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Oh No! How to Manage Your Toddler’s “No Phase”

Photo by Jessica Byrum / Stocksy United / 1300908
Photo by Jessica Byrum / Stocksy United

By Cheryl Flanders

Somewhere around age two, many toddlers discover the awesome power behind one very short word: “no!”

And oh boy, do they love to use it!

“Let’s get your coat on; it’s cold.” “No!” “Let’s wash your hands.” “No. No wash!” “I need you to sit down.” “No, no, no!”

If you’re hearing a lot of “no” these days, you may be wondering what the heck happened to your formerly sweet and compliant toddler, who now seems determined to emphatically resist your every suggestion.

Fear not. Your two-year-old isn’t being difficult all day because she doesn’t like you (we promise). And what’s more, you’re not alone. A 2008 Child Development study found that two- and three-year-olds argue with their moms 20 to 25 times an hour. (Granted, the study purposefully put moms and tots in frustrating situations…but still.)  

If you find yourself getting frustrated with your two-year-old’s chorus of refusals, it may help to understand what is going on in her development: Two-year-olds have just realized they have a will and they want to exercise it—but their limited vocabulary complicates their ability to do so. And then…they discover a word that works wonderfully: “No. This one-syllable mantra allows your child to feel a little more powerful in a very big world. 

After all, being able to refuse something—anything—with a simple word delivers a newfound sense of control to a young child. It’s her declaration of independence. She’s becoming her own person with her own thoughts and feelings—which is exactly what she’s supposed to be doing at this stage in her development.

Of course, that doesn’t make the “no” phase less taxing on you, the weary parent who just needs to get everyone out the door on time. Rather than engage in a battle of wills (which rarely works and isn’t much fun for anyone), here are some positive approaches to try until the noes pass. And pass they will.

  • Use open-ended questions to give him some controlled choices. Instead of asking a question that could be answered with a no, ask a question that gives your child a choice: “Would you like cheese and crackers or an apple?” 
  • Curb your own use of the word. Instead of statements like, “No climbing on the couch!” tell your child what you want her to do: “Please sit on the couch.”
  • Keep it positive. Most young children respond to a positive statement and tone of voice. Instead of, “We can’t go to the park until you eat your lunch,” try, “After you eat your lunch, we can go to the park!”
Remember: “No” is just a little blip in her developmental journey that will even out as she grows and gains a little more control over her world. As she gathers the vocabulary needed to express herself, she’ll soon discover the power of other short words, like “Yes!”
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