How to teach your child to wait and what you could do before and after telling your child “no”

Two common difficulties that we encounter when working with families over the years are regarding waiting and when a child is told no.  These two scenarios can be overwhelming as they are often accompanied by the most intense challenging behaviors.  We will go over these on this this post.

First off, the skill of requesting appropriately must be well-established already.  If this skill is not yet in your child’s repertoire then it must be taught first. If the skill is already there, but it’s not as fluent as we’d need it to be, then work on that first.

Let’s say your child can already ask for a cookie—this is great, but what can you do if for some reason, you child has to be told to wait?   If your first thought given that question you just read is along the lines of “oh…” then do consider the following.  There is this passage of time that happens between being asked to wait for something and finally getting that something.  The key here is working on that gap.  Depending on how your child “understands” that concept—time—you may have to be more hands-on when helping out your child go through it.   Instead of simply saying “wait,”  try giving your child something that he likes to “kill time.” This is not something out of the ordinary. Case in point: look at long lines of people at a grocery store, a theme park ride, at a bank, et cetera.  It is very rare to see a long line of people, waiting, just starting blankly at the back of the head of the person in front of them (unless you’re in the military or something similar) and just “wait” for their turn.  Perhaps you’ll notice a handful dealing with waiting in not-so-positive ways but for the most part, people will do something to pass time.  From being on their phones, talking to someone whom they are with, looking around, reading a book—we, again, most of us, can handle waiting because we fill that gap with something else.  And that is something that you can try out—offer your child something that they will not mind doing while they wait.  The more reinforcing that activity the better. When starting to teach your child to wait while engaged in something, make sure to keep the wait-time very short. How short?  It depends on each child really, but a good rule of thumb is to end the wait when your child is still behaving well (i.e., before your child starts that path to a full-blown tantrum). Let’s say that time is around one minute—great. Keep it around that time limit and systematically increase the time just a bit and stay on that higher limit (e.g., from one minute to about two minutes) until your child gets used to it.  From there, you can once again increase the limit to say three minutes.  This does not happen without any difficulty—the key here is you being consistent.  Also, avoid a situation wherein the wait time had been too long that your child “forgets” about whatever it is he or she is waiting for.  You need your child’s motivation for whatever it is he or she is waiting for for the learning process to “click.”  Once that motivation goes away, the teachable opportunity is lost so it is best to be realistic on how long you really want your child to wait.

Again, teach waiting only if they can truly have that cookie, but at a later time (or after a number of activities).  If they cannot have that cookie, then don’t say wait (after which they do) then tell them no in the end. Hence, the next topic: what can you do when you are about to tell your child no (i.e., denial).

True: a no is a no and that is something our children must learn; however, before we get to that lesson, let’s take a few steps back.  If you know that your child cannot have that cookie, give your child’s behaviors a chance to not escalate.  Offer your child something she likes instead of whatever that is she wants at the moment.  The key here is you offering an alternative that she truly wants—whatever that is given that moment.  If your child accepts the alternative—great!  If your child does not like your attempts to compromise—and if your child is capable—ask her to choose her own alternative item/food/activity.  Be prepared to honor her choice.  If your child accepts that scenario—great!   If not, time to roll up your sleeves—it’s time to teach your child that no means no.  There is no going around this.  You have offered her alternatives. You have also given her a chance to choose her own alternative.  If those fail, you have done your job but despite your efforts to teach alternatives, the tantrums will happen. As those behaviors are happening, the worst thing that you can do is give in—no.  Don’t give in as that will only reinforce all those not-so-nice behaviors.  It will be difficult, but a no is a no.

When your child’s behaviors start to de-escalate, it is still possible to offer her alternative and/or giving her a chance to select her own, but never give in.

If your child already engages in the most extreme challenging behaviors such as self-injurious behaviors or property destruction or any other behaviors that compromise the safety of others during times when he or she is denied access to something, we highly recommend that you immediately seek assistance from a trained professional.