you think he's feeling?)
  • Be a role model by pointing out times when you're willing to keep working despite feeling difficult feelings (I'm nervous about my presentation but I worked hard for it, so I'm going to make it).

Reason 5: My child will love me more if I say Yes.

Simran, a 3-year-old, likes to watch videos on her mum's mobile phone. Of late, she has started asking for her mum's mobile phone even while eating her meals. Her mum doesn't want to refuse because she feels that if Simran is happy, she will see her mum as a kind and caring parent.

It's normal to want your child to love you, but if you're uncomfortable with your child feeling sad, anxious, or angry, this means you're attempting to take ownership of your child's emotions. This hardly serves the purpose, as you can't ever control what someone feels. When you give in to your child's demands all the time, your child assumes that she (and not you, the parent) is in charge.

Having your child be in charge is not optimal for her development. She's not developmentally ready to be solely responsible for deciding the rules. Your child needs you to set firm limits for her to feel safe and learn valuable life skills.

What you can do instead: Instead of letting your child make the rules, you can take charge:

  • Set firm rules and expectations. They let your child know what to expect. Simran's mother can start by drawing up rules regarding screen time, and then sticking to them. Being consistent, even though your child may whine or get angry, is crucial to making limits and rules work. If your child throws tantrums and you find yourself triggered, use the P.E.A.C.E. process described above.
  • Prepare your child by letting her know what the plan is. For example, giving a heads-up is often useful (Simran, your screen-time limit is nearly over. You have five more minutes) and prevents frustration.

Finally, yes, you must say the NOs. But keep those NOs for the important matters. Remember, once you change a NO to a YES just to avoid your child's pestering, your NO will lose its meaning and value. So, use a gentle voice and remain firm with your NOs. For every NO, always let your child know what he can do instead so that he can focus on the things he can do!

In a nutshell

  • Saying No draws a safe fence for your child. It helps her know what you expect from her and keeps you in charge.
  • Some parents find it difficult to say No for a host of reasons.
  • Some ways in which you can say No effectively are: finding alternative ways of saying No, giving choices, using the P.E.A.C.E process, and setting firm rules and expectations.

What you can do right away

  • Say a definite No instead of We'll see or Probably and explain the reason, instead of saying, Because I said so.
  • Follow a NO to something with a YES to something else (No, we shouldn't jump on the sofa. Let's go jump outside).
  • Prepare your child, so he knows what to expect (We're visiting Arnav's house. I know you love playing there. But we'll leave at 5 p.m. sharp. We need to be back before dinner time).
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