Sunday, July 14, 2013

Parenting: The Toddler and the "No!"

“No, No, No!” If you have a toddler, you know what this sounds like. It’s frustrating, it’s aggravating, and it makes you late for work, or wastes the meal you carefully made, or causes your child to miss her bedtime. But the toddler’s “no” is also more than that, and understanding the full message allows parents and caregivers to better respond to and interact with the resistant toddler in full throttle.

There are actually two meanings contained within the toddler’s no: the action or event the toddler is resisting, and then the ability to resist, in and of itself. When the child refuses to put on his shoes as you’re desperately trying to leave the house in the morning, at issue are the shoes, and his ability to say “no” to you, the all powerful parent. Often enough in the heat of the moment, parents react to the first part of the message and put even stronger demands on the child to put her shoes on “now!” But this drowns out what is likely to be more important to the child in that moment, which is the second part, the refusal. Addressing the refusal rather than the shoes, can dramatically change the interaction, and can often (but not always) change the “no” into a “yes.” Even more importantly, understanding what is important to your toddler and forming a habit of responding to it accurately can set you and her up for improved interactions in the long-term, and provides her a model for dealing with her relationships in general. In short, thinking about what the “no” means to the toddler is an important teaching moment, for both child and parent together.

What might this look like, addressing the refusal rather than the shoes? In a moment we will look at some examples of how to do this, but building your own understanding of what it means to your child to refuse your directions, and what kinds of feelings it generates within you as she does so really involves getting to know your child better – as well as yourself. While techniques can be useful, no one way will work for all children, and none will work for any given child all of the time. It can, however, be helpful to keep some in your tool chest as options to keep in mind and try out with your own child. For example, one I’ve found helpful is making it explicit to the child that she is refusing – because as surprising as it may be – until you say it out loud – children are often unaware of the meaning of their actions, and what the impact of their actions are on others. As adults, we struggle with this, too.

Let’s say you are trying to get your child to put her shoes on by the front door, but instead of complying, the child runs out of the door barefoot. Securing the child, of course, comes first. But once you have child in hand try saying, calmly, even playfully: “you don’t want to listen to mommy/daddy right now, do you?” This names and describes the behavior to the child so that it’s out in the open; it also makes the child feel that an important need of hers has been acknowledged and heard. As an adult you know that kind of acknowledgment of real feelings, what one might call empathy, can be very powerful in your adult relationships. It should come as no surprise that it works for children as well. And ideally, empathy is never a technique. Trying this kind of approach requires spending an extra minute or two with the child as she negotiates with you this new information – something that can be hard for you to do on a busy morning. But what you get in return is a no-fuss morning with you and her still enjoying each other’s company at the end: and that, of course, is the point, while often challenging, parenting is supposed to be fun, not a chore.

Another approach is waiting out the “no.” Let’s say you are brushing your little one’s teeth, and she steadfastly closes her mouth and refuses to open. Forcing the issue runs the risk of creating more reason for her to resist in the future, while allowing her to win risks sending the message that you can be defeated if she only waits long enough. An alternative approach is to allow her a minute to refuse, while you wait, toothbrush in hand, perhaps saying something like: “ok, I see you are not ready to brush your teeth yet.” This sends the message that she has the right to participate in the process, she can get to choose to say no; but that you are not willing to give up on the eventual outcome. Again, if we emphasize the underlying meaning of this example, rather than viewing it as a simple technique, the message is that your expectations are to be respected, but that she gets to have a say too. This takes more time, but then again, may end up taking less time than the fight which can be the alternative.

The hardest part of this approach is that it requires you as the parent/caregiver to come in touch with the feelings that are generated in you. For example, the toothbrush example comes from personal experience. I wanted my child to get finished with brushing his teeth and get to bed in order for me to move on with all the other things I needed to do that evening. I felt frustration, even some anger that he wouldn’t comply: “doesn’t he know that I have other things to do?!” Of course, the answer is he does not, nor does he care. Nor can he possibly have much understanding of what my life is like aside from my caretaking responsibilities which have immediately to do with him. But children are exquisitely sensitive to emotions. If anger had crept into my voice as I tried to acknowledge his need to take over the process, he would have sensed it. That doesn’t mean I was not aware of, or denied that feeling within myself, only that I worked to keep it out of the room and out of my interaction with him.

And that is really the key: They have a need for control in their lives, much as we do, even if the specific goals and desires are obviously different. Where their need to say “no” encounters our own intentions, that is where problems happen. There is no one way, or some simple answer for how to have an effective and collaborative relationship with your child. Rather, parenting requires a careful balance between allowing them to feel that they have some control over their bodies, their lives, and over us in some ways and to some degree. But also learning how to listen to our feelings so that parenting becomes healthy compromise rather than into a battle that we need to win, or that we allow the child to win.

About me: I am a Licensed Psychologist in private practice. Among my interests is working with couples on relationship and parenting issues. My office is in Conshohocken, and I can be reached at (484) 534-8830 or at For more information, please see his website at

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