elevating child care

What To Do When Toddlers Say NO

Hi Janet,
I am at a bit of a loss as to how to move forward with my son. He is 26 months and has recently started saying ‘no’ to all of my requests, regardless of what they are. My husband and I try very hard to pose our responses positively, avoiding ‘no’ as much as possible.  Rather than ‘no throwing food’, we would say ‘please leave your food on your plate’. So, we are not sure where this is coming from. Also it makes things quite difficult. I am hoping you have some advice. 
One example is getting into his pj’s for bedtime. This is now taking well over half an hour because he just refuses to put them on. I am trying very hard not to force him and give him as much opportunity to do it himself as possible, but it is making no difference. He is not throwing tantrums though, just quite matter-of-factly saying ‘no’ and then going about his business. I find myself just sitting there at a loss, not knowing what to do.
If you have any advice at all I would really appreciate it. 
Thank you again for your wisdom.
Kate

Hi Kate,

This made me smile. Your boy sounds adorable! NO is exactly what he should be saying at this time of his life. It is a POWER word key to his burgeoning autonomy. He’s feeling his independence. Don’t let it rattle you in the least. In fact, welcome his differing opinion and acknowledge it. That’s what he wants. Just don’t give in to it.

So, when he says “No, I don’t want to put my PJs on”, stay calm. “Oh, I hear you. You don’t want to put on your PJs. What would you like to wear to bed?” Or maybe, “Which of these (2) PJs will you wear?”  Or, “I hear you don’t want to put on your PJs. Perfectly understandable. But we won’t have time for a book if you can’t get them on in the next 5 minutes.” Or “Would you like to put these on now, or in five minutes?”

The key is to continue to encourage his autonomy and give him options so that he doesn’t feel bossed around. Be effortlessly in charge. Totally unthreatened. Worst case scenario: he sleeps with his regular clothes on. Even then, you could always try, “I want you to be comfortable, so I’m going to help you put these pajamas on now. Or, can you do it yourself?”  Then you might say, “We don’t have time for a book now because you didn’t put your PJ’s on in time, but hopefully tomorrow we’ll get to bed a little earlier. I love you very much… Goodnight.”

Saying “Please leave the food on your plate” might work sometimes, but he may need options there, too. Throwing food is a pretty clear signal that he’s not hungry. I don’t believe that it’s punitive to give children the boundary, “While you are eating, I want your food to stay on the plate. Throwing the food means you are done. I’m going to put the food away for later when you’re hungry again.”

Does this make sense? Just keep in mind that NO is a very healthy, positive word for your boy to be experimenting with right now, and a reflection of his secure attachment. You might even play a game with him where you offer him a bunch of choices (toys, clothes, food, whatever), and he gets to keep saying NO. I remember spontaneously beginning a game like this with my toddler daughter when she was in the bath. She was playing with the bath toys, pouring water out of a cup or bottle, I think. And when she hesitated a little before doing whatever it was, I said a big NO in a way that she knew was teasing. Then she kept repeating the action and saying, “Say NO to me” with a big smile on her face. And I did, while acting very serious. She got to experience the powerful feeling of going against my “wishes”. That game became an instant favorite to be repeated at every bath. She couldn’t get enough of it!

Hope this helps…

Cheers!

Janet

Hi Janet,

Thank you so much for the advice. I have been trying to give J choices, and it has made a world of difference. I gave him a choice of pj’s, a choice of two stories, that sort of thing. He has really responded well to having some options. Also it has been a big stress reliever for me. Yesterday morning he wouldn’t get dressed. I gave him a choice of clothes but he still refused. So I calmly said that I heard that he didn’t want to get dressed right now and that I was going to make some breakfast, and when he was ready to get dressed to let me know and I would come and help him. He immediately said he was ready to get dressed and have breakfast.  It takes a bit of practice but we are both communicating better.

I try to be calm and respectful, but it is really helpful to have the actual words to say. I did actually say exactly what you wrote.  I felt prepared, J felt heard, and we are happier. 

Thanks again, 

Kate

Kate has a lovely and engaging website, An Everyday Story, in which she shares her experiences home-educating her two children, primarily using Reggio principles of child-led investigations as well as Montessori principles for living. I highly recommend it!

(Photo by Just Taken Pics on Flickr.)

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40 Responses to “What To Do When Toddlers Say NO”

  1. avatar Holly says:

    Our 29 month old is the same way. Just a matter of fact ‘no’. No fuss, just a look that says, ‘I said no, what are you going to do about it?’. It is cute, although it can be frustrating sometimes.

    I’ve found that giving choices is sooo much easier than ‘forcing’ a child. Easier on everyone. Sometimes the choice is simply “this needs to be done, and either you do it, or Mommy will do it for you” but even that gives her the choice to either do it herself (which she does like to do), or be ‘taken care of’, which everyone needs now and again. :)

    • avatar janet says:

      Holly, your point about children wishing to be ‘taken care of’, even when they are fully capable of doing the task themselves is brilliant and important. Toddlers sometimes say NO to our request to get dressed, etc., because they want attention and intimacy. Giving a child the option of “doing it for you” is the perfect way to honor that need.

      • avatar Leslie Tello says:

        And what to do with a 14 month old?

        How to give choices to a baby that young?

        When he refuses to have his clothes changed I try giving him some time to keep playing or to go where he wants but then after a second try he usually refuses. So I say ok I’ll change your clothes now and I force him… he of course goes wild and all I have is battle between us. I have noticed though, that when I tell him what I am doing to him (something like “Ok, first goes the right arm”) He makes eye contact and calms down. Even though that doesn’t happen every time he protests against having his clothes changed.
        Can you please give me a hint? I feel pretty bad when I see myself forcing him into it and making him mad.

        • avatar janet says:

          “…when I tell him what I am doing to him (something like “Ok, first goes the right arm”) He makes eye contact and calms down.” Your respectful communication and your son’s participation are the key to making these activities something he either enjoys or would like to avoid. Children do not like having things done TO them. If this is the way it has felt for your boy in the past, he’s going to resist… (Honestly, I would, too!) So, when you need to change your boy’s clothes, start early, slow down, show him the blue shirt and the striped shirt and give him a choice (which he is perfectly capable of) and whenever possible, allow him to do it himself.

          • avatar Leslie Tello says:

            Thank you very much Janet

    • avatar Mary Willis says:

      A key point, which Janet has mentioned before, is when (a lot of the time) there is no room for choices- “it is time for pjs” (or coat, or lunch) is all is needed. Who needs a choice for everything- I sure don’t! And esp. someone experimenting with power!
      I am a Montessori teacher, and we make a lot of declarative statements: “it is a coat day.”; ” I am wearing long sleeves”; “(Smile)And it is a coat day.”; “I don’t like my coat”: (nod) “And it is a coat day, see you outside!”

      • avatar janet says:

        Mary, great points and excellent advice… Thank you!

  2. avatar Gina Osher says:

    It’s amazing how simple it can be to communicate and move forward when you don’t meet a child’s “no” with an equally strong push back of “yes!”. Come to think of it, it’s not just children that this works with – we all want to feel heard and understood. Once we have that, it is much easier to hear someone else’s point of view. Great advice, Janet. As usual. :)

    • avatar janet says:

      Gina, thank you! So true that “we all want to feel heard and understood”. That is the key. Sometimes we do have to push back and force an issue. But when it’s possible to give choices, we can sieze the opportunity to provide our children the autonomy they need and allow them to save face.

  3. avatar sara says:

    hi janet,
    love love love this post.
    so timely – as they often seem to be!
    i’ve been reading (and loving) your blog for longer than i should admit considering this is the first time i’ve commented or introduced myself!!

    my almost two year old is big on the word “no” at the moment as well… i totally support it for all the reasons you’ve listed here and we’re big on choices at our house, too.

    one area i find myself in conflict over, however is his delivery of the word! i consider myself to have a pretty high threshold in this department because i absolutely do respect his right to state his preferences and opinions by saying no.

    but in the last week he’s taken to shouting, rather loudly and forcefully, “NO!”.
    (a tone and volume level he isn’t the recipient of himself.)

    i’ve found myself explaining that when he shouts at me it hurts my feelings and that it’s okay to say no but that i don’t like being shouted at.
    i’ve also mentioned that “no thank you” is much nicer to hear.

    i’m trying to speak from the “i”, without telling him what to do.

    i much prefer modeling over correcting coercing – but i also think it’s okay to state my personal boundaries as the listener.

    i’d love to hear your thoughts…

    thanks and love,
    sara

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Sara! Thank you so much for your kind words and especially for introducing yourself!

      Great question… Yes, state your acceptable boundaries as a listener, but don’t make it personal. The shouting will stop sooner if you don’t “react” to it. I wouldn’t say “it hurts my feelings”, even if that’s true (and if it is true, try NOT to let normal, healthy toddler testing hurt your feelings!). Here’s why: 1) Pleading with a child or asking in a vulnerable way can create worry and guilt for the child. 2) The child doesn’t sense our leadership, which makes him uneasy. 3) Our emotional reaction compels a child to repeat the behavior. He wants us to handle his tests easily, with confidence, so that he can feel safe and secure.

      I recommend a response that is straightforward, unflappable, simple, matter-of-fact, minimal. Something like, “That’s too loud. Please tell me what you want in a softer voice.” Or, “Please say ‘no, thank you’, ” as you suggest, but I would skip the “nicer to hear” part because he knows that already… He’s not trying to be nice, he’s asking for some simple direction…believe it or not! And value judgments or even the briefest lecture can give too much negative attention to the behavior. Sometimes you might even let it go altogether. Or say, “Hmm… you’re shouting again and I can’t understand you when you do that.” If the behavior doesn’t “get to you” it will cease.

      Most importantly, stay even keel and unruffled!!!

      Thanks for asking! And I really hope you’ll keep commenting now that you’ve “outed” yourself. :)
      Love,
      Janet

      • avatar sara says:

        seriously this is the most refreshing breath of fresh air… thank you!

        i totally hear you about not letting toddler stuff hurt feelings! it truly doesn’t hurt my feelings so why was i saying it *was*?!

        i could go point-by-point through your email but i’ll be short and sweet: THANK YOU. i agree wholeheartedly with everything you wrote and i appreciate your time and input more than i can even express!

        i really needed a new perspective and i can’t tell you how much this helps.

        you’ll be seeing more of me ’round here!

        xoxo

  4. I thought I was going to want to selflishly add in my two-cents to your post, but you nailed this on da’ head! In fact, I think you said it better than I could have.

    Oh, I just thought of something…

    Whenever I’m trying to decide if this is a moment where I should keep stern to my rules or allow them to do what they want… I quickly think, “Does this really matter at all? Is this a big deal?”

    Also, a benefit that will come of allowing your kid to do their own thing is originality and learning to be more unique.

    I feel that most of the reason why silly, weird, creative kids turn into robots as they get older is because people put unnecessary blocks on their “uniqueness valves.”

    “He wants to wear his underwear backwards to school today? THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!”

    “She wants to wear her ballerina tutu to the mall today? Ridiculous!”

    In reality, who gives a flying butt? We need more originality in this world before we all turn into the same person. Life would get prettttty boring.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hey Anthony, thanks for sharing… I always love your exuberance! Yes, I’m also a believer in staying open and flexible and questioning myself as a parent…a lot. I also agree that kids need autonomy whenever possible (especially while they play) so they can explore their tastes and individuality. I’ve also seen parents take this freedom of choice waaaay to far (as I explain in my comment to Jennifer below).

      Uh, oh. Anthony, could I be turning into you?

  5. avatar jeanne says:

    I adore “be effortlessly in charge.” I will use that daily as much as I can :) Lovely post.

  6. Loving everything happening on this page. Especially you, Anthony. Why is there no ‘LIKE’ button? I WANNA ‘LIKE’ BUTTON! (Go on, say no… lol)

  7. avatar thoughtful one says:

    In addition, I found saying “yes” as much as possible helped. “yes you may have that cookie, with dinner tonight” – “yes you may spit, in the sink”. Etc. With a “no” my toddler would throw a fit. With “yes” he would put the cookie back, or go to the sink, or find something else to do in the meantime. (PS as with all strategies, it doesn’t work every time – but most of the time :-)

  8. i love your reply janet.

    and i’m totally in agreement. my only question might be to consider why it is so important for a two year old to get dressed. There are certainly things i feel are important for my two year old to do and work with him on options but wearing clothes isn’t one of them. He has gone to preschool all year in a variety of clothes: diapers is often his choice when he wants to be “a baby” sometimes his sister’s nightgown, sometimes a spaceman suit, sometimes “regular clothes.” Allowing his the freedom to choose his look (as long as his bottom is covered) gives him a real chance to express himself and I don’t feel worried that because he wears a diaper to preschool at two that he’ll want to do that at three or four. I offer this because I have seen parents feel certain things are “right” and “proper” and I can’t relate when we’re talking about a two year old (not that that is what this mom is saying!)

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Jennifer. I agree with you (and @Anthony) about toddlers being able to choose what to wear when at all possible. Often it doesn’t matter. But there’s a point at which not caring what a child wears is, well, uncaring. I’ve seen little girls show up for preschool in high heels, ball gowns, mini-dresses without underwear, feet pajamas, etc., and I don’t believe those children are feeling their parents’ love or enjoying their individuality while they are tripping, slipping, too cold in just their diaper, hot in their nylon costume, or otherwise unable to play with abandon. Toddlers and preschoolers are impulsive and it’s their job to test our boundaries. It’s up to parents to insist that children wear something comfortable and appropriate. Within those bounds, there are usually a wide enough variety of options to ensure individuality and please the child.

      Kate’s question was about her boy saying NO to everything and she used PJs as an example. Do you believe she should just say, “Okay, skip the PJs tonight, even though it gets cold and you usually kick off your covers”? Or, “Fine, just wear your blue jeans.” I don’t believe a child wants or deserves an uncaring response like that.

      Great conversation topic!

      • avatar Grace says:

        THIS!! Oh, how well put!! Honoring a child’s desire to make choices and express him/herself does NOT mean parents abdicate their responsibility to help ensure that a child is well-cared for! Healthily fed, clean, rested, clothed, and so on. Excellent!

  9. avatar Shannon says:

    Janet, thanks for sharing such a thoughtful response to a very common problem with toddlers. As always I appreciate your ability to explain what is happening from the child’s perspective and to provide simple strategies for parents.

  10. Hi Everyone,

    I’m Kate. I really appreciate all of your comments and thoughts. I do agree that children need options and freedom and I also think that as adults and caring parents, we owe it to our children to give them boundaries and scope to move within those boundaries.

    I am not prepared to give my son free reign, I think this would be neglectful of me if I were. I in no way micro-manage my child but as an adult with life experience I am able to make informed decisions on his behalf and therefore insist that certain things happen. Janet’s very practical advice has really given me the words and the tools to help this happen.

    Thanks to Janet’s advice, my son and I are communicating better and our days are more harmonious. He still says no, and I respect his right to do so, however now he seems to feel empowered when I give him options.

    Thank you everyone. And thanks Janet :)

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Kate! Well said. Finding the balance you describe (and seem to understand so well) between boundaries and freedom is a struggle for many of us. It helps me to remember Magda Gerber’s words, “For the child, there is no real freedom without boundaries.”

      Kate, thanks you so much for asking your questions, trusting me, and allowing me to share our correspondence. :)

  11. avatar Tamara says:

    Hi Janet,
    I’ve just come across the above interesting posts, which encourages me to share this with you. Obviously i cannot write a lot here so i will try to be brief. My daughter has just turned 3 and for a long while, i have been trying so many ways to stop her from crying or nagging if she wants something. To be honest, now with the holidays and the family crowd, this behaviour is even increasing more. Am very proud of her in so many areas, and i feel i just need to help in this for her better feeling. I try to understand what exactly could be bothering her. Thanks a lot for your advise ! Kind regards, Tamara

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Tamara,
      Instead of “trying so many ways”, I advise just staying calm and overlooking the issue of the crying or whining. Gently model the way you would like her to ask… “Are you trying to say please may I have another piece of bread?” Don’t demand she say that, just suggest. If you do not give this behavior attention (which doesn’t mean ignoring your daughter, just not reacting to the behavior) it will pass.

  12. avatar meena says:

    Hi Janet. I am so glad I found your blog through google search.i read done of the questions from parents and I was so inspired by your answers. I really need some help. I have a2.5 year old daughter and she recently learned to say the word stupid from my nephew who is two months older than her and more advanced in language skills.my daughter has just started to say sentences. I can’t control my nephew’s behavior,I have tried to tell my sister couple times but every body had their own way of parenting so I can’t impose anything on them.however I need help on how to control her behavior. I am giving her time outs and explaining her she can’t say that word, it’s not a nice word, she says sorry but then that’s it.she forgets get previous time out. She had very limited language skills so far, because she started taking late. So I don’t know what steps I can take to stop her. Also one more thing, she used to hold a napkin in her hand when she was little and had become her source of comfort.but now she recently learned to chew on them and one or two times she ate the whole napkin.I am so worried about this habit.I have tried her so many ways so forgets about napkins but it isn’t working out. At one point I stopped bringing napkins home then she figured out toilet papers are just like napkins. Thanks for reading my long post.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Meena. You are making way too much of the word ‘stupid’, in my opinion. Even if this was a far worse word to use, I would advice letting it go. You’ve given the word so much power that your daughter can’t help but want to repeat it… If you ignore the word (but not your daughter) rather than having a big reaction, this word will disappear from her vocabulary.

      Something similar may be happening with her chewing on paper. DON’T get wound up and worried, just calmly take the napkin away. “I can’t let you eat that. It is not good for your body.” If you are calm and confident, these little tests will pass. I promise!

  13. avatar Rick Ackerly says:

    brilliant, as usual. I love the full acceptance of NO, and the these four examples of all the choices a parent has for continuing assertion of their (necessary) authority:
    So, when he says “No, I don’t want to put my PJs on”, stay calm. “Oh, I hear you. You don’t want to put on your PJs. What would you like to wear to bed?” Or maybe, “Which of these (2) PJs will you wear?” Or, “I hear you don’t want to put on your PJs. Perfectly understandable. But we won’t have time for a book if you can’t get them on in the next 5 minutes.” Or “Would you like to put these on now, or in five minutes?”
    and at the same time making room for the child’s burgeoning authority.
    Authority doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

  14. avatar Jessica says:

    Hi Janet, I really appreciate your posts, especially regarding toddler discipline. Your approaches really help to take the stress and negativity out of these types of interactions! I have a question, and its a point that I often get stuck on with my 24 month old daughter. In your response above, you say “that’s what he wants. Just don’t give into it.” But you also say, “worst case scenario, he sleeps with his regular clothes on.” This confuses me a bit because the two points seem to contradict each other. How hard do we work to provide and follow through on boundaries versus just saying ok, I hear you, letting them get what they want, and moving on? Does it just depend on the seriousness of the request? Or what am I missing?

    • avatar janet says:

      Ah, good one, Jessica! Yes, you seem to have caught an inconsistency. It does depend on the seriousness…whether this issue is a “red, yellow or green light”. What to wear to bed might be a yellow light and a place to compromise or offer more choice.

  15. Hi Janet,
    So nice to see our correspondence pop up on Facebook this morning. I really needed to read it again! Since sending you my email Jack has definitely grown into his wilfulness :) I shouldn’t be surprised, he is exactly the same as his dad and well most of his dad’s family :) To be honest, as he has grown I have become a little less tolerate of his defiance, rationalising that he is older now and that I am being gentle and reasonable and so why won’t he just do what I ask? :) But reading this again and seeing the comments on FB have made me realise, that at nearly 4, this behaviour is still just as normal as when it was when he was two. It is me who needs to work on my ‘superhero mask’ and not react to the behaviour but rather try to find the cause.

    Thanks Janet. You truly are the most wonderful support for parents. xx

  16. avatar Susan says:

    I read the question, and subsequent answer and i’m left shaking my head. As a mother of 4 who are all now ages18-26, and also a teacher of at risk students, i am speaking with authority to say you people are creating self indulgent, self involved, disrespectful people.
    Children need to learn about boundaries, respect for others, particularly those in authority, and that there are things in life we all need to do, even when we dont want to.
    Do your kids and everyone who deals with them throughout their life, a favor. Teach them that life is NOT all about what they want & dont want. It’s about serving, loving, & recgnizing our need for God.
    My kids were raised to respect my authority, and now that theyre adults, we have a great time together, we love being around each other, they are well respected and loved by all who know them because theyre such loving, caring and very respectful people. They wouldnt be if they were raised the way you people are promoting.

    • avatar janet says:

      Susan, where did you see this not being about giving boundaries? I strongly believe in boundaries as you do… Are you suggesting that a two year old be punished for saying NO to a parent?

  17. avatar Chris says:

    Had same thing with 2 yr old son, i took this as a positive, he is thinking and making choices, so my job was to mold those choices. Stay calm offered options, a negative option, and a positive option. The real trick was sticking to my negative options, but I did, in short period of doing this, my son learnt respect, consideration, and how to co-habitat with others, this then stemmed into him informing his friends on good and bad choices: a massive life lesson in 3 mths, take your opportunities when they present themselves

  18. avatar Jackie says:

    Hi, your posts seem like good advice, but what do I do when my 2 year old doesn’t just say no, he has a raging temper tantrum anytime I even try to change his diaper. He tries to throw himself off the changing table and kick and hit me. I’ve tried explaining that he’ll get a booboo on his bottom, making a game of it with flying to the table, giving him his favorite toys and bribing him with food. Sometimes bribes will work but only after 10 min of repeating it over and over. He’s really good the rest of the day, he listens well and is normally really sweet. But he’s started doing this now with brushing his teeth and even putting on pjs. I’ve also tried giving him options, but he doesn’t want any of them. Please help, I’m a SAHM of twins and my husband works long hours and weekends, so I don’t get much help. I have a babysitter come once or twice a week, but they don’t want her to help with bed time.

  19. avatar Jackie says:

    Btw, I’ve also tried potty training and he says no to that, too…

  20. avatar Charlotte says:

    Hi,
    I’d also like to add my question, which is what do you do when choices don’t work?! My daughter is currently 2.75, extremely verbal and in touch with both her own feelings and also those of others. I love these things about her! She is also incredibly stubborn, which is less endearing! I interpreted the phase where giving choices works as addressing her need for/experimenting with control, but I feel now as if we’ve entered another phase which goes beyond this. She seems to me to be testing her level of power. ie. when I offer choices she will tell me “no, I don’t want either”, or simply “I’m not going to”. I have tried saying, OK I can choose, or you can choose…and then if she still resists the situation, OK I’ll choose then. But this doesn’t induce her to make the choice either. I sense that she’s all about trying out her need to be her own person, separate from me, and in this, not complying with anything I suggest.
    This is made more difficult on some days by the fact that I work from home taking care of a friend’s children (preschool age and under) so we can’t always take half the morning resolving one little objection, as it escalates!
    Any advice gratefully received!
    Oh, I should also add that I have always set boundaries with her, and carried out consequences. She is expert at calling my bluff (eg. if I say to her “which shoes do you want to wear” and the no-choice scenario plays out then she will go as far as saying “I don’t want to go to play group/farm/playground…I want to stay home!”)and remains quite happy with this is we follow thru’ with this consequence. But I don’t feel this is necessarily how we should be handling things – sometimes things are non-negotiable and I don’t think it is right for the balance of power to be with her. But nor do I want to have an argumentative battle on my hands every time I give her direction – it’s exhausting!

  21. avatar Joie says:

    What do you do when they say no to getting int he car, buckling in the carseat or no to leaving a place like the park? It seems getting into the carseat in the worst. It’s a 5-10 min process when he does it by himself… and of course he HAS to do it by himself. Bribes and options are tough here because staying at the park if far more fun than any bribe I could offer.

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