When Kids Can’t Have What They Want

When Kids Can’t Have What They Want

“Our 14-month-old, Sam, really gets mad when he can’t do or have something he wants. He’ll hold on tight to an object, and if we take it away, he will try to get it back and fuss a lot. I’m worried about frustrating him too much, but my mother tells me that kids just have to learn that they cannot always get what they want.”

How to respond when the wants of parents and children differ is one of The Big Questions of parenting. Things usually go well when parents and kids want the same things — problems start when they don’t!

On the one hand, high levels of parental tolerance for and gratification of child wants are associated with high levels of child attachment, social competence, positive mood, and self-confidence.

On the other hand, parents have to be in charge. But studies show that a large proportion (sometimes half!) of all parental control behaviors with young children are idiosyncratic and unnecessary. The typical toddler experiences an average of roughly 20 restrictions of his or her wants perhour. How would you feel if someone got in the way of your wishes every three minutes, hour after hour, day by day?

Parental control is generally needed when child pursues a good goal in a bad way. Examples include pursuing pleasure by eating too much candy, or trying to learn about the world by sticking a knife into an electrical socket. The goal is fine, but the methods aren’t so hot.

In these cases, how about offering an alternative way for the child to attain the positive goal? For example, if Sam shouldn’t play with your sunglasses (or camera, electrical cords, bread knife, etc.), you could try to interest him in some other acceptable object or activity: “Uh-oh, not that buzzsaw again, Sam! Come here and see these neat blocks. Let’s make a tower!”

Or you could change just the problematic element(s) in Sam’s activities so that he can keep going safely (or neatly, quietly, etc.) with his basic plan. This could include shifting location (water play outside or in the bathtub), altering some feature of the object (a big plastic spoon instead of a metal one), or providing a new target (whacking something other than baby sister’s head).

Research shows that offering alternatives to young children is likely to reduce both non-compliance and fussing. It also teaches children that their parents (or other caregivers) care about their wants, and that other options are often available.

The most effective approach to alternatives is generally as follows:

  • Acknowledge that you know what their (problematic) want is. This lets a child know that his or her communication has been received (a good general principle!) and that your alternative doesn’t come out of the blue.
  • Communicate or do the “control” before offering the alternative (i.e. remove the knife before offering the spoons)
  • Actively engage the child with the alternative, perhaps by playing with it yourself.

Alternatives will not work every time. Nor it is not always appropriate or possible to give an alternative. Sometimes we are just too tired or otherwise occupied. Depending on the age and developmental level of your child, you may want to really get across some point — especially if the problem is a safety issue — before shifting the child’s attention to something new. And as kids get older, they can, will, and need to take more responsibility for generating their own alternatives.

So even when you try hard to offer alternatives, there will be plenty of little opportunities for Sam to learn that life has its limits and he won’t always get what he wants. But especially in early childhood, the emphasis should be on gratifying child wants (sometimes in an alternative form) and giving children a deep sense of confidence in themselves and the world.

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.


Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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