If you have a toddler, you may have encountered the “no” phenomenon. Regardless of whether your child is being asked to eat something they usually love, go somewhere they always enjoy, or simply do what needs to be done in the moment, such as leave the house, inevitably the answer is a resounding “No!” or “Why?” or “I don’t want to . . .” or some version of this resistance to doing what you’re asking. So, what gives? Why do you hear the word no every day, all day from your toddler?
On the positive side, the emergence of the “no stage,” as it’s popularly called, indicates that your child is becoming his own unique person, separate from his parents, with his own thoughts and opinions. In this stage, children are learning how to exert their will and their own personalities. All of this is essential to becoming strong, independent individuals who can set their own personal boundaries.
The challenge is, of course, finding a balance between supporting this important stage of your toddler’s development while also getting through the day without mounting frustration. First, it’s helpful to understand what drives a toddler’s determination during this developmental stage.
The “All-Powerful Self”
At this point in their development, toddlers’ happiness is derived from the illusion that they can do and have everything. Each gratified wish confirms the “all-powerful self’s” fantasy of omnipotence. Your child really believes that she can overcome any interference with her wish to get what she wants when she wants it. Expressions of the all-powerful self are fundamentally normal, emerging in toddlerhood, quieting down during a child’s elementary school years, and then reemerging in adolescence. In fact, toddlerhood and adolescence can seem to mirror each other, but when parents are able to respond during these phases with a good dose of patience, compassion, and humility their need to get what they want when they want it will be largely outgrown by the end of adolescence.
The all-powerful self is the source of a young child’s passionate attachment to the word no. For this reason, it’s important for parents and care givers to remember that toddlers’ no’s are not signs that they are destined to become unreasonable adults. Instead, the ever-present no expresses their belief in their power to control their environment.
So, although the all-powerful self needs to be managed, it’s not a negative force. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “Because the all-powerful self is impervious to self-doubt, it plays the valuable developmental role of helping your child to persist in new activities in the face of the failure that are inevitable when one is learning. It is not unusual to see a toddler try ten times to get a piece of meat on her fork before she actually succeeds. As adults, we would feel discouraged by this failure rate. The toddler’s all-powerful self gives her the confidence and optimism she needs to renew her efforts.”
Knowing what’s behind your toddler’s “no stage” is useful, but you may still be wondering how you can get your child to put on their shoes, eat their food, leave the playground, and all the other things that keep eliciting those no’s. The following are some scenarios along with tips for navigating them.
Be Flexible and Give Choices
In general, it is better to approach children who have temporarily adopted no as their favorite word by going underneath their radar. This can be done by being flexible in how you respond to a toddler’s resistance and giving them appropriate choices.
For example, after making your two-year old’s favorite lunch she responds, “NO EATING!” You may be tempted to say, “I just made your favorite food! Come and eat right now!” or, “If you don’t eat your lunch right now, you can’t have anything to eat until dinner.” However, it is much better to avoid a confrontation. She may be saying “no” to something she really wants as a way of showing she is in control.
If you respond with acceptance, you give your child the space to change course. You might say, “OK, but I think your teddy bear really likes this food. Would you like to feed him?” If she still says “no,” try sitting down and eating yourself. If she is hungry and you don’t make a big deal of her refusal, she may wander over and eat when she is ready. If she continues to play and avoid the food, put it away and wait until she says, “I’m hungry.” At that point, she will feel she is in control of her eating.
This approach can also be helpful when children demand something different to eat than what you just prepared. In these instances, try asking your child what she’d like for lunch before preparing something. For example, you could ask if she wants chicken nuggets or soup. Just be sure to avoid open-ended questions when offering choices. For example, try not to say, “What do you want for lunch today?” By being flexible and offering choices, your child will both enjoy her food and also thrive in the warmth of your relationship. The alternative—trying to force her to eat—only sets the stage for eating battles and problems and casts you unnecessarily as an adversary rather than an ally.
Another instance when you may hear a lot of no’s or encounter resistance is when you ask toddlers to leave an activity they are enjoying. In these instances, try to make a plan you think has the best chance of resulting in a smooth transition. If it fails and your child becomes upset, don’t prolong a battle you know he has to lose. At the same time, try to allow him to save face and feel in control whenever possible.
For example, after a long afternoon playing in the park, it’s time to leave with your child. When you tell him it’s time to go, he yells “No!” and runs off in the opposite direction. Instead of becoming angry that he didn’t listen to you and should, therefore, be reprimanded, try viewing the situation through your child’s eyes. He isn’t trying to be disrespectful by not listening to you; instead he is driven by his all-powerful self that he can do what he wants when he wants. When viewed this way, you can respond with patience and understanding. For example, you could do this by making a game out of leaving the park. After chasing after your child, you can say “You’re such a fast runner! Let’s race back to your stroller—I bet you’ll win!” Once you reach the stroller, you can ask if he would like to ride or walk home.
Ensure Health and Safety
Obviously offering a choice to a toddler isn’t possible when ensuring her health and safety. At these times, a toddler’s no will have to lose out to what needs to be done in the moment. For example, suppose your child refuses to get into a car seat and screams and kicks when you try to put her in. In these instances, it’s best to gently explain that mommy and daddy never want to see her get hurt and that in order to keep her safe you cannot drive until she is in her car seat wearing a seat belt. Try to keep your explanation friendly but short and calmly place her in the seat before she has a chance to become hysterical. Although these situations can be quite fraught, if you remain gentle and understanding, your child may still become upset but you will have avoided losing your temper and damaging your parent-child relationship.
Because feeling all-powerful is an important source of well-being for a young child, it’s impossible to control how your child responds to you. However, you can control how you respond to your child. If you can be understanding and diplomatic at moments when you must interfere with your child’s wishes, you will help her outgrow this illusion on her own timetable. On the other hand, trying to force a young child to face the limitations of her powers is sure to backfire. Some children react by becoming depressed; others cling even more desperately to the illusions of invincibility.
Parent for the Long-Term
The all-powerful self is one of the most important developmental stages for parents to understand because it can have a lasting impact on a child’s well-being. In order for a child to leave adolescence deriving happiness from making constructive choices and pursuing them well, parents should avoid power struggles and confronting a toddler’s all-powerful self. Doing so can cause resentment, anger, and distance, which makes children feel isolated and not understood.
When parents can instead be sympathetic and understanding, they can help their child’s development move past the all-powerful self and enable them to learn, on their own and in their own time, that happiness dependent on “getting what you want when you want it” is unstable and hinges on factors largely out of their control. Most importantly, parents can show their children a better, more stable, and lasting way to feel happy.
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.