Just say no

The Pediatric Insider

© 2009 Roy Benaroch, MD

Here’s a request from Rhonda: “I was wondering if you could post something about negativity in children. I am sure I can’t be the only parent dealing with a child who can’t help himself from constantly complaining and using negative talk all day long. It’s exhausting to live with someone who sees the glass as always half empty.”

Negativity is a behavioral “rut”—a way of looking at things or doing things that tends to reinforce itself over time. If you or your child acts negative and says negative things often enough, soon you’ll find that a negative outlook is the “automatic” response.

I’ve written about one good approach to getting out of a negative rut before, a method I call “The Greenies.” That works best for ages 3-7 or so, and can be a great way to develop positive habits for both parents and children.

Also, look at your own way of communicating. Are you saying “no” a lot to your child? Parents of toddlers probably say no hundreds of times a day, and kids will pick up on that and begin to imitate it. If your response is usually “no”, your child will get very used to saying that, too.

You want to teach toddlers to communicate without whining and begging. A great way to do this is to train yourself to try to always say yes to any safe request—IF it’s asked in a reasonably nice way. What constitutes “nice” depends on the age—a friendly-sounding point and grunt is pretty nice for a 13 month old, but you ought to require a four-year-old to say “please”. Silly requests are fine (as long as they’re safe). This is a great age for kids to go to The Home Depot dressed as Bob the Builder, or draw on the walls of the shower with pudding or shaving cream. On the other hand, you must ignore any request that isn’t asked nicely. Whining, cajoling, begging, repeating, tugging, nagging—all of that gets, well, nothing.

Ask multiple-choice questions rather than yes/no questions. Instead of saying “Do you want to wear the red shirt?”, ask “Do you want the red or the blue shirt today?” Too many choices can be overwhelming, and you shouldn’t pepper your child with questions all day long, but try to phrase the questions you do ask in a way that makes “no” not an answer.

There may be particular times when negativity is strongest. Children may be more likely to act whiney when they’re hungry, or tired. It may be best to “steer clear” of your child during those rough times, to give him a chance to sort it out. You can also offer some affirmation and sympathy–“I know it’s hard to smile when you first get up. I’ve got breakfast ready for you when you’re feeling up to coming downstairs.” Don’t expect the best behavior all of the time.

When your child does whine and complain, you ought to ignore it. Don’t argue or try to talk him out of his negative mood. The interaction with you will reinforce negativity. Even a punishment is at least some interaction with mom, and that’s what kids crave. Instead, look for times when your child is positive (or at least vaguely less negative), and make sure to pay plenty of attention to him then. Reflect a positive attitude back, and you’ll get more of that positive attitude in the future.

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