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When Toddlers Say No and Why They Say it!

The first few words out of our children’s mouths, such as mama and dada, are like little warm drops of sunshine on our spirits. But do you have the same feeling about the word, “no”?

The ubiquitous word creeps into a child’s lexicon before most any other word and while it quickly ranks as a top favorite for many a toddler, parents find this stage of a child’s development frustrating and challenging.


Jen Mann-Li, mother of two, describes her daughter, Sadie, three, as a “pro” at using the word no. “She was a late talker; didn’t really talk until she was almost two years old and no was a favorite right away,” Mann-Li says.

Mann-Li says that Sadie refuses to be distracted from what she wants. “She’s very stubborn and will not budge (sometimes literally),” she says. “We have a saying that Sadie will ‘die on that hill’ and she does daily over these ‘silly’ things.”

Why they say it. Laura Murphy is a certified parent coach and president of Real Families, Inc., which helps families work through parenting, marriage and financial issues. She says that the chief child-rearing complaint she hears from parents concerns children refusing to do what the parents want them to do. Not only is the word ‘no’ an easy word for toddlers to say, but Murphy believes, “The biggest reason they say it so much is because they hear it so much from everyone else.” The good news is this phase is completely normal and healthy. “The number one job of a two-year-old is to test every physical limit. Pushing physical limits to find out what the adults will do is a natural approach for a toddler. They need to learn those limits,” Murphy says.

Need a few proactive strategies to reduce the use of the word in your home and forge a path of less resistance?

Change your approach. Challenge yourself to see if you can say no without really saying the word no. For example, if your child asks for a cookie instead of saying, “No, not before dinner” say, “Sure, after dinner.” This exercise will also make you more aware of just how often you say no. “Once we change our approach, we usually notice a change in our children,” Murphy says. Also, talk to your spouse and childcare providers about using other words besides no all the time. But that doesn’t mean you should ban the word entirely. “Say yes as often as possible, and when you say no, mean it,” Murphy advises.

Having a sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. Ingrid Brown has two daughters, four and two, who both went through the ‘no’ phase at around 20 months. “I tried to make a game out of it,” Brown says. “If they said no to everything, I would counter back in a funny voice repeating, ‘nooo’ right back at them and give them a little tickle.”

Offer two choices. Laura Berger, whose children are five and eight, says that when her children were younger, choices helped motivate them to do what she asked. “One choice was the one I wanted them to do and the other was a choice that I knew they would not consider picking (like) either pick your toys up or I’ll throw them away!” Resistance often begins long before a child utters their first word. “When they’re old enough to start flinging food at you from their high chair, they’re old enough to start choices,” Murphy says.

Barring a dangerous situation – like your child refusing to move in a busy street – provide your child with two choices that you like and can live with. “Small choices for the kids, but the adults make the big decisions,” Murphy says. For example, a parent decides on bedtime, but a child chooses between blue pajamas or red pajamas. By giving away small decisions to your toddler, they will have a sense of control over their life, which will likely reduce negative behaviors such as not listening, running away, resistance and temper tantrums. If a child refuses to make a decision in 10 seconds, the parent should make it for them, following up with empathy.

Show empathy, not anger. Murphy stresses that empathy is an important component of providing choices to your child. When you replace anger with empathy, she says, you’ll notice a huge shift. For example, when your child doesn’t get something that they want, say something along the lines of, “I know. It’s a bummer.”

Avoid parenting ‘on the fly.’ Stay calm in the heat of the moment and decide ahead of time on what things to definitely say no to and what you can say yes to. Also, try making a list of the small choices you can offer your child during those more troublesome times of the day.


Christa is a freelance writer and has two children.

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