Children & Discipline

My child’s favourite word is “No”

Published: 22 Sep 2014
My child’s favourite word is “No”

Dear Dr Justin,

What the hell am I meant to do with a six year old whose answer to any and every request is no?

Desperate Parent

Dr Justin says:

Hi Desperate Parent,

I’m going to respond to your plea for help with a provocative and blunt idea. Then, I’ll share some additional reasons you may be having this challenge, and provide some potential solutions.

Is this how you speak to your child? If so I can understand why your child doesn’t want to help.

Try speaking softly, calmly and patiently. That’s my first tip and I think you may be surprised by the results. I’ll share some tips on how to do this below.

If your life is terribly challenging and you are falling to bits it’s hard to control the desperation, emotion and anger. Research tells us that the worse we feel about life, and the more stresses we carry, the harder it is to be good parents. Perhaps finding a way to achieve some support from family or friends – for yourself, and for your child – might be a helpful strategy.

Beyond that, here are my thoughts on why else you may be struggling and what you can do about it.

Temperament and personality

While I think we can work around this, it is true that some children are more stubborn, obstinate, prickly or harder to work with than others. Personality and temperament can affect how they respond to your requests.

Research also shows that our children’s temperament may be a reflection of what psychologists call “parenting self-efficacy”. This means that if we feel calm and confident as parents, our children usually have a relatively easy temperament. But if we are lacking in parenting confidence, our kids reflect that in their temperament.

How are you asking?

Are you really making a request? Or is it a demand?

Sometimes our children may have been open to helping until we opened our mouth. If our manner is forceful, unkind, harsh, or demanding we can turn our children off helping instantly. This goes back to what I said at the start of the column. Making our request an actual request rather than a demand, and speaking kindly and respectfully, can make a big difference.

The time we made our request

When we see our children playing or ‘doing nothing’, it seems logical to ask them to help out. After all, how often do we get to play – or sit around? A well-worn phrase, “play is the work of childhood” reminds us that our children may be very busy playing, and that play is important for their wellbeing and development. In fact, there may be nothing more important that they can do than to play. Being considerate when we make our requests can improve our children’s willingness to help.

Our child’s developmental capacity

There are some jobs we ask our children to do that are too hard for them. Cleaning up a room may be too large a task for a child, depending on that child’s age and ability. Similarly, making the bed, emptying bins and so on may seem simple enough to us, but can be a mammoth task for our children.

There is no question – our children need to learn to contribute in our homes. They need to do their chores and help out. They need to learn to take on responsibilities. We should expect that of them. But there are ways that we can invite their participation without being unduly demanding, and without resorting to threats, punishments, rewards or other forms of desperation.

The ideas below are my top strategies for getting the kids to say ‘yes’ when we ask them to complete a chore:


  • Ask your children to do things in a given time-frame. You may find they’re more likely to say yes if they know they can do it ‘before dinner’, or ‘in the next 10 minutes’. Younger children don’t understand time in quite the same way as older children so ask them to do something when the show is over, or after the oven-timer goes off. (I highly recommend using the oven timer as a signal for transitioning from one activity to another.)
  • If your children are genuinely engaged in something, invite them to tell you when they can do the chore you’re asking to be done.
  • When something needs to be done ‘now’, let them know what it is and why it needs to happen now.

Often we get something on our agenda and demand it be done this instant when it really doesn’t matter a great deal when it’s done, so long as it is done. By paying attention to timing we can increase the likelihood that our children will comply with our requests.


  • Research shows that people are likely to respond to us best when we start our conversations softly and warmly. Harsh start ups, criticism, and demands increase the chances that someone will not listen to us or they will respond poorly to us.
  • Ask your children to do their chores nicely.
  • If they don’t respond well to your requests, get softer rather than louder.

Two is better than one

Often children (particularly younger children) feel entirely overwhelmed, even with the smallest tasks. When we accompany them and guide them, they are often far more responsive to our requests. Get involved in their chores with them, and make it fun to work together.

Offer choice

Sometimes our children simply do not want to do the job we have asked them to do. We can work around this by offering them choices.

“Would you prefer to put away the dishes or tidy the play room?” is a great example of how you can get your child to help out without making them feel they are powerless in the equation.

The ultimate solution

I suspect there may be a reason that your child is saying no to you. It may be related to your tone, your timing, your involvement or the amount of choice he or she has. In fact, I think it underpins everything. The question I think you need to be asking is “why?”.

Why is my child saying no? Why is my child refusing to listen?

My experience is that we can use techniques all day to get what we want. We can change our tone. We can get in their face. We can make demands. We can threaten and bribe. But when we use these techniques we ignore the reasons our child is saying no. And I believe we ignore those reasons at our own (and our children’s) peril.

If a child says no to his or her parents, that child is feeling something. When we effectively address those feelings, we will find a child who feels safe and secure, and who is willing to help.

Sometimes we may need to sit with our child. Rather than demanding, we may say, “You don’t want to do that job? Why is that?”.

By taking an understanding approach we may find that our child doesn’t want to say ‘yes’ because they feel overwhelmed, or they’re ‘busy’, or they’re exhausted and hungry, or maybe some other reason. As we work with them and their emotions, we may find that being understood is the most likely thing to turn the ‘no’ into ‘yes’. We might hug them, listen to them, tickle them. As they feel our love and acceptance we can turn the conversation to their refusal to help. As they feel understood we can offer to help, or offer choices, or explain why it’s so important that they fulfil this particular responsibility.

Experience tells me that most kids are actually really happy to help. They just need to feel loved, safe, and emotionally connected to the person who is asking them to help.


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