Making NO Stick When our Child has
Developmental, Behavioral or Sensory Processing Difficulties
Saying NO to your child isn’t easy—and getting it to stick can be even harder. Sometimes, parents feel uncomfortable setting limits because they don’t want their child to feel restricted or unloved. As parents, we know that as hard as it may be to enforce them, limits are in fact healthy and important for a family and child. But it is even more difficult for parents whose child has behavioral, developmental, or sensory processing difficulties.
The first step for all parents in deciding whether to set a limit is to identify what kind of NO it is. Safety NOs are easiest for a parent to adopt. For example, NO fire, NO knives, NO running into the street. Orderly living NOs—no staying up late, no skipping all vegetables, no writing on the walls, no missing school—are trickier for a parent to choose. These NOs might feel less urgent, but they are still necessary to keep life running smoothly. Personal preference NOs are the most difficult because they are not urgent and not necessary, yet the parent still really wants that rule. Our needs and wants, as parents, count but it can be hard to make that NO stick.
Regardless of the type of limit, parents hope that each NO will be easy. We believe our child will understand and accept the limit and feel our underlying love and concern. Sometimes, it does happen! And children benefit from reasonable, reliable, common sense limits, even ones the children don’t like. Parental consistency and persistence helps. We can set clear, supportive and effective limits for our children.
But, how hard it is to make a NO stick also depends upon the child.
Some children find certain situations easy. That child would not struggle in those cases when the parent says NO. For example, a child might not care about clothes, so whenever that child’s parent chooses clothes, the child would not react. Picking out clothes goes smoothly between that parent and that child.
Some children adapt easily. Because those children are less disrupted by change, they are not bothered by NO. With these children, parents can impose a limit with less opposition. So with modest pressure from a parent, the child can make the change and the parent experiences a smooth transition.
But some children have special concerns or are less adaptable. These children struggle. Shifting gears is hard for them. They seem to not hear, they don’t get it, or they experience a parent’s NO as the parent misunderstanding their needs. They get stuck, or feel invested, or cannot stop. And so they resist or ignore their parents.
A child like that can feel defiant or disrespectful.
Naturally, any parent feeling that the child is being defiant or disrespectful will quickly have unpleasant feelings. Frustration, anger, doubt, fear, sense of failure, embarrassment, guilt, disconnection, and more. That moment is fraught for parent and child, and can become a pattern. The more concerns or less adaptable a child is, the more frequently this pattern occurs. In these cases, the regular parenting advice is not enough.
Breaking a pattern like that is difficult. Parents in these cases need a new approach.
There is one surprising and very effective way to break the cycle. You can start with your own feelings! Challenging children can evoke unwanted and even frightening reactions in parents. These parents have understandable strong and often negative feelings that need extra support. There is nothing wrong about that! These feelings are the natural response to a difficult situation with your child. But, if unresolved, these feelings will heighten the conflicts.
But, if these strong feelings are supported and validated, then the feelings ease and you will feel less pressure. A supported parent can think differently and act differently. As a supported parent, you can achieve a different outcome and more successfully set appropriate limits for your child.
Once you have worked on understanding your reactions to your challenging child and gotten the support you need, you are prepared to ask these specific limit setting questions.
Ask first: is the limit a safety, order or personal preference rule? Then, you know how urgent the NO is. Then ask:
1. Does this particular limit bump into my child’s special concerns?
2. Is there a work around?
3. Can I get to this limit slowly or in pieces?
4. How can I communicate this limit so my child can respond constructively?
5. Can I enforce this limit calmly as long as it takes, because it will be hard for my child?
After answering these questions, a parent is ready to begin setting a limit that will hold.
The heart of my practice is helping parents be the best parents they can be. I help parents by validating and understanding their own responses and work to break down difficulties so they face parenting positively. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-583-9358 to learn more or discuss whether working together is right for you.