What to Do When The Little One Says No

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What to Do When the Little One Says 'No!'

Connecting in the difficult moments

By Jerrold Hong | 23 December 2022

It was a typical weekday morning where I was fetching my son home from school. On the way back, I noticed he looked glum and pensive, but thought it was due to tiredness.

Upon arriving home, I told him to remove his shoes, wash his hands and get ready for lunch. Instead of complying, he began to sob. “I don’t want to eat lunch!” The sobbing soon turned into a full-blown meltdown.

Many parents would be familiar with this. Few of us – myself included – wish to be caught in such situations as they drain us and interrupt our busy schedules.

However, it is common for young children to display such behaviour as they are still learning how to deal with the big emotions that come with unmet needs or unexpected experiences.

Here are some strategies that enabled me to regain control of the situation and calm my son:

1. Listen with empathy

I brought my son to his room and gave him some time to recover so that I could hear him out. Once he was calm enough, he shared that some of his classmates were mean to him in the morning.

By listening to him share his thoughts, my son felt heard and understood. This made him more open to what I had to say, while also helping me understand what triggered his emotions.

I also did my best to reflect his feelings – that he probably felt angry and hurt by his friends. This taught him to identify the emotions he had been experiencing all morning.

Over time, and with practice, he has gradually gotten better at understanding his feelings and expressing himself.

Colouring, jumping on the spot, holding a favourite pillow, squeezing a soft toy or cuddles are examples of healthy outlets that could help soothe our children.

2. Do a calming activity

Next, I got him to do some deep breathing to calm down further. This involved a few repetitions of simply breathing in, holding his breath for five seconds, and breathing out.

At other times, I would ask him to pretend my finger was a birthday candle and blow on it. The harder he blew, the more I would wriggle it. This proved very effective as it was fun, helped take his mind away from what triggered him, and also calmed him by making him take deep breaths.

Every child is different, and it is important to do what works for your child. Colouring, jumping on the spot, holding a favourite pillow, squeezing a soft toy or cuddles with mummy or daddy are other examples of healthy outlets that could help soothe our children.

3. Offer appropriate concessions

Although he had calmed down, he was still resistant towards eating and insisted on having a different meal for lunch.

On occasions where I felt my son was already quite stretched from the day’s activities, I would nudge him along by offering appropriate concessions to motivate him. That day, I offered to carry him to the table to help him get started on lunch.

Other options that have worked for us include offering snacks (e.g. healthy sugar-free gummies), giving him some play time before his nap, or a short amount of screen time if he was able to complete the task at hand.

Adding play in our interactions with our children keeps them engaged and helps them to get on board with daily routines.

4. Press ‘play’ often

When he was at the dining table, he still refused to eat his lunch! While this was frustrating, I reminded myself that it was normal for a three-year-old to behave this way. Having had a long day at school and coming home on an empty stomach, he would naturally be more disagreeable.

To get him interested in eating, I added some fun by pretending the spoon was a spaceship, and by getting him to open his mouth like his favourite dinosaur.

Adding a healthy dose of play to our otherwise mundane interactions with our children keeps them engaged and helps them to get on board with their daily routines.

Celebrating little wins of the day helps parents to go the distance.

The importance of self-care and healthy expectations

Young children often “act out” when their needs are unmet, such as when they are overtired, hungry, or overwhelmed by difficult situations.

But it can be challenging to extend grace to our children by seeking to understand their needs . After all, in the heat of the moment, how many of us can maintain an air of patience and calm?

Here’s where it is important for us to practise self-care to ensure our own love tanks are filled. When we are well rested, we are in a better position to co-regulate our children’s big emotions and help address their needs.

Let’s also be clear, no one is perfect. While we can take incremental steps to improve our parentcraft, we will inevitably fall short on some days.

I’ve discovered that celebrating the little wins of the day helps my wife and I go the distance – such as rejoicing when one child reaches a growth milestone, discovering new things about them, or even unwinding after they are safely tucked into bed.

As you practise these tools for self-care and managing toddler meltdowns, I hope you will grow in your parentcraft and learn to find joy – even amidst the hair-raising moments.


© 2022 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

Jerrold is passionate about family life. He is happily married to Rachel and is a father of two young children.

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