Toddler Defiance & the Word “No”

Don’t worry if your toddler’s vocabulary suddenly seems to be limited to different inflections of one word: “No”. In fact, such behavior means that you’ve got a perfectly normal and healthy kid on your hands! Child research shows that defiant behavior in toddlers is part of healthy development. Read on to learn about why toddlers suddenly grow to love the word and how you can limit their use of it.

Why It Happens

Most toddlers around 1-2 years old will be testing their new-found and growing independence, and part of their experimentation will involve exercising their own will. Toddlers will sometimes exhibit this behavior suddenly, which understandably leaves most parents confused about what brought it on, and the stage can disappear just as abruptly as it began. 

In a world where everything is controlled by mommy and daddy, an occasional “no” to wearing a certain dress or eating a particular kind of food is your toddler’s way of feeling in control. Sometimes, toddlers might even say “no” when in fact they mean to say “yes” just because it makes them feel good, or because they hear it so often from either parent.

What to Do

Giving your toddler a directive that ends with a question mark may naturally invite a “no” from your child. Directives should be phrased as statements; options, on the other hand, can be phrased as questions because your child’s opinion and preference is important. For example, don’t ask your toddler whether it wants to go to bed at bedtime; but ask it whether it would like chocolate milk or banana milk. Here are other tactics that you can use to limit your child’s use of “no” to when it really matters:

  • Offer your toddler a limited number of choices. Giving your child no more than two choices can help prevent a clash of wills. This can cover anything from which toys to play with at a given time to resolving disputes (“Do you want to play nicely with your cousin or do you want to play by yourself?”). As a last resort with a stubborn toddler, using the counting method: tell your toddler that you will give it to the count of 10 to make up its mind or you will decide on its behalf. This usually spurs most toddlers into making a decision.
  • Teach your toddler other responses. Toddlers’ limited vocabulary can sometimes be the reason behind their excessive use of the word “no”. Teach your little one other words such as “maybe”, “later”, and “yes”. Try rephrasing your questions in such a way that requires an answer other than “no”.
  • Limit your use of "no". Children mimic their parents’ behavior, so if you’re prone to overusing the word, you might want to cut down first before you expect your child to stop chanting “no” every time you make a request. Find out how to use alternatives to “no” in Positive Alternatives to Saying “No!”
  • Don’t back down. Sometimes locking heads with your toddler won’t be avoidable; in such cases, make sure you stand your ground. Your toddler must learn that there are times when your word is law. Read up on methods of how to handle a toddler tantrum.

When to Call the Doctor

While defiance is usually a healthy developmental phase, some families might experience behavior problems that require professional help. Talk to your pediatrician or child psychologist if you’re running out of ideas and patience on how to handle your child; if your toddler seems angry or sad more often than it is happy; or if your child doesn’t regain control of its temper within 15-20 minutes after being disappointed.