The COVID "No"

Parents are having to say “no” now more than ever. Here’s how to do it right.

Posted Dec 14, 2020

With COVID raging, parents are having to say “no” to their children now more than ever. “No” to playdates, “no” to travel, “no” to birthday parties. COVID has not only left parents with more rules to enforce; it has deprived them of the help (friends, family, teachers, etc.) they once relied on to enforce the old ones. The additional burden is enough to try any parent’s patience.

Even so, saying “no” remains one of parent's most important jobs. It does more than just help keep children safe. When done right, it can help them learn to regulate the stress they experience when hearing "no." Over the longer term, learning to regulate this stress is how children build emotional resilience.

The most common “no” mistakes I see in my practice are when parents focus solely on their child’s feelings (to the exclusion of their behaviors), or else their behaviors (to the exclusion of their feelings).

Take, for instance, a mom, whom I’ll call Casey, who recently came to see me about her 3 year-old son.

“He tantrums when he doesn’t get his way,” Casey said, “and my husband and I don’t know what to do. The other day we turned off his music in the car because we wanted to listen to something else and he started screaming and crying and he wouldn’t stop.”

“How did you respond?” I asked.

“We told him, ‘You’re angry... You’re really angry,’ but it didn’t help. Then my husband and I got into an argument about whether to put his music back on.”

Casey and her husband understood the importance of acknowledging their son’s feelings, but when that alone didn’t work, they were stumped. Worse, the impasse then led to a disagreement with her husband. When their son then picked up on the negative energy, he became further dysregulated.

I’ve seen many other parents who do the exact opposite, relying solely on behavioral strategies like rewards and punishments (“I’m going to count to three and if you don’t stop asking for your songs, you’re going to get a time out”). These strategies may “work” in the moment (the child might stop crying), but they won’t help your child build the capacity to self-soothe.

To do this, and to keep you sane as a parent, and ensure that your marriage stays strong, you need to address your child's feelings and behaviors. Here are three principles to serve as a guide.

1. Use words to acknowledge the reason for the feelings.

Addressing a child’s behavior alone does not address his or her feelings. Nor is it enough to simply name the feelings the child is having. Parents need to go further, and help the child understand where their feelings are coming from.

In Casey’s case, she might have said, “You were really enjoying that music and didn't want us to turn it off.” When parents verbalize the connection between the child's internal reaction and the external cause, it helps the child understand why they are having this reaction, and assures them that their parents understand this connection as well.

It might take a few guesses before you figure out why your child is upset. Don't worry. If you guess wrong, your child will let you know. They might not respond at all or may get even more upset. Take this as meaningful feedback in your effort to understand them.

2. Don’t try to make the problem go away. Rather, clarify how and when they can get their need met.

Just because you acknowledge the reason for their feelings doesn’t mean you need to condone their behavior. You can certainly also let them know that certain behaviors (hitting, screaming, etc.) are not acceptable.

When it comes to behavior, however, it’s not enough to tell them what not to do. You also need to tell them what to do. This means explaining how long they need to wait, or what they need to do to get what they want, or, when that’s not possible, an acceptable alternative. Otherwise, from the child's perspective, the loss is permanent and unpredictable.

Casey, for instance, might have said to her little boy, “I know you love your music, but we need to take turns. Mommy and daddy are going to listen to three songs and then you can listen to three of your songs.” This turns what felt like a permanent loss into a temporary one, which is infinitely easier to tolerate.

Ideally, parents should set these expectations in advance (“You can listen to three more songs, and then mommy and daddy are going to take a turn and listen to three songs.”). The more predictable the loss, the easier it will be for the child to tolerate.

For pre-verbal children, parents may need to clarify expectations by offering concrete solutions. For instance, if your child wants to play with a knife, you can offer them a spoon instead. Note that this is different from using distraction (taking away the knife and giving them a video screen). The former helps the child accept an appropriate alternative, the latter teaches the child to expect to get exactly what he wants (or more). Distractions can be useful in a pinch, but offering appropriate alternatives helps children build their emotional capacity.

3. Non-verbal communication counts just as much (if not more) than verbal communication.

Non-verbal cues, like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, communicate to your child how you feel about their response and your own.

If, for instance, you name the reason for your child's feelings with a look of disapproval, they will sense that they should feel ashamed of these feelings, which will amplify their stress response. If, on the other hand, you empathically reflect their frustration in your tone of voice, and their disappointment with your facial expression, they will sense that their feelings are safe and understandable, which will help calm their stress response.

Your non-verbal cues also convey whether you feel confident in what you are saying. If you use a steady tone of voice and a self-assured expression, your child will sense that you believe in their capacity to tolerate the upset. If you set expectations with anxiety in your voice and a worried expression on your face (“Can’t you please just wait until we listen to a song??”), your child will detect your doubt, and begin to doubt themselves.

Non-verbal cues can also help your child recover from their upset and connect to the positive aspects of the alternative solutions. For instance, you might ask, “Which song do you want to listen to for your turn?” in an upbeat voice. This brings your child's attention to what they can look forward to, rather than what they have lost.

The principles are fairly simple, and make intuitive sense to most parents, but applying them to specific situations can be tricky. The sequence is important. If parents skip offering empathy (principle 1) and jump straight to clarifying expectations (principle 2) or encouraging resolution (principle 3), children are likely to become more resistant. Children need to feel understood, and have time to mourn their loss, before they can begin to reorient towards solutions or appreciate what these solutions may have to offer.

Applying the second principle during the pandemic can be particularly difficult, because not even parents know what to expect much of the time. “When can I see my friends again?” a child may wonder. Or, “When can I hug my grandparents again?” “When can I play without a mask?” When parents don’t have the answers, they can still help their children by clarifying alternative solutions.

If, for instance, your child asks if they can hug their grandparents, it is better to offer an alternative solution (“We can’t hug them like usual today, but we can blow big kisses and give them a ‘distance hug’”) than refer to some uncertain time in the future (“We can’t hug them now, but we can when COVID is over”). Young children have no way of putting this potentiality into perspective, so it's more helpful for them to know what they can do in the moment.

Some of the hardest COVID "no’s" come when your child wants your attention but you need to attend to other responsibilities. As in so many other instances, the best solution is to set clear expectations well in advance. When this isn’t possible, follow the three principles: empathically acknowledge the need (“You really want to show mommy your blocks right now”); re-clarify expectations going forward (“I need to finish doing the dishes, but if you build something, I will come look at it when I am done”), and then help them feel optimistic about the new possibility (“I can’t wait to see what you’re going to build!”).

Going through these steps again and again with your child will help them slowly learn to regulate their feelings. It's how they go from barely being able to tolerate the loss of a song to being able to tolerate real-world losses. It's how tantrums eventually become groans, and groans become conversations.

So, it may feel like all you're doing these days is repeatedly saying “no,” but remember that each “no” is also an opportunity to build your child’s emotional resilience.