Show of hands: are any of your kids triggered by the word “no”? Good, I’m glad I’m not the only one. Misery loves company you know. But seriously. I spent a good portion of my life hearing the word “no” in its various forms. At no point was I so incensed by the word that I felt the need to throw a chair, book, or writing implement when I was told “no.” 

My kids who are adopted, however, are a totally different situation. Where I am resigned and sad when I’m told “no” to something I want, most of my kids turn violent. It’s not pretty. There is, however, a reason for it. We are learning to work around it. Lucky you, I’m going to share this top-secret intel with everyone. 

Before I give you our tricks, I’m going to offer you some insight I simply didn’t have before we took some classes and read some books. Very often our “no” is stemmed from our lack of desire to do something. It’s not necessarily because a rule would be broken, or someone would be hurt. Sometimes it’s as much that I just sat down on the couch after standing all day and I have no desire in this world or others to get up and get someone a snack (especially if I have to walk past my husband, who has two perfectly good working feet, to get it). 

Does my kid know or would they even care if the reason I said no was that I was exhausted? Nope. But my kid does care that I have now denied them something they thought up to that point was a necessity. See, their brains were wired badly as babies. Neglect, abuse, and malnourishment made it so they are painfully self-reliant. It took forever to get them to ask for things they wanted. It used to be they would just climb up to whatever cabinet the object they wanted was and it didn’t matter (to them) what got smashed or shattered along the way. 

Their brains convinced them they needed the object of their want. They actually believed they might actually die if they didn’t get a fruit snack. So, I was not only being cruel in their minds, but I was also starving them willfully. We worked it out, they got used to asking, and I got used to saying yes. We try hard to do “little yeses” when we can so they know and have references for us giving them things they want. 

However, sometimes the answer can not be yes. They’d like an ice cream cone from sonic and it is past bedtime. They want to go out for dinner when the budget doesn’t allow it. They want to do something unsafe. But it doesn’t matter what my reasoning is. It doesn’t matter if I present them with a calm, well-thought-out argument. All they hear is “no” and suddenly are triggered back to a place of frail, terrified helplessness which then triggers flight, fight, freeze, or fawn–which leaves me with an uncontrollable child.

So what’s an adult to do? Well, for a long time I just kind of gave in if I could. Terrified we’d have an angry outburst in public, I’d pile things they begged for into the grocery cart (at the store I swore to myself we’d never go in together again). You’re smart. I’m sure you can see where this is going. 

Eventually, someone asked for something I literally could not afford. I told them so . . . which sent them into a spiral of rage that took almost an hour to recover from, grocery cart abandoned forlornly in the store. So, back to square one. 

After consulting with their counselor, I discovered that it is actually the word “no” that is causing the damage. Saying “I don’t think so today honey, but let’s take a picture so we remember when it’s time for a gift,” went wildly different than saying “no, we can’t today.” So that’s my secret. We have learned (mostly) to say “no” without saying no. In fact, more often than not it’s a “maybe later” anyway. 

Back to my “I just sat down on the couch” scenario. I could say “no” and run the risk of WW III developing in my living room, or I can say “Hey, ask your sister to help you, and use the stepstool”. If they don’t actually want a snack but did want my attention, they’ll usually let me know nonverbally. My youngest especially will sometimes just ask for a hug, since that’s what she really wanted in the first place. 

It isn’t foolproof. I am plenty a fool so I mess it up regularly. But it has helped us navigate some things that could have been huge meltdowns. Some of our alternative phrases are:

  • “Let’s take a picture so we can remember when we have the money to buy it.”
  • “Can your sister or dad help you?” 
  • “Let’s talk about it later and figure out if we can make that work.”
  • “We can’t get ice cream tonight but if you have a good day at school tomorrow we can stop on the way home.”
  • “I’ll put it on the list of foods you like”
  • “Let’s save that for a special occasion.”
  • “Today is really busy but I’d like to try for tomorrow. Can we make that work?”
  • “I’ll let you do that if you complete a chore first.”
  • “I wish we could, but we’re out of time for today.”

Basically, anything that is a soft “no” or even a “maybe if” works fairly well. Do we still need to use the word no from time to time? Oh yes. And they are learning they won’t get the thing they want by screaming in my face. It’s a work in progress.