Turning “No” to “Yes:” Encouraging More Cooperation from your Toddler (a Two-Part Series)

Part I: Understanding Why Toddlers say “NO!”



Is “no!” your toddler’s favorite word? Is “no” how he or she responds to your every request, demand and plea? Is “no!” how you feel about trying to get through another day like this? You are not alone—they don’t call them the “terrible twos” for nothing! What can really be discouraging is that the “terrible twos” can actually start around age one, carry on right through the “terrible threes” and don’t-even-get-me-started on the “f-ing fours!”



Toddler defiance can really push our buttons. When our happy, easy baby suddenly turns into a raging, tantrum-throwing, obstinate little tyrant who refuses to cooperate with any of our requests we can feel angry, bewildered, frustrated, embarrassed, powerless, exhausted and like complete failures as parents. We are often told by “helpful” spouses, grandparents, friends, parenting “experts,” and even strangers in the mall that we just need to take charge, to be in control, to not allow them to “win” the battle. So we implement time-outs, naughty steps, bribery, sticker charts, reasoning, begging and sometimes just plain old yelling to try and do just that. We are the grown-up here; if we are tough enough or strong enough, can’t we just force them to cooperate?


Oh, if only that was true then the terrible twos, and threes and fours wouldn’t really be terrible, would they? Unfortunately it usually just doesn’t work, and it results in all of us feeling even more miserable. Even if we could control toddler behavior and force them to comply—is that really in keeping with our long-term goals as parents? The reality is that saying “no” is an important part of being a toddler and of becoming an independent person, rather than staying as a dependent infant. We don’t want our children to be dependent and compliant for the rest of their lives—we want to raise capable, competent, confident kids and eventually adults who can look after themselves (and maybe even us someday). Unfortunately, saying “no” to us now, is part of that process.


So let's look at why toddlers say "no!"


1. Because they can. By age one their verbal skills are starting to emerge but they are not yet very sophisticated and their vocabulary is limited. It turns out that “no” is a word that is easy to pronounce and yet is very powerful. Toddlers can’t express their opinions and complex emotions with much finesse, but they definitely can say “NO!”


2. Because it is developmentally age-appropriate. This is such a normal developmental stage that it has a name—“Oppositionalism of Toddlerhood.” And it has a purpose—it helps toddlers establish autonomy and their own identity, which is something that we really need them to do so we can eventually send them out into the world. As frustrating as it is right now, if they didn’t go through this phase we would have real reason to worry!


3. Because it is their “job.” If you had to come up with a “job description” for a toddler you would quickly realize that in the shift from helpless baby to fairly capable preschooler, toddlers MUST learn to be independent and to do things for themselves. If they were content to simply let us continue to do and decide everything for them, they would never be capable of heading off to big-kid school by age 4 or 5.



4. Because they are “stubborn” and persistent by definition. Toddlers have to master so many new skills in the move from babyhood to childhood that nature has given them the gift of persistence, determination, single-mindedness and shear pig-headedness. If they got frustrated and gave up every time they fell down while learning to walk, run, or climb, they would never get past the crawling stage. If they crumbled the first time they were unable to pronounce a word or manipulate a toy or other object, they would never learn to do anything. Fortunately, toddlers are blessed with a “Drive for Mastery” which means they also have a “drive” to do whatever it is that they are currently focused on doing (which is not always what we want them to do!).


5. Because they hear us say it--a lot. Be honest—you say “no” to them even more often then they say it to you. And you started saying “no” to them months ago—pretty much as soon as they became mobile. Small children learn just about everything from us—by mimicking and mirroring what we say and do. If we say “no” (which we do a hundred times a day just to keep them alive and safe) then it’s a guarantee that they will say “no” as well.



6. Because they experience developmental leaps that cause negative phases. Remember when your baby went through “wonder weeks” which affected his mood, feeding, sleep, and all other aspects of behavior, making him fussy and clingy and needy? Toddlers continue to experience this as their brains develop, and it can have all the same effects on eating and sleeping and clinginess. It can also make them extremely negative--oh joy! But remember—wonder weeks may feel like setbacks, but actually they are an indication of neurological growth and development. When a toddler comes out of this “phase,” they will be capable of so much more, and they will be less negative (at least a bit!) So try to think of a negative phase as “progress”—doesn’t make it any less negative, but definitely helps you feel less discouraged.


7. Because transitions are hard. A toddler who is enjoying herself doesn’t want to stop doing what she is doing. Transitioning from playtime to eating time or from bath time to bedtime can be really challenging for toddlers. They can feel disappointed, frustrated, sad, and angry to have to stop the activity that is giving them pleasure, to do the thing that we want or need them to do. These kinds of transitions are rarely something that they have any choice or control over—imagine how you would feel if someone else decided when and how you did everything all day (well, okay, it would feel like work—but toddlers don’t get paid to do it!)



8. Because what we want them to do is just no fun. Getting your diaper changed, sharing, getting buckled into the car seat, stopping your game, not sitting on the cat, getting dressed, getting out of the pool, going to bed—none of it is nearly as fun as whatever a toddler has in mind. They are not stupid—why would they willingly agree to do something that is no fun? Again, they have no control over most of these tasks, and if they did, let’s face it—very little of it would happen at all.


9. Because they are egocentric. In terms of cognitive ability, toddlers can’t understand or really care about how other people feel—their perspective is the only one that they can really perceive. This means they are not trying to make you mad, they are not capable of manipulating you intentionally, and they are not doing it to make you crazy—they are acting out their fundamental nature and level of brain development. We can imagine how they are feeling and try to have empathy for them, but they can’t do the same for us yet.


10. Because they don’t understand nor care about time or schedules. Yet another factor of their immature brain development is that toddlers don’t have the abstract reasoning ability to comprehend time, consequences, schedules or the need that we have to get through daily tasks. Someone once said, “Reasoning with a 2-year-old is about as productive as changing seats on the Titanic.” (Robert Scotellaro, “The Funny Side of Parenting”) You can do it, but it isn’t going to make one bit of difference.



11, Because they experience stress. When they are going through major life changes that disrupt their world; such as a new sibling, new home, new nursery or caregiver, mum going back to work, daddy traveling for business, even happy things like visitors or travel, toddlers feel stressed. They also feel the effects of any stress that we are ourselves are experiencing. They don’t understand it, they don’t have empathy for us, but they feel our stress like it is their own—consider them a barometer and a mirror of whatever stress you are feeling. Stress is a physiological and biochemical response that, among other things, leads to negativity. In all of us.


12. Because they are testing our reactions. While toddlers don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand or empathize with how we think and feel, they do have the ability and desire to test our responses and behaviors. Developmental psychologists describe toddlers as “little scientists” who are bent on studying all aspects of the world around them. This includes the most important people in their world—us. So they are observing us to see what we do, how we look, sound and act when they say “no” or push our boundaries. And they are observing to see how that response changes when they do it again. And again. And again. Starting to feel like a lab rat? This is how they learn, so once again, if they didn’t do it, we would have real cause for concern.



So now you know why they say “NO.” Does it help you cope with it any better? Research has shown that parents who are able to react to their children with empathy and with an effort to understand what is going on in their minds (rather than just trying to stamp out the troubling behavior) will raise kids who are more secure, have a better sense of self, and are generally happier and more psychologically healthy (and empathetic) people. So the first step during this “No” period of your toddler's lives is understanding them and reminding ourselves (and them) that we still love them: totally, completely and unconditionally (even when they are driving us crazy!)


But you still need to get through your day, right? The good news is that there are many ways that you can use this understanding of toddler brains to make your day go a little more smoothly. My next blog post will list 10 simple ways that you can try to encourage more cooperation and turn that “no” to “yes,” (at least some of the time!)


Stay tuned and please share with us why you think YOUR toddler is saying “no!”


Amy x

Amy Vogelaar is a mother of two school-aged girls and is a licensed ToddlerCalm teacher and consultant. She teaches ToddlerCalm workshops and classes which cover how to handle tantrums, picky eating, sleep problems and more. Read more about ToddlerCalm here.

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