Why Toddlers Say “No” to Everything And How to Get Them to Say “Yes” More Often

Toddlers come with "No" as their default setting. Here's how to attempt to recalibrate them. 

by Eric Alt
Originally Published: 
A blonde toddler girl in a white turtleneck and pink dress holding a white rose in a garden

Ask any parent of young children, “My toddler says no to everything. How do you get a toddler to say yes?” and, chances are, you’ll be met with more than a few haunted, hallowed-out expressions. Maybe a laugh and pat on the back. The reason: Toddlers are a stubborn sort. To use an Internet-ism, they seem like the OG shitposters, stirring up trouble and trashing perfectly fine thoughts or ideas just because they can. It’s frustrating, certainly. First, understand that stubborn children often lead to successful adults. But there are ways to convince a toddler saying no to change their answer to yes. So long as it’s understood why they lean towards defiance in the first place.

Why Toddlers Say “No”

Every parent has used the phrase “testing my patience,” even those who swore they’d never sound like their parents. But the truth of the matter is, in most cases, that’s exactly what toddlers are trying to do with the constant barrage of “No’s.” They’ve started understanding that they have something called “wants.” And very often, their wants are not aligned with yours. Like tiny velociraptors, they are testing the electric fence of parenting, seeing if there are potential flaws or weaknesses that can be exploited. As Robert Muldoon, Jurassic Park’s game warden might say upon witnessing this: “Clever girl.”

“I see this toddler age which I have chosen to describe, the years from one to three, as a turbulent period of such trials and errors,” wrote pediatrician, author and developer of the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale T. Berry Brazelton, MD in his 1974 book Toddlers and Parents: A Declaration of Independence. “In these years, each member of the family must make his or her own adjustments to the wide swings between ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ ‘me’ and ‘you,’ with which the child is faced. The child is constantly learning from the reactions of others how to tune his or her own behavior.”

The key word here is “turbulent.” In their development, toddlers are now ambulatory and able to speak, so they are dealing with a world they are starting to figure out. First they need to figure out just how independent they want to be, then how independent a parent will allow them to be – all the while developing roughly 700 new neural connections every second. In other words, there’s a lot going on, and “No” is one of the simplest ways to test boundaries and learn cause and effect.

Dr. Brazelton’s point is that it’s an adjustment for both parents and children. How moms and dads respond and react to the “no” is important, and can impact development and any hope for future compliance. The key is to understand the “no” from an emotional standpoint, not a logical one. Because logic simply has no power here.

“The most important emotional accomplishment of the toddler years is reconciling the urge to become competent and self-reliant with the simultaneous and sometimes contradictory longing for parental love and protection,” wrote author and vice chair of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Psychiatry Alicia F. Lieberman in The Emotional Life of the Toddler. “In order to explore and learn, they need reassurance that the parent will be there to keep them safe while they do things on their own.”

So while it may drive parents batty that toddlers refuse things that are so clearly in their best interests — such as maybe not wearing shorts to the park when it’s 20 degrees outside — they have to understand that the decision has not been thought through or carefully measured.

Now, there are always instances where constant naysaying could be signs of more serious concerns. Studies over the past several years have uncovered what is known as Oppositional (or Opposition) Defiant Disorder, often shortened to ODD. There have been links between antisocial personality disorder later in life with ODD during childhood, and there are believed to be a number of biological, psychological, and social factors that can contribute to its development, such as abuse or neglect and parental substance abuse.

ODD, per the Seattle Children’s hospital, is a fairly common problem faced by children and teens. “At any given point in time, about 1 to 16 percent of children and teens are struggling with this behavior problem,” they write. “Boys are much more likely to have ODD than girls. ODD and other behavior problems are the most common reason children are referred to mental healthcare.”

They suggest in most cases that some therapy or constructive reinforcement can have positive effects on children displaying symptoms of ODD.

How to Get a Toddler to Say Yes

With some understanding of the origins of why toddlers “no” and it’s shades of meaning to the toddler mind, it becomes a little clearer how to get a toddler to say “yes” more often.

The first thing parents need to do is eliminate the phrase “what do you want to…[eat, wear, do, etc.]” from their vocabulary. Faced with limitless options, a toddler brain will think only about their own immediate needs or wants, regardless of external factors. Toddlers understand they have wants. Offering choices makes them feel like they do have some agency in this world, but the limited options presents a makeable choice.

So, rather than asking a toddler what, for instance, they want for dinner, parents should simply tell them they have two choices: spaghetti or chicken nuggets. Instead of saying “What do you want to do today?” Ask, “Do you want to play ball in the yard or draw and color?” If they push for an option C, it’s important for parents to stay firm. These are the options. Pick one. Toddlers will still feel empowered, and moms and dads will also show them that they aren’t spineless.

This tactic not only makes the toddler still feel somewhat in control, but it also cuts back on what, in retrospect, is a classic mistake made by parents (<raises hand>) – negotiating. What’s the line from The Princess Bride? The two classic blunders are never get involved in a land war in Asia, and the other is never negotiate with a three year old? Something like that.

Bargaining with a child throwing a tantrum is essentially teaching them that that behavior is a path to success. Parents can refuse to react immediately to an act of defiance, practicing what is known as “strategic ignoring” (letting a tantrum play out until the child realizes it’s pointless and then swooping in to reward positive behavior – it may work, but it will also make moms and dads the bane of everyone at their local Target), or they can simply throw the ninja smoke bomb that is a silly song or joke.

Distraction is an underrated tool in the parenting belt, one that can turn a “no” deadlock into a giggly “yes.” Again, it takes some guts – and a willingness to maybe look ridiculous in front of those same scowling Target shoppers – but toddler brains are firing a mile a minute. By the time they’re done laughing or even staring at moms and dads in disbelief, they likely won’t even remember what they were arguing with you about in the first place.

Another tactic: Use the right words. Research from the University of San Diego suggests that, when parents ask children about helping, children are much more interested when parents use nouns instead of verbs. This is as simple as asking a child to be a “helper” (“Do you want to be my helper today?”) instead of asking them “Would you like to help?” Describing pro-social behaviors with nouns, the researchers found, seems to motivate kids to lend a hand. Children are more inclined to help when it falls in line with a created self-image.

This tactic works best when dovetailed with some more of the gentle hand-holding that defines much of parenthood. “When parents see accomplishments or tasks completed,” Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin, a professor of counseling at Bradley University previously told Fatherly. “It is so important to say, ‘You must be very proud of yourself and.…’ This builds intrinsic locus of control rather than extrinsic or external reinforcements.”

Toddlers also desire to be big, responsible kids. So asking them to be a helper dovetails nicely with this want and makes them less likely to say no immediately. This, of course, requires patience on the parent’s part.

But so does everything related to toddlers. A little understanding, some deft maneuvering, and patience can, in most situations, turn a no into a yes. Or at least provide some perspective as to why they’re so defiant in the first place. Knowing, after all, is half the battle.

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