Why your toddler’s “no!” phase is so important (and how to survive it)

If your toddler responds to seemingly mundane requests with the word "no," you can rest assured: your child is very, very normal. Here's how to deal.

Why your toddler’s “no!” phase is so important (and how to survive it)

Photo: iStockphoto

My toddler will be a wonderfully strong adult. My toddler will be a wonderfully strong adult. My toddler will be a wonderfully strong adult.

I say this to myself approximately 328 times a day, silently and emphatically. It generally coincides with the 328 times a day that my daughter not-so-silently but very emphatically says “No!” to my every request.

No, she will not wear gloves in 20-degree weather.

No, she will not eat the strawberry waffles that she begged me to make.

No, she will not wear the gorgeous holiday dress that Grandma bought for her because it doesn’t have pockets or a dog motif. (The nerve!)

Of course I want my daughter to be strong and independent and to stand up for herself. That’s important for all kids, and especially for our girls. Still, is it too much to ask for her to be a teensy bit more easygoing and reasonable with me?

Apparently, the answer is yes, it is too much to ask, because she’s two. But even as I lament these Terrible Twos (and the upcoming "threenager" year), I know how important this “no” stage is for all children. We just have to figure out how to get through it with our sanity semi-intact.

Why you should say "yes" to the "no" phase

Toddlerhood is a developmental powder keg for children. As Kathryn Smerling, a New York City–based family psychologist, explains, “They’re experiencing the most rapid brain development of their lives throughout this period—a whopping 700 new neural connections every second.”


Part of that developmental burst leads to the “no” phase. Our children are becoming their own little people—with their own thoughts and opinions. They are just figuring out that they’re not literal extensions of us, and that separation is essential for them to become functional individuals. That’s why Smerling thinks of this stage the Tremendous Twos instead of the Terrible Twos.

But make no mistake about it: A “no” is also meant to test you. Will you give in? Will you put your foot down? It’s a mystery to your toddler! “The way parents respond to limit-setting behaviors is how young children learn,” explains Cindy Huang, Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. “They learn rules about their own behaviors and how to navigate the complex social world around them.”

And that newfound voice of theirs? It also helps them set their own limits so that they forge healthy relationships and even protect themselves from sexual assault. “If a child doesn’t want to be hugged or kissed by another child or adult, their ‘no’ should be respected and listened to,” says Huang. “It’s crucial that we understand the context for the ‘no.’”

There’s a lot wrapped up in that little two-letter word—and it’s all really important.

How to outwit a willful toddler

If you’re a toddler parent, you’re probably thinking, Yeah, yeah, I’ll appreciate the wonders of this stage later. Right now I need to leave the house sometime this century without having an all-out war.


How can you achieve that seemingly impossible goal? For starters, don’t argue with your toddler. You will not win, and it will end in tears—for both of you. Also, remember that employing smart strategies now will lay the groundwork for a strong, positive relationship between you and your child later. These six techniques can help.

Put your toddler in charge

This isn’t as terrifying as it sounds. Give your child two options—and only two options so she’s not overwhelmed—both of which you’re okay with. For example: “Would you like eggs or oatmeal for breakfast?” or “Would you like to brush your teeth or put on your pajamas first?” This strategy can help you avoid a “no” from the get-go.

Don’t react right away

It’s hard not to lose your cool when your kid asks for a cracker, gets said cracker and then suddenly throws it on the floor and has an epic tantrum about it now being on the floor. But you’ll only add fuel to the fire if you yell or demand a rational explanation for that irrational action. Instead, suggests Smerling, “Acknowledge that they don’t want the cracker and leave them alone. Don’t try to bargain with them or make them stop the tantrum. Just pause. You might find that just a few minutes later they’re through with the crackers now.” That simple little pause can defuse the situation. Then you can move on to another activity and put the cracker trauma behind you.

Let them help you

Toddlers want to be grown up—and to be just like you. To that end, make them feel essential to a task’s success. Ask them to gather their stuffed animals for a car trip or have them retrieve an item from the grocery-store shelf. Whenever my toddler hears the phrase, “I really need your help,” I’m always rewarded with the biggest smile—and actual help! It may only last for 10 seconds, but it’s enough to make everyone happy and proud.

Try “strategic ignoring”

While this may not help you during a public tantrum, it can help over the long haul. According to Huang, it entails praising your child’s desired behaviors—and not only ignoring the undesired ones but also redirecting your attention elsewhere. “You are actually doing a ton of parenting when you’re strategically ignoring,” she says. “You’re watching and waiting for the very moment when your child starts doing the desired behavior so you can immediately follow up with praise.”

Employ the ancient art of distraction


When all else fails, try playing peek-a-boo or breaking out into song. Laughter will usually follow because Mommy or Daddy is so silly, and wait—what was I saying no to in the first place?

Say “yes” sometimes!

When it comes to the big things (and, of course, the dangerous things), be consistent with your “no.” It should always mean no—today and tomorrow, regardless of the magnitude of the hissy fit. Otherwise tantrums seem like the path to success, and bad behavior can escalate. But sometimes parents get stuck in a “no” rut. Your toddler says “no,” and you say it right back, almost without thinking. But is your child’s differing opinion really that big of a deal? If not—like if she doesn’t want to wear the outfit 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.

This article was originally published on Jul 12, 2021

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