5 Alternatives to Saying ‘No’

Florence Ann Romano with child in princess costume

Creative solutions for when ‘no’ just isn’t cutting it anymore

“No.” It’s usually one of the first words kids pick up on (second to “mama,” of course! 😉), but they don’t always like it. There are those days when “no” just isn’t working, a meltdown is on the horizon and everybody is at their wit’s end! After years of caring for kids from all different families and backgrounds, I’ve developed a few creative solutions. Try these tactics as alternatives to saying “no.”

1. Ask Questions

This is by far one of the most effective alternatives to “no” that I’ve found. By asking questions, you help the child start to understand the reason that you’re saying ”no.” I always start by asking, “What are the rules about ____?” which prompts them to repeat back to me what I know that they know. For example, if they’re asking for a second cookie when they know that they’re only allowed one treat at lunchtime, I would say, “What are the rules about treats at lunch?” Of course, they’ll probably come back with, “Just this once!” But by restating the rules themselves they can better understand why they can’t have another cookie.

2. Offer An Alternative  

Let’s say the child won’t let the second cookie go. You can make a counter offer! David Walsh, Ph.D., author of No: Why Kids—Of All Ages—Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, told Parents Magazine, “Most toddlers just want what they want, so the parents need to calmly, firmly and warmly offer the healthy snack in spite of a toddler's protests."

This applies across the board. Instead of giving into what they want, suggest an alternative option.

3. Explain

This approach works really well with asking questions. If you’ve had them repeat the house rules already and they’re still not budging, offer up a simple explanation. While it’s super tempting to just say, “Because I said so,” kids don’t understand what that means.

Children don’t fully understand complicated reasons, either. However, a simple explanation can help them understand that their behavior is wrong. For example, if what they’re doing is dangerous or hurtful, explain why it’s not OK: “We don’t throw things at our friends—we hug and love our friends.”

4. Distract

I’ve found that distracting the child and suggesting another activity is a great way to avoid a meltdown. If the child is really upset and determined to get their way, I usually offer that we take some quiet time. We’ll have a snack and color while the TV is on in the background, for example.

Some people might be opposed to using the TV as a way to avoid a meltdown, but I’ve always believed in “all things in moderation.” TV time shouldn’t be the only solution, and reserving it for meltdown moments makes it more of a special treat that the child will enjoy. It’s also a quiet activity that gives the little one an opportunity to calm down and take a breath.

5. Make a Trade

If the child is playing with something that they shouldn’t be or is unsafe, trade them for it! As Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister), explains, “It’s easier for children to replace a behavior than to stop it.” The child might be unreceptive to the swap at first, but by explaining the reason for the swap in simple terms––’The pots and pans stay in the kitchen’––can help them understand and accept it.

Above all else, it’s best to avoid yelling. I’ve found that screaming and losing control will teach kids they have to get you to an explosive point in order for you to mean “no.” Growing up, my mom would take me out of the situation immediately if I was misbehaving or not listening. It always made me really upset to have to leave my friends, but it helped me learn early on that poor behavior wasn’t going to be tolerated.

Similarly, I think it’s so important to practice “time-ins,” which encourage good behavior! Time-ins are the opposite of time-outs, but there is evidence that suggests that time-outs don't work unless parents practice time-ins. Time-ins can be done by giving them a hug or explaining how proud you are of them. By making the effort to applaud an act of kindness toward a sibling or helping to clear the table after dinner, you encourage kids to do the same action again!