“Why can’t he ever ask me a ‘yes’ question?” I stormed to my husband after yet another angry outburst from our 17-year-old son. One minute we were peacefully conquering the world over a game of Risk; the next he was shouting, calling me names, and stomping off to his room in a rage after I’d said no to a sudden and impossible text invite from a friend.
Truthfully, I’ve asked this question many times over the years since he and his three younger siblings joined our family via foster adoption. Each of the children came with individual quirks, of course, and various emotional/psychological and physical challenges, but I often refer to Andrew as my “squeaky wheel,” since his requisite amount of parenting “grease” goes above and beyond the needs of any of our other kids.
We call Andrew’s most frequent behavior “‘No’-Seeking”—an active (and likely subconscious) pursuit of opportunities to argue with an authority, probably for the powerful emotion of anger as a replacement for his depression. Andrew has needed hospitalization for depression in the past, and we have come to recognize impending episodes through his increasing anxiety (“squeakiness”). When those feelings begin to reemerge, he starts frantically seeking a source of distraction or stimulation in his environment that he thinks might halt the downward spiral.
As his rational thinking diminishes, irrational (and “urgent”) requests multiply. Even when we find ways to say yes, Andrew often tweaks the request to make it impossible, then throws a tantrum because “you never let me do anything/you’re trying to shelter me/you just think I’m a baby/etc.” For example, a simple request to get together with his birth cousin (That sounds nice. Let’s make a plan!) suddenly changes into a demand to drive the family vehicle three hours north by himself, spend the night, and go downhill skiing with a torn ACL and no money or adult supervision (Um, wait a minute…). When I say no to these modifications of the first request, I’m an overprotective you-know-what just trying to keep him away from his birth family and he’s out on the porch yelling, throwing things, and waiting for the cops.
Any parent who has worked with a challenging child can tell hundreds of these stories (although they all blur together after a while), and know the progressively destructive toll of each incident—draining positive feelings toward the child, sapping emotional energy for other interactions, filling the parent with doubt about his/her own character and parental capabilities, and reducing motivation to get up in the morning (because the first request often comes with the first flip of the light switch).
Parents often instinctively know that the word “yes” provides powerful medicine for their household, their relationship with their child, and for the child himself, but may find only rare occasions to use it in the face of problematic teen behaviors. So how can we adjust our parenting under these circumstances to bring positivity back into our home life?
1. Commit to saying yes.
Several years after our adoption, we attended a Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI)® conference featuring the late Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D., developer of TBRI® and co-author (with David R. Cross, Ph.D., and Wendy Lyons Sunshine) of the corresponding book The Connected Child. At one of the sessions, a speaker explained the trust-building power of saying “yes” to children with behavior challenges (who often receive much societal censure), and something clicked in my mind. I wanted to say “yes” to my children, but I had gotten stuck in the perception of “no” as the healthier option. I soon became fully convinced not only that my children needed to hear “yes” to offset their overwhelmingly negative daily experiences, but that I could find ways to make it happen. Armed with that certainty, I made a mental commitment to “getting in my ‘yesses’” with my kids.
Know that this mental shift represents more than half the battle.
2. Drop your guard.
As a younger adult, I began to notice and criticize my mother’s habit of responding to her five grown children’s every comment/request with a fierce, combative tone of voice. I only recognized this after I had moved out and gotten married and begun to spend most of my time with someone who didn’t react that way; as a result, whenever I spent time with my extended family, her perpetual defensiveness stood out and grated on me.
However, during these intense parenting years, as I found my carefully thought out, empathetic tones almost invariably met with outbursts of rage, accusations, senseless arguments, and pointless resistance to even the simplest suggestions, I came to understand: my mother had raised five “difficult children,” too.
While raising a challenging child, bracing yourself for the inevitable explosion becomes second nature, and that defensive stance eventually bleeds through into our tone of voice and mentality. But you can make the conscious decision to drop your guard and intentionally approach each situation as an individual interaction, and refuse to carry past baggage forward. At the very worst, an angry voice won’t dominate your child’s memories of you—and at best, your child may begin to respond to your positive modeling.
3. Recognize and eliminate the habitual “no.”
Regular practice in dropping your guard will help you begin to distinguish between necessary negatives and habitual negatives. Think of it as a game of “Whack-a-Mole”: If the same mole pops up several times in a row, you may anticipate incorrectly and strike at that same, expected spot even when it’s a different mole popping up. Likewise, parenting through the “no-seeking” behavior builds your negative reflexes as the child makes a long list of impossible demands: Get me a zillion-dollar phone upgrade, buy me this NC-17-rated movie all my friends are watching, give me some of your beer, take me to Florida tomorrow morning, may I make hot chocolate? If you can drop your guard and approach each request individually, you will be able to avoid the unnecessary no. Don’t let “no” become your default setting.
Mounting frustration can even tempt you to deny the surprise reasonable requests out of revenge, not just habit (we are human, after all), but reject that urge, smile, and say “Sure!
4. Create opportunities to say “yes.”
In Andrew’s most extreme times of unrest, his trapped feelings become so intense that he simply can’t think of any possibilities that sound good to him. As a fellow human who has experienced “being in a funk,” I can relate. I don’t personally suffer from clinical depression, but we can all tap into our individual experiences to find inspiration for helping challenging children break out of their depressive ruts (and seek medical help when necessary).
If your child has been wearing you down emotionally, think about what cheers you up in hard times—or look to literature about depression to see what types of human behavior tend to enhance joy. Human interaction, of course, tops that list (for a recent take, read about the 2015 study on the subject led by Alan Teo, M.D.). If the mere thought of interacting even more with this child sends you running to the medicine cabinet for Advil, try to remember that you only dread the negative interactions. Replace at least one negative interaction preemptively by inviting the child to do something she has trouble refusing. Some ideas that have worked for us:
- A one-on-one trip to the movies (bonus chance to say “yes” when she asks for popcorn)
- A quick stop at a fancy coffee shop on the way home from school (bonus “yes” to a caffeinated option for once)
- Breakfast at a favorite local dive (bonus “yes” for substituting orange juice for that water)
- A trip to the store to buy a new pair of basketball socks (your idea instead of her demand—find a way to frame it as a “necessary” errand—and, yes, let her get the extremely ugly-but-trendy ones).
Yes, creating “yes” interactions for a teen will probably cost you money, but will it really break the bank? Start building a “yes fund” into your monthly budget for these types of occasions and think of it as a worthwhile investment. Your relationship with your child is more important than any savings account—I know some may disagree, but this has been a very important philosophy for our family.
Additionally, build small but positive options into your household. Stock a cupboard with a fun assortment of tea and hot chocolate. Make sure you always have a carton of eggs and bread for toast on hand (some kids love the simple process of cooking something warm for themselves). Fill a bag with special “fidgets” that a child can draw from if ennui sets in. Tailor this psychological toolbox individually to your child. Does he like to smash Play-Doh? Bury his hands in dry rice? Peel stickers? Take scented bubble baths? Mix up brownies? Make a mental note of the reasonable requests that keep coming up, even if you find them inconvenient and messy and you’d rather not, and prepare yourself to make them always possible.
Note: Make up your mind to disregard any stray Play-Doh crumbs or forgotten half-drunk tea that may result from the child’s activity choice—a depressed person does not need more criticism.
5. Reframe “no” whenever possible.
I value directness, but running full-on into “NO,” for many people, feels like being slapped. When your child’s emotional or behavior challenges put you in the role of therapeutic parent, that flat response often shuts down the interaction, and it’s really not necessary in most cases. Remember, your goal is to build a connection, replace fear and anger with positive feelings, teach negotiation, short-circuit the tantrum reflex—all of which may foster positive changes in the traumatized child’s brain chemistry, according to Purvis et al. Sure, you will have to say no to things. But practice expressing your limits in more creative ways that don’t immediately turn every interaction into a power struggle.
Addressing logistical problems in a way the child might understand provides one practical way to reframe “no.” Parents consider many factors when making a decision—is it a good time, can it fit into the family schedule/budget/needs, do benefits outweigh inconveniences/risks, and so on—and you may say “no” when you really mean “not right now” or “not that way.”
|If your child||Reframe “No” as|
Asks for a piece of candy five minutes before dinner
“Sure, right after we eat.”
Requests a new video-gaming system that you can’t (or don’t want to) afford
“Let’s research the best kind together this afternoon and see how long it will take us to save up for that.”
Demands that you take her to the school football game right this instant
“That sounds fun,” then ask her to pull up the sports calendar so you can see which upcoming game you can write into the family schedule—then be sure to follow through, so she starts to learn the benefit of planning ahead and negotiating.
6. Adjust your mental limits to include your child’s dreams.
Parents often struggle to view children as separate individuals with dreams and goals and longings of their own. Sometimes, I feel surprised at the backlash to my “no” simply because it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. Have you ever watched another parent mention to the adults in the room that he needs to go home, reach down and remove a toy from his toddler—and see the toddler start crying? The parent isn’t mean—he simply forgot that his child doesn’t share his “go home” priority. The child had a plan to “play with this toy,” and no one prepared him for the sudden mental adjustment. Naturally, as children grow older, their interests and intentions become even more complex and rooted, and correspondingly difficult to adjust.
My rule of thumb: Don’t start giving in to tantrums (no matter the child’s age), but do start taking mental note of the circumstances surrounding recurring incidents. Does the child’s anger stem from an unintentionally disregarded need or unshared priority? Critically evaluate each incident for any patterns, then sit down with the child in a calm moment and ask her about her personal interests and desires in a caring way. “I notice that you’ve been talking about going to the beach. I didn’t spend much time on the beach when I was growing up, so I just don’t think about it much—and we live pretty far away from the coast. Is there something important to you about the beach? What sounds good to you about a trip there? Are you curious to see the ocean, or are you just tired of the winter weather and want to go swimming?” Human thought processes and emotions can be complicated; help her narrow down her thinking and find a way to address the need she’s really expressing. It may be simpler than you thought at first, and you might even discover you can say “yes” after all when you both understand the root request.
Even if a child dreams up something complicated and expensive and unfeasible, demonstrating care and concern can go a long way toward helping him feel positive about the interaction, even if it still results in “no.” And, as a parent, you might even find yourself able to look at the long-term logistics and help your child find a way to eventually fulfill that dream.
All of these approaches promote a positive home environment and provide excellent preparation for adulthood, as well as healthy nourishment for your family relationships. Can you find a way to say “yes” to your child today?
LAURA H. WILKINSON is a Midwestern freelance writer, former teacher, and the parent of six children, four of whom joined her family through foster care adoption. Note: Names in this piece have been changed to preserve privacy.
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