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Toddler Tips

Navigating the "No!" Phase

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 4, July-August 2007, pp. 184-186

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

I used to have the most cooperative toddler anyone had ever seen. Now, all she'll say is "No!" Why is this happening, and how can I get my sweet little girl back?

Mother's Response

You didn't say how old your daughter is, but in our house the opinionated streak seems to develop as our children near their third birthdays.

Since we are currently on our fourth three-year-old and the experience has been nearly universal among our friends, I'm inclined to conclude that this is a typical part of growing up. We have developed some strategies that can help:

  • Give limited options. "Do you want to wear the red shirt or green shirt?"
  • Don't ask yes or no questions when what you are asking is not up for discussion. Give a transition time when appropriate. "We need to leave the park in five minutes (or after three more times down the slide) to pick up Dad at work."
  • Make games out of tasks you are trying to get done together. "Do you think we can pick up all the toys before the timer goes off?"
  • Find strategies to help you and your daughter be comfortable with the "big feelings" when things don't work out the way she would like them to.

The most important thing we have found is to consider seriously the number of requests we make that the child is likely to disagree with. Children are not going to get frostbite between the house and the car without their coat, even if it is 10 degrees out. In our home, and in the homes of several friends and family, clothing is just not that necessary. No one has died from not washing their hair, even for weeks on end. You get the picture. For every family the things that are going to be negotiable are going to be different, but the less conflict and the more connection you can find, the easier the toddler years tend to be.

Jessica Mattingly
MO USA

Mother's Response

Don't worry. Your lovely little girl is still there. This is an important part of her development. She thinks that she is the center of the universe at the moment. It's part of her realization that you and she are separate people. I remember my daughter being frustrated that I didn't know what she was thinking. Continue with gentle, loving guidance and everything will come good in the end.

Caron Howden
Lothian UK

Mother's Response

It is challenging when a child turns from an innocent infant into a toddler with her own point of view. My daughter also went through the "no stage." I found it came from her need to check her place in the world. Once I thought about it, I realized that children have very little power. Parents typically decide what and when to eat, where to go, and what to do.

With that in mind, I tried to give her some power appropriately by giving her choices when possible. "Would you like to wear the red socks or the blue socks? Should we read this book or that book? Should we walk to the store or would you rather ride in the wagon?" In some cases, wording these very same things in different ways would have resulted in, "No!" or even a tantrum. Had I said, "It's time to go, so get in the wagon," it would not have worked as well.

I also tried to let her know what we would be doing each day so it wouldn't be a surprise. I started to give five-minute warnings before it was time to change activities. I realized that if I were engrossed in my favorite hobby and my husband suddenly told me to drop everything and get in the car to go to some strange location, I'd be mad, too!

As a toddler, our daughter invented a little game. She crawled up to the back of the couch where she could reach the light switch, then turned it on and off, on and off. While it was annoying, my husband and I decided it was one thing she had power over in the world. To her, it was a big deal to be in charge of lighting up or darkening a whole room. We allowed her this outlet. It only lasted a short time, and then she tired of it.

Now that my daughter is four years old, she doesn't say, "No!" as often, but she does attempt to assert her power in other ways. Just this weekend her college-aged cousin was playing with her and my daughter wanted something. My niece told her she couldn't get it for her, which nearly prompted a minor meltdown. I stepped in and told my daughter that her choices were to either go get the item herself, or to do without. She happily jumped up to get it. When my niece wondered why she reacted differently when she had basically told her the same thing, I said, "Because I worded it so it was her choice."

My youngest daughter is 13 months old. I expect she will reach the "no stage" soon. I'm confident that by giving her some power over the big world around her, and by remembering that it is only a passing phase, our family will get through it just fine.

Sue Stuever Battel
Michigan USA

Mother's Response

It sounds like your little girl is starting to see herself as her own person, separate from you, and with her own opinions! As frustrating as it can be to hear a daily stream of "No!" coming from your sweet child's mouth, it can be really exciting to realize that she's trying out her ability to make decisions for herself, and learning the power of language. She's not being defiant or disrespectful; she's just testing how much control she has over her own life. By responding positively to this new development and helping her learn to make her own choices, you're setting the stage for better communication and easier discipline as she grows.

Since your daughter seems to want the chance to make choices for herself, use this to your advantage. Instead of telling her what she must do (and providing the perfect opportunity for yet another "No!"), giving her choices of when, how, or what order can allow her to feel more in control. For instance, when it's time to go to bed, it probably doesn't matter if she puts on her pajamas first or brushes her teeth. You can say things like, "It's time to get ready for bed. Which would you like to do first— brush your teeth or put on your pajamas?" Sometimes, giving her the chance to make a safe yes or no decision gives her the opportunity to practice her new skills and feel as though she has control over her life.

You might also want to help your daughter learn the words for what she's trying to say. Right now, "No" may be the only way she can express herself. You can rephrase to help her learn how to verbalize what she's feeling and what she needs. For example, if you tell her it's time to leave the park and her response is "No," you might say, "You're unhappy because it's time to leave. You're really having fun right now and you're disappointed it's time to leave. Let's choose one more activity before we have to go."

It might be that your daughter isn't getting the chance to prepare for transitions. You probably start the day with a list of tasks that must happen: getting dressed, eating breakfast, or going to the grocery store. Letting your daughter know what activities to expect during the day can help her be ready. Giving her a warning teaches her that what she's doing is valuable (after all, to her, finishing a puzzle is just as important as grocery shopping) and lets her prepare for what's next. Instead of saying, "It's time to stop," give her a five-minute warning and time to transition to the next activity. At first, you might need to help her find a stopping place, but you and she will be glad she has the opportunity to learn this skill at a young age.

Finally, watch how you use the word "No." Instead of saying "No" to something, consider: "You can't play with my phone, but you can play with your phone." Give her the proper action. Say, "Stop!" or "Danger!" instead of "No!" when she's about to run into the street or grab a hot drink. When you do say "No," make sure you mean it and back it up by enforcing the limit and maintaining the boundary.

You might appreciate the ideas in The Discipline Book by William and Martha Sears, or ADVENTURES IN GENTLE DISCIPLINE by Hilary Flower. What you're experiencing is a normal part of toddler development. Reading about other mothers' experiences and ideas can help you react positively to your daughter's new skill.

Cheri Kannarr
Davis CA USA

Mother's Response

I guess lots of us have gone through similar episodes as our children grow and, little by little, develop a sense of self and ideas that are separate from those of the parents.

My daughter was three when she started saying "No!" to wearing shoes and a seat belt. I felt she was just being very disagreeable. I remember it happening in a shop. The shopkeeper told her that children shouldn't say "No," especially to their mothers. I mulled things over for the next day or two and spoke to some wise friends. It became clear to me that actually learning to say "No" was an extremely important stage for my daughter to go through. It might even save her life one day, and I needed to allow her some practice.

Sensing that my daughter needed to exercise more control in her life, I started to present her with situations in which she could make her own choices. Choosing her own plate or cup, letting her decide if we should walk or drive to the park, or picking which shoes to wear. We played role-playing games where I was the child and she the parent. We walked in the woods and practiced shouting out "No!"

It took only a few days until her reasonable behavior returned. I continued to give her lots of opportunity for control over small areas of her life and it really seemed to extinguish her need to look for battles.

Now my daughter is older and she still is quite strong willed, but her ability to negotiate is very good. Her intuition and sense of personal safety are very strong and we all respect her judgment.

Sandra Thomson
Midlothian UK

Mother's Response

It was a shock for me to find I had a child who said "No!" I quickly realized that I couldn't persuade my daughter to change her mind, so I played detective. I made an effort to keep track of when these episodes occurred.

I discovered that when she needed to eat she would become uncooperative. This seemed odd at first because, as a toddler, she was always snacking in addition to the regular meals I made. I found that these difficult times often meant she needed something more than a quick snack—she was really hungry and needed a meal. I would see her face twist in that way I knew a big "No!" was coming and I'd quickly fix something to eat and offer it. What a change within a few minutes after eating!

Hunger may not be a trigger for your daughter. Perhaps she is tired or overwhelmed by a situation. While I wasn't always able to head off a confrontation, I had fewer challenges when I learned to anticipate the triggers.

Margaret Pezzella
Lincolnshire IL US

Mother's Response

As your toddler grows, the ability to say, "No!" is one way she will exert her independence. Sometimes parents have success with phrasing requests that can't be answered with a "Yes" or "No." That may help. Remembering that she is still learning how to communicate her wants and needs may be helpful. While she may say one thing, it's quite possible that's not exactly what she means, or it may not be what you take it for. Our little ones can acquire language at an early age, but they don't have years of experience using it like we do.

Have fun with her! Accentuate that which you find reminds both of you that things can be more harmonious. Do your best to stay positive and take it from a mother of three, it will change. Of course, once you get used to the way things are, you'll be presented with a new, interesting challenge. That's the excitement of parenting.

Amy Bradley
East Lansing USA

Mother's Response

Whether you can identify a cause for the behavior change or not, there are some things you can do to make life easier. Keep your daily schedule relaxed and regular. Maintain your daughter's usual bed time and nap times and make sure she eats healthy foods. Plan to spend extra time with her. Keep your days unhurried, even canceling outings occasionally if it will help. If things get really bad, take a break and read a book or watch TV cuddled together as a way to reconnect. Overlook small infractions. Spend time outside together. By shaping her environment to help her behavior, you are teaching her lessons in handling stress that will stay with her as she grows up and learns how to nurture herself during physically or emotionally draining seasons.

Michele Call
Florissant MO USA

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