How to Teach Children to Wait and Accept No

Does your client or child have a difficult time accepting no and waiting? We’re getting a lot of questions regarding these two issues. So today I have answered a question from our online community about how to teach a child to accept no when they can’t have something and to wait for something when they can have it.

Say your child loves balloons. You go somewhere where there are balloons, but the child isn’t allowed to have them because the balloons are somebody else’s. Your child then is freaking out because he wanted the balloons and was told no. That’s one example of when we want to teach a child to accept being told no.

He also could want too much of an item like chocolate or bread, or perhaps something he’s allergic to. He may want your phone, but you don’t want to hand them your phone because you’re afraid that they’re going to break it. 

Another related issue is waiting. Maybe they can have your phone, but they have to wait or maybe they can eat the pizza, but you have to cook it first or make it first. And so there’s this waiting for things you want, or accepting no flexibly and not crying and screaming and flopping on the ground.

Toddlers and Crying 

Even if your child is typically developing – everything is going fine in terms of their development – babies come out of the womb crying to get their needs met. So they cry when they need their diaper changed. They cry when they want to milk, to be fed, to be soothed, when they’re hurt. So it is a totally normal reflex that you cry and you get things. 

But as kids progress to one and then two and three, we develop language. That is really what should take the place of most toddler crying. Now, of course, if a child is injured or sick or hurts themselves, you would want to cuddle them and make them feel better. But if their crying behavior is because they want their fourth piece of chocolate or a second popsicle and you don’t want them to have a second popsicle, there are times when you are going to have to say no. And it’s going to be a lot. 

You can teach your kids to wait and accept no, no matter if they’re one year old typically developing, or five years old and on the autism spectrum.

How To Help A Child Accept No

We do want to use the four-step Turn Autism Around Approach, which starts with assessment. So if your child is not accepting no and is crying frequently, they might be crying not only because they were told no, but also they might be crying when they are told to do something that they don’t want to do. So we have to get a baseline. 

Is this happening two times a week? Or are the full-out tantrums because they can’t get something happening 40 times a day or a thousand times a day? We want to get a rate of what they’re crying about and if that crying escalates to flopping on the ground, hitting themselves, hitting others, or biting themselves. This helps to see the magnitude of the situation.

Making A Plan

Next, we want to make a plan, which is the second step of the Turn Autism Around Approach. You will want to spend 95% of your time trying to prevent crying and giving reinforcement. This is an extreme example, but if your child loves balloons and you’re going to go to a birthday party where he won’t be able to have those balloons that are tied to the chairs, you might want to bring a balloon or something in your bag. That would be a preventative strategy. 


The biggest thing about preventing crying or other problem behaviors related to accepting no is you’re going to have to say yes a lot. And that’s why the teaching part, the third step of the Turn Autism Around Approach, is very much about getting easy early learner materials paired with reinforcement. Because while you may not be saying yes, saying pig and giving the child a pig and putting that pig into a puzzle is actually very positive.

It’s hopefully easy for your child and all that reinforcement is like one big giant yes for the child. It might even be three yeses. Like he says it, you say it, and he says it again. That’s great. You might say, “yay, you said pig!” He puts it in the puzzle- that’s another yes. And so we want to help the child get his needs met. We want to be the “spoiling grandmother.” And we want to be giving him lots of good things, especially when he’s calm, he’s happy, and he’s attending. 

And then if he does cry or whine, we want to stop being such a spoiling grandmother. We want to pull it back. Now, we’re not going to scream at a child, yell or even be that firm. We’re just going to try to get calm again. Because if a child is used to crying to get what they want, they’re now going to have to learn that crying isn’t going to actually do that anymore.

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Follow the Shush and Give Procedure

The count and mand procedure, which was developed by Dr. Vincent Carbone, is where you say “no crying” or “shhh” and count out loud to 10. I took that approach and I made it very babyish, very gentle, very kind. I call it the shush and give procedure.

So you may have something the child wants, but they’re still crying. You can’t just hand it over. It’s also not a good idea to say “I’ll buy you that tomorrow” or “you have to understand that somebody else’s balloon.” Even trying to calm them down when they’re crying is reinforcing.

So you want to do a shush and give where you say “shhh,” and as soon as they’re quiet, then you can offer them the balloon. But if they can’t have the balloon, you still have to do a shush and then offer them a couple of other choices. Like maybe they can’t have that balloon at the neighbor’s table, but they could have an iPad or a cookie.

You might want to hold up the choices. Again, if they start screaming or crying, calmly wait, do a shush again and then offer them the choice. Or if you know he would want the cookie then shush and as soon as he’s quiet, give him a cookie. That’s a silent count of just a few seconds. 

Taking Data

The fourth step of the Turn Autism Around Approach is to evaluate and take data. So you took your baseline data. He cries and doesn’t accept no 50 times a day on average. Once you put the strategies within my approach in place, you should really get those toddler tantrums to subside. We’re not looking for perfect here. You know, they might still be whimpering a little bit. It’s just a shaping procedure. 

There are standard ABA procedures called accepting no procedures, but those are pretty strict and they require a lot of data. They require a lot of expertise. So I don’t recommend that you as a parent or early intervention provider necessarily run anything official. There’s also a waiting program where, incrementally, you could increase the time that the child’s supposed to wait.

Teaching Kids to Wait

But when you think about you or I waiting for something, say you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. You’re not just standing there idle, waiting, and sitting with your hands folded. We are scrolling through Facebook. We’re thinking about what we’re gonna make for dinner. We’re talking on the phone.

So my idea of teaching children to wait, which is related to accepting no, is to keep them busy with something engaging while they’re waiting. If they need to wait for the pizza to be done, tell them we’re going to set the timer. Get them to play a game or do a puzzle, something preferred while they wait.

Instead of doing official programs, I tend to want to just work with the child and the family to wait and accept no on a natural basis throughout the day. 

Preventing Crying in Toddlers by Accepting No and Waiting

So in summary, prevention is definitely key. We want to say yes a lot and get the child manding for a lot of things before we say no. And then practice accepting no for things that aren’t a big deal. Say the child wants a pretzel, but you give them a chip instead. So you say no to more pretzels, even though they could have more pretzels, and practice offering them a chip instead.

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Learning to accept no and wait is a skill. This is a deficit that a lot of kids have, even kids without autism or any kind of language delays. We just have to make sure that if the child’s crying, we should not be delivering praise or reinforcement of any kind. Wait at least a few seconds before delivering the reinforcement. It may not be the actual item they want. But the child will definitely learn if you follow these techniques. 


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