When they Can’t Have what they Want

Dear Miss Faith, I’m a nanny of two boys, and I’d love your advice on situations like this: The other morning, Joey came down for breakfast and he saw that his dad had put the little brother’s food on a plate that Joey thinks is “his,” and the sight of that triggered a total meltdown. His parents were home (as they often are when I am there) and they assured him that the little brother is just using the plate for this meal, we all share anyway, etc. but Joey wouldn’t have it.. he totally freaked out, started crying, etc. At that point a lot had been said already, we all did our best to slow down, comfort him, connect, distract, etc. but it took a good long time before he calmed down. So yeah, any suggestions in regards to that type of scenario would be much appreciated!!

Dear Nanny,

When people tell a child ‘no’ about something (as in, “No, I won’t take the food off of this plate I’ve prepared for your brother”), and the child is disappointed/sad/angry, our normal reaction tends to be, “I know you love that plate, BUT your brother’s using it right now.” This usually doesn’t go well! So then we might try connecting by identifying their feelings: “You feel sad/angry, you wish you had that plate, don’t you.” The desire to connect is a good one, but focusing on their bad feelings only helps them go deeper and deeper into them, often leading a full-blown tantrum.

Instead, try this: Your first response should let them know that you won’t change your mind, but instead of hammering in the “no” aspects, end with a positive thought you want them to focus on. So instead of saying, “I know you love that plate, but your brother’s using it today,” switch the first sentence around, omitting the BUT entirely: “Your brother’s using that plate right now. You love that plate, don’t you?”

This sentence acknowledges his feelings, but it focuses on his positive feeling around the plate, rather than his negative feelings around not being able to have it. Talk about those positive feelings some more, and really acknowledge how much he loves the thing that he wants (a plate, to go with Daddy, to stay in the sandbox when it’s time to come in). After you’ve acknowledged his feelings, continue talking about things that he loves, and let it evolve into a new topic, using your imagination. This can help him move on. It might go something like this:

“You love that plate! It’s your favorite plate, isn’t it. Do you usually eat off of it?” He nods, unsure of where this is going. “What will you eat off of it the next time it’s your turn? Maybe macaroni and cheese. I know you love macaroni and cheese. I do too! Mmmmm…. (pause for a moment.) Did you know that when I was a little girl, on my birthday I was allowed to choose any food I wanted for dinner on that night, and I always chose macaroni and cheese. If you could choose any food for your birthday, what would you choose?” Then, maybe he’s not ready to be happy yet, and he starts crying, “I want macaroni and cheese.” You think, ‘oh great. Now I’ve done it.’ You continue, “I wonder when we’ll have macaroni and cheese again. Do you think we’ll have to wait for your birthday? I know…I’m going to pretend that my rice with veggies is macaroni and cheese.” Take a bite, and say, “Mmmm….yum! I can taste noodles, and cheesiness….do you taste it too, in your imagination?” Saying ‘yes’ to them in fantasy (by pretending to give it to them, or imagining that you would give them a huge amount if you could, or talking about how great it will be once they get it, etc.) can move them out of a sense of lack and into a sense of imaginative fun.

These techniques, of ending your “you can’t have that” sentence with a positive statement, focusing on what they love about the thing they want, then helping them move on by telling a story or saying ‘yes’ in imagination, can really increase your enjoyment of your children, and your children’s enjoyment of you, while still keeping boundaries and gentle authority nice and strong. Give it a try!

Warmly, ~Miss Faith


  1. jo catchot says

    Sometimes “NO” is needed to be said, even if they throw a fit or not. Such as “NO! Do not put that hairpin in the outlet!” “NO Running out in the parking lot!” “NO you may not SUPERMAN off the refrigerator!”
    We can’t always expect them to be happy. They have to learn there is a limit and a line they can not cross.

    • Absolutely! “No” has its place, especially when safety is involved and speed is needed. Another thing I’ll do when I need a child to stop RIGHT NOW and I’m not next to them, is to clap twice, very loudly. This usually startles them and has them looking at me, and then I’ll tell them what I want them to do next: “You may put that hairpin down on the floor.” “You may come and hold my hand.” “You may sit down and I’ll come lift you off of the fridge.”

  2. Sonya Tracy says

    My goodness Faith! This response is amazing and very very helpful! thank you:) perfect timing for me to be reading this:) thanks so much for your wisdom!

  3. Clara Johnson says

    What if this doesn’t work? My 2.5 year old is sometimes ok with it, but the majority of the time will scream “no!” over and over while waiving his hands.

    • Clara, Nothing works all the time! These suggestions are just two tools to keep in your tool box. At 2.5, one thing that can help some kids recover from being disappointed is to get into motion: go to a different place (different room, outdoors, etc.) or move in fun/funny ways (wiggly-walk, jumping, bear walks, etc.). The more you can get into it with him, the quicker he’ll be likely to move on. Being able to “make do” with something that’s not as fun as what you originally wanted is a skill that will serve your son for the rest of his life. You can’t TELL him to get over it, but you can show him how. As he gets better at it, you can ask him to do more of the heavy-lifting. “The train is done for today. What can you find to do instead?” If he can’t come up with something on his own, you step in and help him. He’ll get the hang of it!


  1. […] have enough energy, try transforming his emotion through use of imagination (as I show in my post Dealing with Disappointment). But on this day, perhaps you can’t. You don’t have the energy for that, so do the […]

  2. […] again with them tomorrow. Then I’d help him move through his disappointment (see my post When They Can’t Have What They Want). Is all of that a lot of work? Well, yes. But in my opinion, it’s worth putting in that […]

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