When 3-year-old May tries to pour herself a bowl of cereal, her mother shouts urgently, “No! May, please. You’re making a huge mess!” In her enthusiasm to help in the morning, May doesn’t realize that her breakfast is spilling all over the table and onto the floor. When her mom shouts at her, she becomes confused and upset and begins to cry.
When you tell a young child no, it sends an immediate message that you’re displeased with her actions, and kids often take that very hard. A quiet 3-year-old like May becomes upset because she thinks her mom is angry at her desire to help. Not realizing that her mother is annoyed at the mess, May feels frustrated, ashamed, and guilty for making her mother mad.
Children react to no in different ways depending upon the situation, their personality, and their level of social and emotional development. While some children become sad and withdrawn, others may yell or argue. Kids are generally excited to push boundaries, try new things, and test their physical abilities, and they don’t understand that you may simply be concerned for their safety.
In most situations where a young child is dealing with a no, the frustration and upset is a matter of misunderstanding. As a parent, you’re concerned about keeping things safe, clean, and on time. It’s important to understand that your child, still in a very early stage of development, realizes none of this. When she hears you say no, she will take it personally until she’s old enough to understand your reasoning.
Even at this young age, however, it helps if you give a basic explanation of why you say no. Try using positive statements so your child doesn’t perceive your words as negative. Instead of, “Don’t do that!” you might say, “Let’s pet the cat instead of hitting him, because that might hurt.” And always try to keep calm when speaking with your child—if you get worked up, she will, too.