What you Don’t Want to Say to Stop Unwanted Behaviors

What you Don’t Want to Say to Stop Unwanted Behaviors

How often do you use the word ‘don’t’ to stop unwanted behaviour in your children? Does it actually work? Most parents say it does not.

When I first became aware of the little impact this word has, it threw me. I had no idea how often I was using it, and how often it left me feeling more frustrated and annoyed.

The awareness of this word can have a huge impact on the words you choose to guide and teach (discipline) your child. It is fascinating to notice your go-to words in parenting. It was out of my need to actively avoid this word and my own struggles to come up with solutions that inspired me to share with you some alternatives to saying Don’t all the time.

Don’t. It’s one word. It’s quick, said usually in a tone that means business or a nagging tone of frustration.

stop yelling at kids (6)

We do and will feel triggered, annoyed and frustrated with our children from time to time, that is a given. We will most certainly feel the need to stop some behaviours quickly too. Here is the clincher the word ‘don’t’ has very little impact, in the guiding of your child’s behaviour.

Of course, some behaviours need to be stopped very quickly to avoid danger. So if you are using Don’t as your favourite go-to discipline strategy maybe these ideas will be helpful to you:

Don’t Doesn’t Work
The word ‘don’t’ when used often in discipline is unhelpful because your brain (and your child’s brain in particular) cannot compute the word don’t. The brain does not register the word don’t, and makes it non-effective in communicating and guiding children. Because of its closing off and shutting down nature, it also does not effectively communicate what you are trying to achieve or encourage.

“Don’t run in the pool area.”
“Don’t touch the wet paint.”
“Don’t forget to drop the mail off.”
“Don’t hit your brother.”
“Don’t whinge.”
“Don’t do that.”

Right now, I DON’T want you to think of a pink elephant in a blue tutu. Don’t you dare think about that pink elephant up on his tip-toes in his frilly blue, spotted tutu?
Now, what are you thinking about? Do you see what I mean?

It’s not only fascinating, but very helpful information. It helps to recognize that the very thing you want to avoid may very well be the thing you are encouraging. It supports us all to be more mindful of our language and how we influence children to communicate their boundaries too.

3 Ways to Actively Avoid the word DON’T

Encourage What You DO Want
Since the word ‘don’t’ does not register when attempting to stop unwanted behaviour, you could instead focus on the behaviour you do want to encourage. By placing emphasis on the behaviour that you want, you can more easily guide your child in these situations and speak openly and honestly in communicating your needs and what it looks and sounds like.
For example:
‘Use your walking feet.’ RATHER THAN ‘Don’t run.’
‘Practice taking your time, slow down.’ RATHER THAN ‘Don’t rush.’
‘Can you show me your patience?’ RATHER THAN ‘Don’t push in.’
‘It’s dangerous when you run on wet cement, slow down and walk around the pool.’ RATHER THAN ‘Don’t run around the pool.’
‘It’s not helpful when you whinge. Use your normal tone and I can hear you.’ RATHER THAN ‘Don’t whinge/Don’t whine/Don’t nag/Don’t complain or a big frustrated ‘don’t’.’

Notice Your Don’t Reflex. Is It a Habit?
It is an easy word to pick up as a habit, especially when you feel drained for energy, upset, hangry or at the peak of a challenging phase with your child.
Practice actively listening to the language you are using. Does the word “don’t”’ pop up more often than you would like, and in what types of situations do you tend to use it? Is it useful? The more aware you are of your language, the easier it will be to modify your own behaviour and emotions and choose other ways to respond.
Pay particular attention to:
• How quickly you jump to say it.
• If it is the first word you use when you want to stop unwanted behaviour.
• How it makes you feel when you use it.
• The tone in which it is used.
• The number of times you use it within a day.
• Does it have the desired outcome?
• If it works.

Be Prepared.
Plan ahead… it’s all in the preparation. Have some other phrases up your sleeve to use instead of the word ‘don’t,’ and practice them so that when a stressful situation comes up, you are prepared to use it and not be drawn into old habits or the reflex to say it.
Good alternatives to ‘don’t’ include:
• You need to make a different choice.
• Check in with yourself?
• How’s that working for you?
• Notice what you are doing
• That is not a choice
• Do you need my help with that?
• That is not helpful, make a different choice.
• Can you practice using your ….? (Gentle hands, walking feet, inside voice, strong legs, assertive voice).


Enjoy the awareness this information brings to your parenting and if you have the ‘don’t’ reflex, go easy on yourself and don’t, don’t yourself .

Happy whole-hearted parenting!

**Kerry will be offering workshops on Positive Discipline and Cultivating Harmony At Home starting in January (in person and online options). For more information, check out her blog. ***


The following two tabs change content below.
Kerry Spina is a parent educator and author.  She is the owner of Kids in Harmony a music and values program for children and their families and she lives with her family in sunny Townsville, Queensland Australia.  Kerry has been privileged to work with over 20,000 families in the past 12 years and her mission is to inspire and support the nurturing of happy, whole-hearted and resilient children. Kerry's latest downloadable resource; The Little Book of Harmony Colouring Book.

2 Responses to What you Don’t Want to Say to Stop Unwanted Behaviors

  1. My kids preschool director told teachers and parents to avoid “don’t–if she needed to deal with something right away she would say “NOT running” (or something similar). This was about 40 years ago–her name was Clare Cherry, of Temple EmanuEl Preschool in San Bernardino. She also wrote several books on preschool education.

Follow Us

Copyright Notice: It is not permitted to copy, re-blog or distribute contents without prior written permission from the Positive Parenting Connection.