Tired of Saying No? Tips for Positive Communication with Young Children

Black and white photo of Mother and toddler talking at playground
Photo Donnierayjones|CC

Speaking positively to young children helps parents model social skills, and avoid power struggles and meltdowns. Rather than saying  ‘ No ‘, try using those difficult moments as learning opportunities.

You’ll need patience and repetition, as these positive communication tips may not work with every child, every  time – -but the reward will be a closer connection and more positive interaction with your child.

Tips for Positive Communication with Young Children

1. “When-Then” Statements

Toddler interacting with a woman in China
Speaking positively to children brings smiles. Photo Storyvillegirl|CC

Instead of “Pick up your toys, or we won’t have snack!”, try “When you finish putting your toys away, then you can have snack.”

2. Honor the Impulse

Instead of scolding a child immediately for hitting someone, first honor the impulse.

Try “I know you don’t like it when people take the toy you are using, but you need to use your words and tell them ‘Stop.’” Or “It seems like you don’t want to share right now, but you need to be gentle with her.”

3. Fantasyland

Try silliness to distract from a situation. When a child wants something that is unavailable to them, they may get upset and throw a tantrum.

For example, your child wants juice that you are out of. You can say, “I know you’re disappointed, and I wish we had juice, too. I wish we had so much juice we could fill up the bathtub and swim in it. What would you do with a bathtub full of juice?”

4. Can-do Kids

Tell children what they can do, not what they cannot. Instead of “Don’t jump on the bed,” tell them, “You can jump on these pillows.” Or instead of “No cookies before lunch,” try “You can have a cookie after lunch.”

5. Problem Solvers

Teach children how to problem solve with each other, for example how to trade toys or take turns are basic skills. Timers can also be very helpful for children to use. When the timer rings, it’s time to trade toys.

By teaching children how to solve the problem themselves, parents can minimize their role in intervention.

6. Model Politeness

Indian mother on grass talking to infant
Photo Harsha KR|CC

Give polite directions and responses. Start with polite requests or directions, i.e. “Please put your toys in the box.”

Be sure to acknowledge the child’s cooperation with a positive response: “When you put your toys away so quickly, it really helps me to get dinner on the table faster. Thanks for helping.”

7. Model Positivity

Use positive language as much as possible. Adults and children respond better to positively phrased messages.

Instead of “No” or “Don’t,” say “Look with your eyes only,” instead of “Don’t touch,” or “Your food belongs on the table,” instead of “Don’t throw food.”

Save saying No for very unsafe situations (although “Stop” is sometimes even better).

8. Safety Monitor

“My job is to keep you safe” is a great phrase to use when your child is doing something unsafe, i.e., child is climbing in a dangerous way, and you tell them to come down.

Telling them that it’s your job to keep them safe reinforces their sense of security and helps them to understand why you are setting a limit.

9. I Hear You

Reflective language — restating and repeating what has been said — is sometimes helpful. It lets your child know that you heard them and acknowledges their feelings (even if you don’t approve of their behavior).

If your child says, “I was so mad at her,” you can say, “You were very mad at her.” After the feelings subside, you can talk about what the child can do the next time they are angry or brainstorm ways to prevent the problem that caused the anger.

If these tips do not seem to work, wait until your child is older, and then try again.

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