Real Talk

Why Kids Cannot Easily Process “No” and How To Make It Easier

Nobody likes being told just “no” even more so our kids who don’t have the thinking capacity and skills to figure out how to work with the “no.”

“No” is a word that everyone — even we parents — needs to learn though, it is also the hardest one to say out loud and understand. Especially for kids, our saying “no” sets off a tantrum. “No, you can’t do this!” , “No, don’t do that!”, “No, stop that!” — are some of the reactions and replies we have to some of our kids’ misbehaviors. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the word “no.” It’s just that we forget to follow through why we’re saying “no.”

Saying “no:” How kids understand it

Put ourselves in a toddler’s shoes. Imagine trying to climb the kitchen counter because we’re hungry and want our favorite food. We know that our favorite food is on the counter but being little, we decide to climb using a chair or a stool. It may be a bit wobbly but, it gives us the extra height.

Then, in comes our moms or dads, seeing us climbing up on that chair. The first thing they shout is, “No, don’t do that!”

The shout is loud; it sounds angry and terrifying as it resonates through our tiny bodies. Our hearts start pounding fast and the volume sends out soundwaves that slam against our tiny eardrums and further shakes the chair. As it wobbles, we’re scared and confused. We’re just hungry and hearing our mom and dad shout, “No, don’t do that!” / “Wag ka nga!” doesn’t add up.

Is it “No, don’t eat!”? “No, don’t stop!”? “No, don’t climb!”? There are too many variations — which is it?

And thus, come the waterworks.

From the parent’s side

When we see our toddlers or kids (even if they’re older) doing something that has potential risk, our fear is usually the one that jumps out first. Our minds are already calculating every risk and during that process, we want things to stop so that we can have a better look at the situation. In a desperate search for time to better assess the situation, we cry out as if things would stop on voice command.

Unfortunately, the only thing that stops is the toddler or kid trying to do something. But it’s only for a few seconds as they remain frozen like a deer in the headlights. However, they soon burst out crying. We get triggered and our temper rises: can’t this human understand that we’re trying to protect them?

The unfortunate answer is: No. They can’t.

Why do kids struggle to process “no”?

It’s just two letters — how hard is that to understand?

Although we all can easily attribute it to our kids’ developing brains, there are deeper reasons regarding their struggle to accept and understand “no.” Here are some of them:

1. Their brains are still primal.

Yes, their brains are still wired like cavemen. These primal behaviors are never taught but passed down genetically. Over the years of evolution, humans passed down instincts such as the need to find food and the like in order to survive. These eventually became attributed to one of our brain’s aspects — one that psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud calls the Id and its job is to keep us satisfied.

However, this part of our brains doesn’t go unsupervised. The two other aspects, the Superego and the Ego, instruct and control when it is acceptable to do so. While the Superego is all about morality, the Ego is all about making the Superego and Id happy. But these two take time to develop so, our kids are just focused on making themselves happy. And saying “no” goes against that survival instinct (Ajvazi, 2021).

2. Smaller physiologies

We sometimes forget that size does matter especially in terms of sound. Kids are known to be more perceptive to sound because that’s how they track us — their parents — in case they feel unsafe (Deans, Brown, and Dilkes, 2005; Kenwright, 2020). Plus with their smaller eardrums, the sound will definitely be louder than normal. Some adults even retain this level of superhearing, albeit quite rarely (Sumner, 2023).

3. Executive language vs Comprehensive language

Learning how to talk is one thing; understanding it is another. It’s easy for us to figure out how to produce the sound but understanding the power behind the word takes time and experience — something that kids don’t have. So when we yell “no!”, they’re also trying to figure out what that means. It’s a new word and because we made it sound scary, they’ll resist it especially if they associate it with being unable to get food or go to the bathroom — things necessary to survive.

What we can say instead of just “no”

It’s easy to say “no” to adults but for kids, it needs a follow-through. They need to know why you’re saying “no.” Especially if our voices are unnaturally loud, “no” can sound threatening and dangerous which is why they’ll resist it. So to make it easier for them, this is what we can say instead:

  • “No, please do this instead.” Yes, there’s still a no in the statement but at least it communicates what we need from them.
  • “No, it will hurt if you do that. Please do this instead.” This one is a longer version of the former but it at least shows a cause and effect.
  • Directly tell them what we want them to do. Honestly, there’s more success with this one because it’s a direct command and takes out the “no.” Plus, it already tells them what we want from them.

Also, avoid saying “no” consecutively. Our kids are not deaf; they’re just trying to match what we’re saying “no” to.

They will learn how to say “no” to us and it will annoy us!

Let’s face it: we hate it when our kids say “no.” As heads of the house, we insist that our word is law: whatever we say, goes. So, when our kids say “no,” we’re ready to rumble because it’s an act of defiance and during our childhood, that was punishable by a belt, hanger, or slipper to the butt or arm. Everything goes red and the rest is history.

But before we give into our tempers, a quick reminder that our kids are not saying “no” because they enjoy pissing us off. They’re trying to figure out how to use the word too. And if we show too many situations wherein we ignore their “no” for no urgent reason, they’ll see how useless that word is and won’t take a “no” from anyone else. To them, it’ll just be a senseless sound.

Saying and accepting “no” may be hard in a culture wherein the family is seen as a system and that everything needs to “fall like clockwork.” But if we can accept a machine’s rejection, we can accept our kids’ too.


Ajvazi, I. (2021). Freud‘s Id, Ego and Superego-Irfan Ajvazi.

Deans, J., Brown, R., & Dilkes, H. (2005). A place for sound: Raising children’s awareness of their sonic environment. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood30(4), 43-47.

Kenwright, B. (2020). There’s more to sound than meets the ear: Sound in interactive environments. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications40(4), 62-70.

Sumner, C. J., Akeroyd, M. A., Sollini, J., & Hart, C. (2023). What Happens When We Hear?. Frontiers for Young Minds11.

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Why The Traditional Filipino Way of Punishing Kids Won’t Work
Parents Might Be Understanding Tough Love the Wrong Way

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