One of the first words we learn as children is “No”.
We learn the meaning of “No” early in our development. It’s a quick and easy instruction. “No” is simple and used regularly – especially with toddlers because it is immediately effective at that age. A stern “No”, and an action to stop the child quickly ends the behaviour that we don’t want.
The effectiveness of this strategy usually backfires for us when our child learns to parrot “No” back to us. Often called the “terrible twos”, children start to assert their self determination. They learn that if “No” works on them it should work on everyone else. From childhood, we become accustomed to hearing and giving instructions that start with “Don’t” and “Stop”. We learn that “Don’t hit” or “Stop talking” is quick, clear and easy to comply with – but is it really? In the long run, the “No” strategy often ends up creating more problems for us than solutions.
As parents, we often become frustrated and angry with our children because when we tell them what not to do, they quickly find something else to do that is equally undesirable. “Stop talking” becomes singing or whispering, “Don’t hit” becomes poking or kicking.
Without clear instruction, children are often frustrated as well. They have followed your instruction, but now they’re in trouble for doing something else! They have a multitude of other behaviours to choose from and feel overwhelmed, (or fearful), at the potential of further failure. Children often prefer clear direction so that they can be successful.
In children challenged by Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), negative language usually ensures the child will do exactly what you told them not to do. In our home, telling our child with Oppositional Defiance Disorder to not something prompts him to do it. Then he will quickly apologize because he was compelled to do it, and in the end, everyone feels bad.
Consider this simple example of positive and negative language for instruction.
Positive language instruction:
Think of a green monkey.
What happened? Did you comply with the request? You probably did and even if you didn’t, I would bet that you didn’t think of a pink elephant which is exactly what I didn’t want you to do.
Negative language instruction:
Don’t think of a pink elephant.
What happened? In order for you to NOT think of a pink elephant you were forced to think of a pink elephant. This is called priming and prompts the child to do something. Unfortunately for everyone, what they end up doing is what you didn’t want to happen.
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