What do you do when your child screams no?

MOM of 2 kids writes: My 3 year old daughter screams “no” a lot at her brother, at other children, and at us. Did any of your children do this? Is there anything you “did” or do you have a suggestion on how to give her the words she needs or is this a phase I need to endure?

WENDY writes: My short answer is this: All of us, adults and children, we all say “no” daily when we encounter things we don’t enjoy. Hear the ‘yes’ behind the ‘no’ with compassionate curiosity and the life behind the screams reveals itself.

Following is my reasoning behind this.


I first encountered this concept when I read “Parenting from Your Heart” by Inbal Kashtan. I saw it in action when I went to the Family Heart Camp (www.familyheartcamp.org) in Virginia.

Inbal Kashtan writes, “…your child-at a year, two, three, four or fourteen-has a mind of her own. You love that mind of hers, her growing independence and assertiveness, her desire to decide what she wants to do and when. But you wish she would be reasonable! … Negotiating the gap between what we want and what our children want can strain our patience and skill level to their limit.”

Your daughter is doing the best she can to articulate and meet her needs. Behind every “no” is a “yes” to something else. The “no” is a signal that she’s feeling depleted in some way. What is she trying to do or say? What’s important to her in the moment? What needs is she trying to meet? What might fill her up?

For example, is she saying “no” to her brother because she wants to protect what she finds special or important to her in the moment? Does she long for undivided attention? Does she want choice? Is she feeling frustrated and needs to be heard or how she needs support because it’s challenging for her to negotiate her needs and her brother’s needs?

Although your three year old will likely never, ever talk like this, is she feeling scared that playtime is about to end and she wants to keep playing?

When you hear the “yes” behind the “no” you do two things.

1) You offer the gift of your attention, compassionate curiosity, and presence. Your daughter may be heard about what’s important to her. She will be the judge of that, of course. One of the most important needs we have is to be heard and seen with love.

2) By taking a guess at what is important to her, even if your guess is inaccurate, you give her the words you seek to offer her. You also help her to connect to what’s important to her.

Ok, even if you do that, what’s next, you may ask.

What happens if she says something like “I hate my brother”? I just want him to go away! I wish he were never born!”

Keep hearing the “yes” behind the “no”.

Her feelings tell you how important this is to her.

Her words, actions, and the context will give you a clue about what would help her right now. Safety is important, so you’ll likely step in between your two kids if you hear her say something like this. Then, does she need space? Does she need a cuddle? How does she get filled up? Has it been awhile since she’s had that? Don’t forget about the basic physical needs. Our kids won’t likely tell us, but has been awhile since they’ve had a rest or something to eat? What ideas does she have to offer?

The most important part is this…

Don’t forget your “yes” behind the “no”.

Before embarking on such an uncertain voyage into exploring what’s important for your children, evaluate what you are able to offer and what’s important to you. How open, willing, and curious are you to compassionately explore this with them? Would it best to have this conversation when you’re more rested and filled up?

Sometimes, when I’m just not up to having these conversations because I don’t have the capacity to hear well, I do my best to keep our dignity and safety intact and wait for a better time to connect.

To be honest, this happens to me more often than I’d like. I’m tired. I’ve put too much on my plate or packed too much into our schedule again. Sometimes, I’ve put too little into our schedule. When was the last time we walked down to the river or walked in the woods or played together? Have I played with my hula hoop today?

In those moments, I grieve that I don’t have the capacity to stretch one more inch to hear what’s up with my kids. I grieve that I’m grieving. I’m so depleted. Again! Argh!

Along with my grief, somewhere I trust we connect most of the time. I know my children trust their needs matter and they are loved. In my moments of exhaustion, I may say something about how I trust we’ll figure a way to work this out. My confidence, however tired I feel, will help them feel secure.

Of course we can’t fake confidence. Sometimes, as parents, we need more space and a daily practice to do some of the healing work triggered by hearing our children scream ‘no’. Your daughter might prefer to do other things and is just not up to talking in the moment. Pick another time when the two of you are more up to connecting about what’s up in these situations. Do your best as I know you will.

Because your kids are young, they may be up to completely changing the environment into something more light and fun if you can. Offer with a wink, “let’s cuddle later” or “we’ll figure this out” while you move quickly to a fun activity. Save conversations when you’re all more up to it.

If this is new to you, everyone may need some practice to trust that there is space for everyone’s needs to matter. Don’t worry if you can’t do it in every moment. Occasionally works too. There’s also quiet time later for re-connection and reconciliation afterwards, to lay foundations of trust and problem solving for future interactions.

Inbal Kashtan writes, “With repeated experiences that give a child confidence that adults respect her needs as well as their own, she will steadily develop greater capacity for considering others’ needs and acting to meet them.”

Here’s an article I like by Inbal Kashtan that you might like too:


MOM of 2 kids writes: Thank you for the thoughtful email Wendy. I don’t want to make my daughter out to be the “bad” one but the baby is pretty innocent at this stage and the one who is screamed at and pushed (as well as other children). I have set up a station for my daughter on the dining room table and upper bunk but there are still several times in a day that she screams “no” at him. Yes, he is in her way or watching her or trying to touch something. The blood curdling ‘no’ screams does seem a bit intense for the offense. I try to say the words she wants to say, give one on one time, validate. Prevention, by having another adult here full time seems to be the only effective solution. My fear is that I am creating a monster or brat that no one will like.

WENDY writes: I hear how worried you are when you hear the blood curdling scream. I’m imagining that it’s hard to believe in yourself and stay curious and hopeful when all you want to do is make that sound stop.

I also hear that you’re baffled wondering why she doesn’t feel filled up when you offer all the things you offer. How can you support her and direct her to the things she has available to her, you wonder?

I’m guessing it’s hard for both of you to navigate all your needs and access resources when you’re feeling so stretched already?

Does that capture things a bit or is there something else?

MOM of 2 kids writes: I guess I am always, unrealistically, looking for a quick solution. Thanks for helping me realize there isn’t one. Sit and wait is so hard when I am so solution oriented.

WENDY writes: Oh. Yes. That totally resonates with me. Who doesn’t love to have resolution? It’s a little like what it was like to complete projects in school or work. A sense of rest and completion. Ahhh. Relief.

I don’t know many parents who enjoy sitting and waiting. It’s something we become willing to do because it’s what we can do to allow inspiration come to us and help bridge the gap between the different ways we can meet our needs.

What needs are you aiming to meet when I hear the words “solutions oriented” and “sit and wait is so hard”? Do you need relief or rest from stress? Reassurance? Acceptance? Spaciousness to be able to figure out a way to move forward?

If it’s acceptance you’re looking for, how can you experience peace about the progress? How can you accept the things you cannot change? What things can you change?

If you need a way to move forward or to experience relief, how can you create the space to talk with someone, journal, meditate, go for a walk, or whatever it takes to check this out with your heart and activate your inner wisdom?

WENDY writes: another thought occurred to me…

When I had two children, especially around the age when my littlest was about one and one and a half years old, I felt powerless to meet both my children’s needs. The baby was exploring just like my first child did at his age. I thought he’s totally innocent. My oldest seemed very old. I expected her to understand the needs of the baby.

Now, I realize that I needed acknowledgment of how challenging it was to balance the needs of two when I was used to one. I needed support. Another adult to help out when I felt depleted would have been a god-send but unlikely to happen most days. I would have loved it if my oldest could have helped me with that. Realistically, it’s not up to her to meet my needs. In fact, at three, it’s quite unlikely she was able to do that. It was my thinking that needed adjustment.

So, I wasn’t powerless after all. I needed acknowledgement and to accept both my inner and outer reality. Could I give that to myself?

On the days when there was another adult it was easier of course.

At the time my children were little, a good friend who had older children reassured me that it was valuable for me and my kids to go through this stage of development. Facing frustration, grieving and finding our tears grew our capacity to manage grief and helped us to adapt when faced with things that we could not change. As we grow, being able to receive the feedback of our feelings helps us see where we could do better in the future. I imagine that you and your daughter are experiencing the disappointment and anger that comes when things don’t work out the way we would like and learning along the way. Wouldn’t you like to scream like she does (if it wouldn’t be so alarming to the kids)? Do you have someone to rant with and be heard?

When each of you moves from anger to sad, you’ll find a way to meet the futility of the frustrating situation by adapting. You can help her by softening your heart and greeting your own sadness a bit while comforting her. Help her to find her tears.

How can you help her feel sad about the things she cannot change?

Does this make sense? Recently, I wrote an article about that. http://compassionatesolutions.ca/love-is-the-best-discipline/

Now, I’m worried I’ve said too much. I wish I had asked to hear more of your story and paused to give you time to tell it. How is all my advice and story telling landing with you?

MOM of 2 kids writes: Thanks. Please “say too much”. I love it.

Your reflection of my feelings made me realize I wanted a quick fix. I needed to clarify the situation by writing it out or talking with someone willing to listen. Validating my feelings and hearing about other parents’ experiences helped. I don’t hear much about the struggles of other moms and I don’t know anyone with as intense a three-year old. I often feel very alone in that aspect. It’s as if other people have these “easy” compliant children and I have it “so bad” because I have a sensitive one and I am trying to parent so differently from the norm and I fear I am just a permissive parent and “ruining” her future.

I wish I had heard more of this mom’s “yes in her no”. By hearing her, she may have been better able to hear herself and see her choices more clearly. This is a good reminder for me too, it seems. I hope you find some value in it. Please comment and keep the dialogue going.

I enjoyed this dialogue and the topic so much; I hosted a radio show on it. Give it a listen…


About Wendy McDonnell

2 Responses to “What do you do when your child screams no?”

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  1. Wendy says:

    I am so grateful when people send me feedback…whether positive or negative. It invites me to engage with the life in me and others. It also gives meaning and encourages me to do the work I do. Here are a few comments that arrived by email…

    Wendy, thanks for this. I too could have been the mother you were talking to. Everything you said made sense for me and helps me. The desire for a quick and easy fix is so strong as is the worry that “permissive” parenting will somehow ruin my kids. And I’m having a hard time taking care of myself right now, which makes everything doubly hard. Thank you again, Z

    Loved this format Wendy. So nice to hear the back and forth and the growth as both of you figured out what was up, empathy and strategies at their finest!!! About a third of the way down I though I could be having this conversation with Wendy (maybe I have). C

    Hi Wendy, I love, love, love this! So much specific info and support about something that we all have to deal with (with kids and adults). Hugs to you! A

  2. Wendy says:

    A couple more comments came in…
    Hi Wendy, Reading your newsletter “on the go” – too much the norm these days. But I nonetheless appreciate the gentleness underlying everything – a gift, even if it is caught on the run.
    Take care, S

    Ye gads, thank you for the work that you do. The world needs it–more of your wisdom, compassion, and sharing. Thank You. from Z

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