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Why Does Your Toddler Keep Saying NO and How To Manage It

Posted by Karen Faulkner on
Why Does Your Toddler Keep Saying NO and How To Manage It

The Psychology and Science behind the NO stage

The stage of saying no to everything can drive the calmest of parents a little bonkers! So why does your toddler do this you ask? This is a question I get asked so many times so it makes sense too write a blog on the very topic.

And If your toddler responds to seemingly reasonable requests with the word "no," you can rest assured: your child is very, very developmentally normal. If a little infuriating!!

The psychological and scientific word for your child's fascination with the word "no" is "toddler refusal" – and the simple fact is toddlers say "no" because they can. It's impulse control related behaviour. Under 3 their brain works purely on impulse control and with an absence of logic. "They've just found out that they have a will, and they want to exercise it," explains Susanne Denham, professor of developmental psychology at George Mason University and author of Emotional Development in Young Children.

Temperament and the NO stage

They act just like a little CEO, or boss child with a smattering of dictator thrown in for good measure. Temperament comes into this in a big way. The more strong willed your child is the more resistance and refusal and the word no you will hear.

Have this useful mantra on repeat to keep you calm in these testing times - Your toddler will be a wonderfully strong adult. Your toddler will be a wonderfully strong adult. Your toddler will be a wonderfully strong adult.

And say this mantra godzillion times a day, silently and with meaning.

Toddlerhood is a developmental dynamite for children. They’re experiencing the most rapid brain development of their lives throughout this period and making a huge 700 new neural connections every second. WOW, LITERALLY WOW.

Neural Development

An important part of this neural developmental burst is leading to the “no” phase. The toddler is becoming their own little humans—with their own thoughts and opinions. They are learning they are finally a separate individual to you and along with that knowledge they can make you do things. This knowledge of being an entity in their own right and the fact they’re not literal extensions of their mum, and the resulting separation is essential for them to become normal functional individuals. This developmental leap is a grief and loss process and they have to experience the grief to become a complete individual. Every time you do something to them you are taking away their personal power. And in doing so reminding them of this painful separation experience. Huge.

Complex Rules

They are also learning complex rules about their own behaviours. The toddlers job description is naturally to test their parents. They are testing if I say or do this then how will my parent respond and what will they do? Your job as the parent is to maintain boundaries and rein the behaviour back in. However, in doing so you also need to avoid confrontation. It mustn't become a battle ground. As an adult you need to behave in a way that models behaviour you'd like to see more of from them. This is why attunement and doing the dance with the toddler is vital. You literally work around the issue at hand.

Here are my SIX Top Tips to manage the NO phase

  1. Give choices - both of which you like - this gives autonomy to the toddler and helps them feel in control. e.g. would you like to wear the red jumper or the green one?
  2. Offer the appearance of options. To make this work, you must keep two important facts in your mind: You know more than your toddler does, and virtually everything can be turned into a choice. For example say, "Do you want to get out of the car now or play for two more minutes and then get out of the car?" Either way, the result is she still gets out of the car and she thinks she has a choice. Have a practice, I think you'll like this one.
  3. Ask for their help - putting shopping away, taking dinner plates to the dishwasher, helping you get the laundry out of the washing machine, helping prep dinner - this is where a learning tower can be most helpful -
  4. Ignoring is a psychological concept its very useful to have in your back pocket. You literally IGNORE IGNORE IGNORE the behaviour, walk away and don't give air space to it whilst counting to 10 and keeping calm yourself. Most important.
  5. Decide how important it is to not agree with your toddler and go down the NO route with them. You might really need to say yes in times of managing safety or is this a behaviour you want to see more or less of? It should always mean no—today and tomorrow, regardless of the fallout of the tantrum. Otherwise tantrums seem like the path to success for the toddler, and bad behavior can escalate easily. Sometimes parents can get stuck in a “no” rut. Your toddler says “no,” and you repeat and say it right back at them, almost without conscious thinking. You need to ask yourself, is your child’s differing opinion really that big of a deal? If you decide not—for example if she doesn’t want to wear the jumper you’ve chosen for her—say “yes” to her “no” and let her make her own choice. She’ll feel like she has a little bit of the power she so desperately wants and her frustration will disappear. Remember its all about the feeling of personal power and a little personal power can make a happy toddler and a happy home.
  6. Their vocabulary is very limited at this age and this can be another reason for NO to be the top option. Teaching your toddler other responses may result in NO being used less. Helping your toddler by expanding his vocabulary by turning "no" into a game: "What's the opposite of 'no'?", "What comes in between 'no' and 'yes'?" (Maybe, perhaps, and possibly.) "What's a much nicer way to say 'no'?" ("No, thank you." If your toddler's very verbal, try, "No, thank you very much, I couldn't possibly." You may be surprised at the outcome.
  7. Check your own use of the word no, are they repeating what they are hearing a lot of? One way of managing this is saying "stop doing x y z and do this instead", it helps to redirect their behaviour and focus.  "It's not safe to play on the stairs; let's play with your blocks instead," "We don't hit the kitty," or, "Stop shouting and use your indoor quiet voice, instead." saying this with a smile diffuses any anger of confrontation.

And there you have it my top tips to help you and reduce your frustration at this incredibly challenging phase. And if you need more help with your child's behaviour there is now a toddler behaviour program in the Nurture Sleep Program.

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