Family Life

When Toddlers Say No!

The moment your child utters her first word, you’ll probably want to announce it to the world, while quickly marking the occasion in her baby book. You probably won’t be so thrilled, however, when her word of choice evolves into the very opinionated 

Jen Mann-Li, a mother of two, describes her three-year-old daughter, Sadie, as a “pro” at using the word no. “She was a late talker, didn’t really talk until she was almost two years old, and no was a favorite right away,” Mann-Li says. 

Mann-Li says that Sadie refuses to be distracted from what she wants. “She’s very stubborn and will not budge (sometimes literally),” she says. “We have a saying that Sadie will ‘die on that hill’ and she does daily over these ‘silly’ things.”

Why they say it. Laura Murphy is a certified parent coach and president of Real Families, Inc. which helps families work through parenting, marriage and financial issues. She explains that the chief child-rearing complaint she hears from parents concerns are children refusing to do what the parents want them to do. 

Not only is the word “no” an easy word for toddlers to say, but Murphy believes, “The biggest reason they say it so much is because they hear it so much from everyone else.”

The good news is that this phase is completely normal and healthy. “The number one job of a two year old is to test every physical limit. Pushing physical limits to find out what the adults will do is a natural approach for a toddler. They need to learn those limits,” Murphy says.

Need a few proactive strategies to reduce the use of the word in your home and forge a path of less resistance? 

Change your approach. Challenge yourself to see if you can say no without really saying the word no. For example, if your child asks for a cookie, instead of saying, “No, not before dinner,” say, “Sure, after dinner.” This exercise will also make you more aware of just how often you say no. 

“Once we change our approach, we usually notice a change in our children,” Murphy says. Also, talk to your spouse and childcare providers about using other words besides no all the time. However, that doesn’t mean you should ban the word entirely. “Say yes as often as possible, and when you say no, mean it,” Murphy advises. 

Having a sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. Ingrid Brown has two daughters, four and two, who both went through the “no” phase at around 20 months. “I tried to make a game out of it,” Brown says. “If they said no to everything, I would counter back in a funny voice repeating ‘nooooOOOooo’ right back at them and give them a little tickle.” 

Offer two choices. Resistance often begins long before a child utters his first word. “When they’re old enough to start flinging food at you from their high chair, they’re old enough to start choices,” Murphy says. 

Barring a dangerous situation like your child refusing to move in a busy street, provide your child with two choices that you like and can live with. “Small choices for the kids, but the adults make the big decisions,” Murphy says. For example, a parent decides on bedtime, but a child can choose between wearing the blue pajamas or the red pajamas. 

By giving away small decisions to your toddler, she will have a sense of control over her life which will likely reduce negative behaviors such as not listening, running away, resistance, and temper tantrums. If a child refuses to make a decision in 10 seconds, the parent should make the decision for her, following up with empathy.

Show empathy not anger. Murphy stresses that empathy is an important component of providing choices to your child. When you replace anger with empathy, she says, you’ll notice a huge shift. For example, when your child doesn’t get something that she wants, say something along the lines of: “I know. It’s really a bummer.”

Avoid “parenting on the fly.” Stay calm in the heat of the moment and decide ahead of time on what things to definitely say no to and what you can say yes to. Also, try making a list of the small choices you can offer your child during those more troublesome times of the day. 

Need help? For more parenting tips and resources, check out Murphy’s website,, and the book, Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours by Kevin Leman. 

If your tactics don’t seem effective, seek out an expert, such as a family counselor who can help assess your family’s situation. Although a tweak in parenting skills may be all that is needed, an expert can help you determine if something more serious is going on with your child. ■

Newsletter Signup

Your Weekly guide to Baton Rouge family fun. BR Parents has a newsletter for every parent. Sign Up