“NO!” It is typically one of the first words a child learns to say. Put on your coat, please. NO! Eat your dinner. NO! Time for bed. NO! Do you want a cookie? NO! Every question and request is met with a resounding “no.” Even when we know our toddlers want something, they say “no” when it is offered to them. The ability to say the word that they have been hearing since infancy is magic. They heard it when they tried to put something in their mouth that didn’t belong there and when they used their new teeth to bite something other than food. They’ve seen adults use it with them, other children and each other. Why does your toddler consistently say “no?” It is because the word “no” is all powerful. It makes all action stop.
During the toddler years, your child first learns that he/she is not you. You are separate beings and can do different things. You can want a snack but that doesn’t mean your toddler has to eat, too. You may want to go outside but that doesn’t mean your child has to happily follow along. They realize that they can stop walking beside you because they have that power. It is the beginning of a separation that will last at least the next 15 years.
Along with being separate, toddlers discover that they can also be all powerful. Adults may be big and loud but one toddler “NO!” will stop all the action and change the behavior of everyone around them. Toddlers cannot control much. They are forced to keep schedules designed for them by adults. They are hoisted up and carried where they do not want to go. They don’t make their own food or buy their own clothes. Typically developing toddlers put those two letters together to experiment with and obtain some control.
Knowing that your toddler doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking, “How nuts can I drive her today?” can help you to deal with the consistent negative reaction to everything you say. In fact, independence and decision making skills are traits that should be encouraged in early childhood. Give your children some power by recognizing their ability to express themselves and to make decisions. Whenever possible, let your children choose. Confident decision makers become more confident students and adults. Mismatched clothes, pancakes instead of eggs and a different hairstyle with too many barrettes aren’t actually the makings for a bad day. When giving choices, it works best when there are two options. It is easy to choose between two objects. Most children (and even adults) find choosing between multiple options more stressful. Multiple choice and open ended questions should be left for 6th grade quizzes.
When you absolutely need your toddler to comply and “no” is not an option, acknowledge the feelings behind the statement. There is a vast difference between saying “I said to go” and saying “I know that you don’t want to go. Your brother is waiting for us.” Children’s feelings should always be validated with statements that show you hear them even when you might not agree or be able to comply.
The most important thing you can do as your toddler continues to say “no” to every option is to remain in control. Smile, acknowledge their feelings and know that in 25-30 years, their children will say “NO!” to them, too.
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