The Many Meanings of “NO”

by | May 24, 2017 | Communicating, Parenting

This blog post is by RDI consultant Sarah Wayland. You can read the original here. 


It’s a natural response. You ask your child to do something, and they respond with defiance. How do you respond?

“I said….”?

“You’d better….”?

“If you don’t, I’ll have to….”?

“Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

But “No!” can mean many things, and the best response will differ depending on what your child is trying to tell you. (Remember what Ross Greene says: “Behavior is communication!”)  Don’t take it personally. Your child isn’t telling you no because she doesn’t like you. As with most behaviors, this one is all about her.

“NO!” can mean:

  • “I don’t understand what you want.”
  • “I am trying to figure out what you want, and I need to buy some time.”
  • “I don’t know how to get started.”
  • “I’m overwhelmed, and can’t do anything right now.”
  • “I’m scared!”
  • “I can’t do it!”
  • “I didn’t realize you were talking to me, so I didn’t hear what you said, and I know you are going to be mad, and it takes a lot of words to explain all that….”
  • “I don’t understand why it is important.”
  • “I am busy doing something else right now.”
  • “I forgot what you wanted me to do, but I’m worried that you will get mad at me if I tell you that.”
  • “I want to do it myself.”
  • “I never had to do it in the past, so why should I do it this time?”
  • “I don’t have very many ways to express myself, and it’s really easy to say ‘No!’”
  • … ?

You’ll note that I didn’t include “I don’t want to!” in that list. There is almost always a reason behind the “No!”, and your job is to figure out what that reason is and address it.

Before I delve into ways to address the meaning behind the “NO!”, however, it’s important to address the issue of parenting style.

Related: Why it’s Time to Stop Teaching “Right” and “Wrong” to Your Child

Your Parenting Style Can Drive Your Child’s Response

We often speak to children as if we have control over them, but the simple fact is that we do not. You can force a young child to bend to your will, but eventually he will be big enough that this strategy will no longer work.

Sometimes adults use controlling and demanding language with their kids. We are tired, time is short, and we just need to get things done. But consider how you respond when you feel like someone is trying to control you, order you around, or tell you what to do. I know I tend to feel a bit defiant. The same is true for children. It’s more effective to communicate with respect and clarity, to have reasonable expectations, and to allow consequences to teach.

Some general rules:

Think of yourself as a guide

Your kid wants nothing more than your attention. If you are with him, guiding him to do as you asked, he will be much more compliant than if you send him off to do it on his own. Asking your child to help you clean the kitchen is, in part, a request to spend time together. Asking him to clean the kitchen by himself is not nearly so appealing.

Ignore the “No!”

As you will read in future articles in this series, the reason behind the “No!” is rarely about defiance. In most cases it’s best to avoid responding to the “No!” and instead respond to the underlying message. (Unless, of course, the child’s safety or the safety of others is at risk.) Wait patiently for your child to do as you requested.

It’s also important to avoid rewarding your child by attending to their other demands while you wait. For example, if you ask your child to get dressed and he refuses and then asks for breakfast, you can say, “I’d love to feed you breakfast after you are dressed.”

Reward the “Yes!”

When your child does as you requested, make sure to reward her immediately. Different kids like different types of rewards, so be sure that what you are doing is actually rewarding to her. Some kids respond best to tangible reinforcers (M&Ms, pennies, tokens in a token-reward system, etc.). Others prefer verbal praise. Some kids like exuberant overt praise while others are embarrassed by such a strong show and prefer more subtle acknowledgement (e.g., thumbs-up or a wink).

As your child moves towards doing as you requested, no matter how small the steps, you can begin to re-engage and give her attention. For example, if you’ve just asked her to come down to dinner, and she moves a single tiny step towards the stairs, you can say something like, “I love that you are coming to dinner. Thank you!”

Solve problems collaboratively

If refusal is chronic, and you cannot figure out what is driving it, use Ross Greene’s approach to working with your child to understand what is going on, and to find a mutually acceptable solution. Remember, “Kids do well when they can.”

When a child says, “No!” it is usually because she has an unsolved problem or an unmet need. Trying to understand and address the problem or need creates a sense of trust and connection between the two of you that will help your child to do as requested. I described some of those unmet needs at the beginning of this article.

Sarah Wayland, Ph.D., is an RDI Certified Program Consultant and special needs care coordinator. She helps parents of children with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, and other diagnosed and undiagnosed challenges. You can learn more about her at

1 Comment

  1. When No Means "I'm Confused" | RDIconnect

    […] In The Many Meanings of “No”, you learned that “No!” doesn’t always mean No. Sometimes “No!” means I’m confused! How can you help your child if he or she doesn’t understand what you want? Below I describe three types o […]

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