Why Saying “No” Doesn’t Work

Annie Tanasugarn, PhDc, BCBA CEO/AUTHOR, The Autism Analyst
"Autism Awareness simply means to acknowledge that Autism exists; Acceptance is to acknowledge its value."

A parent recently wrote in saying, “Whenever I say “No” or “Stop” and try to redirect my child, he falls to the floor in a tantrum. What can I do to stop this?”

That is a great question! And one that we have heard dozens of times over the years. Words like “no”, “don’t”, and “stop” are considered aversive, or punishing words, especially around kids. Children often want instant gratification and hearing “No!” can create behaviors, especially when a child is already behaving in a noncompliant way.

Do any of these sound familiar?

“Stop that right now and sit back down.”

“Don’t play with the water in the sink.”

“I said No!”

“Stop pulling the cat’s tail.”


Know the Function: Behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. All behaviors happen as a result of their function. There are 4 commonly recognized functions: attention, access to tangibles, escape/avoidance and automatic reinforcement. If you don’t already know the function, it’s best not to assume! Speak to a professional who can formally assess behavior function to help get you and your child on the road to positive behavior change. For example, if the function of pulling the cat’s tail is for attention, then scolding a child to stop pulling the cat’s tail may reinforce more tail-pulling. Yikes. This is why knowing the function is necessary for positive behavior change solutions.

Use Positive Phrases: This is the part where you create and implement the “positive” in Positive Behavior Change. What should occur here are options for using different, yet functionally equivalent words and strategies that are not as averse to your child, but offer the same goal. In other words, you want to ensure that the words you choose are functionally equivalent and equally effective in helping redirect your child to better (more socially appropriate) alternatives to the behavior they were doing. Phrases and words you may consider include:

Try these instead:

“Show me good sitting at the table!”

“I want quiet hands with the sink water.”

“That is not ok.” (provide an alternative and demonstration of appropriate behavior).

“Show me soft touch with the kitty.” (model this by using a gentle 2-finger touch on the cat’s fur, and having your child imitate it).

Praise ALL Attempts at the Appropriate New Behavior: This is the reinforcement part of using Positive Behavior Change and is the most important part of creating – and maintaining – new socially desirable behaviors. Reinforcement can be anything that your child

responds positively to: a high-five, tickles, verbal praise (good job washing your hands in the sink!, you’re awesome for sitting in your chair!, you make me so proud when you pet the kitty gently!), or you can provide a tangle reinforcer such as a small piece of their favorite candy, a favorite toy, the iPad, etc. Every kiddo is different, so it’s important to find out what reinforcer(s) works for your child, and do it consistently. Remember that if the ‘reinforcer’ doesn’t actually work to increase new positive behaviors, then it’s likely not operating as reinforcing to your child, so make sure that you’re using strategies, praise and tangible items that your child loves. Having several items available to choose from also helps!




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