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What to do when your child learns to say “no”

At first, we can’t wait for kids to speak, encouraging their first words. We delight in every word – right up until they learn the word “no”, and it seems to be all they will say.

Kids hear the word “no” often in their lives, and they learn it is a word that carries a lot of power. It has the potential to rock their world! 

“No” usually comes when a child is in an ego-centric stage of development. During this phase, the child believes that everyone shares the same point of view as the child. For example, they might be thinking:

This is my truck; I love this truck. We all agree that I will be the only one to play with the truck. I will play with it until I decide that I am finished playing. I decide everything.

Then a parent has the audacity to suggest that the truck be shared – or, worse yet, that we stop playing with the truck to eat a snack.What are you thinking, parent? Do you not realize that I am playing with the truck until I say we stop?

Then follows a tantrum of immense proportions! The child is feeling huge frustration about their parent obviously not understanding what everyone (but really, just the child) knows as the truth.

In response, the parent says “no”, takes the truck away, and carries the child to the table and the world is pretty much over. “No” is powerful. People in power use the word “no”.

Suddenly, your child starts thinking:

Hmm, how can I get that power? What if I start saying “no”? I’m going to try it right now. Wow – my parents just stopped in their tracks. Now they’re begging me and pleading with me. I’m going to say it again and see what happens!

And so, it continues.

Let’s face it, none of us like to be told “no”. It’s hard to hear as a child and hard to hear as an adult.

As an adult, we feel that our authority is being questioned (and it is). However, that doesn’t mean that we have suddenly lost all authority –  just that there is an experiment happening. We can choose to react like a toddler and yell, or we can respond like an adult.

Here are some options of things to say:

“Sounds like you don’t want to sit before you eat your snack. I’ll know you’re ready for a snack when you sit down.”

“Looks like you need to run around a few times before snack time. Would you like to run three laps around the yard or four?”

“Sounds like you don’t want me to strap you into the car seat. Which strap are you going to put on first? You do one and then we can do the second one together.”

“Wow…we’ve got a problem. You want X, I want Y and we both need to figure out a solution. 

What’s our first step? I know we can work this out as a team.”

Of course, there are times when the thing must be done and be done quickly (holding hands to cross the street, getting into the car to go to a destination). When that happens, you can acknowledge the feeling and make it happen:

“Wow, you really don’t want to hold my hand and we need to keep everyone safe.” Take their hand. “I can hear you’re mad and that’s okay. We’ll be across this parking lot soon and then when your body shows me it is ready to control itself, we can each have a bit more freedom. I’ll know you’re ready when you stop pulling and can stay close.”

Other things to watch for:

Notice how you are speaking with your child. Are you asking, or telling? Asking sounds like: “Are you ready for a bath?” Telling sounds like: “It’s bath time.” (or) “The clock says it is bath time in two minutes.” When you ask, you are telling your child that both a “yes” or a “no” is perfectly acceptable. When you tell, you are signaling an expectation. 

How often are you saying “no”? Do you say “no” all the time? Could you get clear about when you really need to say “no” and use a “yes, but later,” or “maybe” at other times?

Be aware of when your child is using “no”. Are they trying to get your attention away from something (pulling you away from your phone, from a conversation with another adult, or from another sibling?) If so, a change of behavior (limiting phone time when playing with your child) or a discussion about why you can’t always give them your attention right away may help. You can involve them as a helper if you’re in the middle of a task and refrain from giving instructions or further attention (except reminders) until you are done. Then you can praise your child for doing what you’ve asked. They won’t need to say “no” to get your attention.

A final word about no. “No” is an important lesson in a child’s life. We need to save it for when we know we will follow through. If you are throwing out a “no!” as your first response and it suddenly becomes “maybe” or “yes”, your child won’t learn that “no” sets a clear boundary, often used for safety of self and others.

Be firm with your “no!” so that you can teach your children that “no means no”. Learning that at a young age will help your child to stick to a firm “no” when someone is pressuring them to do something that feels wrong.

There will be many times when your child refuses to follow your instructions. It happens to every parent, many times over many years! We get to choose whether to ignore our child and end up in a power struggle, or to find ways to respectfully acknowledge emotions and solve the problem. If you need more help, let me know. I’ll help you find your voice! 


Author, blogger, podcast host and parenting expert, Julie has been supporting parents across North America for 20 years. Through her company JFS Parent Education, she helps parents find relief from their everyday parenting challenges. Want to know how she can help you? Email her today: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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