How to Respond to a Child Who Angrily Says No All the Time

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
April 10, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

“Why does my kid get so angry whenever I ask them to do something!”
“Why won’t he just listen!”

Does this sound familiar? 

It can be extremely frustrating to parents when a child gets angry when they’re told what to do. It can feel like you’re walking on eggshells when you’re parenting a child who has angry outbursts for these reasons. 

But, on the other hand, do we truly want children who always do as they are told? Do we want to raise kids who are only ever happy? 

As nice as it would be to have happy kids who listened all the time and never got angry, it would be doing them a disservice because we wouldn’t be preparing them to flourish in the “real world.”

The good news is we can use these opportunities to prepare our kids to face a world where they won’t always get what they want and will have to do things they don’t want to. 

This blog offers caregivers a deeper understanding of their child’s angry response when they’re being told to do something or when they don’t get their way. 

It will offer practical strategies to turn these situations into teaching opportunities so they learn the skills to make wise decisions, develop emotional maturity and build resilience. 

What Is Counterwill?

When a child feels threatened, it is instinctive for them to push back. This instinct is called counterwill. For children, physical and emotional separation from caregivers is often the most threatening experience. Children who experience frequent and prolonged periods of separation from their caregivers are more likely to push back, resist and defy instructions. In other words, their counterwill is activated!

Here are some examples of when a parent may think they’re seeing defiant behaviour but are actually seeing counterwill in action. 

Example 1: 

Parent: “I already asked you twice – put your Legos away!” 

Child response: “No!” 

Why is a child exerting their counterwill in this situation?

Think about this situation from the child’s point of view: they’ve poured their heart into creating a Lego world, working tirelessly to construct a place that belongs to them, where they feel in control, free to express themselves and safe. When a caregiver demands this child clean it up, the child perceives this demand as a direct threat to their safety.

To lower the level of threat a child feels, focus on connection – join their world, show interest in their efforts and connect with their feelings before making demands. 

Example 2: 

Parent:  “I love how you made a couch for the Lego people; that is so creative! Where is a safe place we can move your Lego world so it doesn’t get wrecked or dirty while we eat dinner here?” 

Child: “I’ll take it to my room!”

Why is the child not exerting their counterwill in this scenario?

Here, the child feels seen. When a child feels seen, they feel safe. When a child feels safe, they don’t need their counterwill!

Counterwill serves to promote development and independence. 

Counterwill is also the instinct to develop independent thoughts, feelings and opinions. It’s developmentally normal and healthy for a child to express their ideas. If the conditions in their life aren’t giving them the space to express their unique perspective, their counterwill instincts are going to kick in to help them get the job done. It’s part of a child’s hardwiring to become an independent person, and counterwill helps them have those opportunities to grow, mature and develop into their own person. 

Counterwill vs. opposition and defiance.

Children who have angry outbursts when they are asked to do something they don’t want to do are often referred to as “defiant” or “oppositional.” Instead of using labels like this, it can help to see any type of defiance or opposition as an activation of the counterwill instinct. 

It can help to shift our language and perspective from remarks like “my child is so defiant” to “my child is expressing their counterwill.” 

When we shift our perspective, it can help us separate our child from their behaviour. Kids aren’t “defiant” or “oppositional” to intentionally upset us or manipulate us. They feel threatened, and it’s a caregiver’s job to get curious, seek to understand why a child is feeling threatened and reduce their feeling of being threatened.

Use our 30+ page printable to help your child with their anger!

Child Sleeping

How to Respond When Your Child Angrily Says No

1. Acknowledge Their “No” Using Stories

You can validate their feelings and connect with their experience using stories of sameness. 

I understand you’re frustrated; you don’t want to get ready for school. You’re having lots of fun playing with your dolls. When I was your age, I would get really upset when I had to stop playing and get dressed. It felt really tricky.”

2. Redirect Their Attention Using Playfulness

Children can have really “sticky” brains, so it can help to shift their attention away from the situation when they are responding angrily. Kids of all ages respond really well to playfulness or humour, so this strategy can shift their attention just enough to diffuse the situation. 

“Mr. Teddy is going to get you dressed! Should he put your shirt on your head or on your feet?”

3. Set a Loving Limit

You can empathize with your child, redirect them, and still get a “no!” In this instance, you can assert a firm and loving boundary while making room for all of the big feelings that come when you implement the limits: 

“It’s okay to be upset, but I can’t let you go outside in your slippers. If you want to play outside, we have to put shoes on.” 

How to Avoid “No!” and Boost Cooperation

Boost the Relationship 

Boosting the relationship with your child doesn’t have to be super complicated or time-consuming!

Before your child can ask, take the initiative by doing and saying things that will make your child feel seen and known. Doing so will help them be more receptive to instruction!

  • Sit down next to your child as they watch their favourite show.
  • Show an interest in their interests by asking your child to teach you something you know they love.
  • Ask open-ended questions about their day.
  • Cook their favourite dinner.
  • Surprise them with an after-school coffee date.
  • Tell your child how much you love them.
  • Try talking to your child with respect.
  • Eat dinner as a family.

Related Post: 8 Ways to Get Your Child to Talk About Their Day

Lead with Care

Instead of leading with a demand, start each request with care – whether that’s a caring tone of voice, a caring comment, or directing their attention to who cared for them. Make it really obvious to a child that you have their best interest at heart. 

Option 1: “You need to sit down and finish your homework.”

Option 2: “I know how tricky it can feel to do homework after a long day at school, so I set out your favourite snack to munch on while you work.”

In option 2, your child is more likely to cooperate because they feel seen by you – you understand how hard it is for them, and you’re putting a break in place to meet their need for rest. 

Option 1: “You better not be wearing your nice running shoes outside -put your boots on!”

Option 2: “I knew you would want to play outside after you finished your homework, so I set out your rain boots by the front door!”

Option 2 is a non-threatening way to promote cooperation, and it invites the child to feel cared for by you. When they hear that you set out their boots, it’s a small way of signalling that you know what they like and that you will make sure they’re taken care of. 

The way we word or phrase our requests can either activate a child’s counterwill instincts or their caring instincts. When children feel cared for, they are much more likely to cooperate. 

Encourage Independence

Allowing appropriate autonomy helps build confidence and avoid unhealthy shame and doubt. You can encourage autonomy by offering choices when possible and validating a child’s opinion (even when they can’t have what they want). 

“We can’t have macaroni and cheese for dinner, but I love that you made that suggestion. I’ll include macaroni on the menu for next week!”

“I hear you. You really don’t want to go to school because you want to keep playing. I wonder if you could use this strong voice to help us decide what to play when you get home this afternoon?”

Inviting kids to make some of the decisions can help them feel in control over tasks and signal to them that you value their autonomy. 

For younger kids, this might sound like: “I know you’re upset because you don’t want to get ready for bed. You can decide what you’d like to do first – brush your teeth or go to the potty?”

For older kids, this can involve more mature decisions, for example: “You can either go with dad to the grocery store, or you can come with me to your sister’s soccer game – it’s your choice!” 

Conclusion: Shift Your Approach

If you’re struggling with a child who gets angry when you ask them to do something, consider how you’re asking. When the adults in a child’s life shift their approach, it can have a positive impact on a child’s response. It doesn’t have to be complicated – we can avoid counterwill activation by simply adjusting our tone, shifting our language, and making our care for our children really obvious. 

If you have child who struggles with anger, outbursts, or says no to you all the time, our Anger Toolkit is the perfect solution to help you and your child! 

The Anger Toolkit printable includes:

  • Engaging activities to help you and your child understand their anger, such as the fillable “It’s Okay to Get Mad” storybook.
  • Fun worksheets, games, and colouring pages to teach your child how to cope with and express their anger.
  • Posters full of soothing mantras and calming tools to hang as reminders around your home or classroom.
  • Plus, so much more!

Explore The Anger Toolkit here!

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.