University of Illinois Extension

When All You Hear Is "No!"

You ask your 2-year-old to come to you.

Instead she looks at you, shakes her head, and shouts "No!"

You tell your 18-month-old son to stay out of the cabinet. Looking right at you, he opens the cabinet door.

What do you do? When you face challenges like this in being a parent, remember:

  • All children go through stages that are hard for parents to handle.
  • Most toddlers and 2-year-olds say no and want to do things their way. This is normal behavior.
  • Learning to say no is important. When your child is older, you'll want him or her to be able to say no in situations that might involved trying drugs or getting into trouble.

Why Your Child Is Negative

toddler shy

Toddlers and 2-year-olds are learning to think. They have opinions and ideas. They want to do things their own way. They have learned how to say no, and they can physically resist what they don't want. But they are still too young to understand how their actions affect others, to see danger, and to think before they act.

It is important for children to become independent. We want them to grow up to follow their own ideas. But we must keep children safe. We also must teach them to consider the needs of others, to mind parents about important things, and to say no in acceptable ways.

What Is "Normal?"

Children can resist in different ways. As your child becomes more independent, she or he may say no by doing any or all of these things:

  • Become disagreeable and refuse your request
  • Do the opposite of what you want
  • Ignore you
  • Reject you and go to someone else
  • Push away when you want to hug or kiss
  • Run away from you
  • Go into the street or another unsafe place
  • Do something after you have said not to

You may notice behavior like this beginning around your child's first birthday. It may happen more and more before the second birthday. At this age, most children don't yet have good language skills. They often misunderstand what parents want them to do, and they can't speak many words to express their feelings and needs.

Most children gradually become more cooperative between 3 and 5 years old. They can think and remember better. They learn more about using and listening to words. They get better at controlling their emotions and their behavior. And they learn what adults expect of them.

What You Can Do to Help

You can't keep your child from ever being negative.

Remember, it's a normal part of growing up. But there are ways to help your child and yourself during the "no" years.

Change the situation. A child who is under stress may be more negative than usual. You can help out at times like these.

  • When your child is tired or hungry. Getting him to bed at a regular time and providing healthy meals and snacks may help your child stay in control.
  • When your child is facing new situations. For example, if your son is starting to go to a new day care, it's not a good time to work on getting him to stop using a pacifier. Give your child time to adjust to one change before introducing another.
  • When your child is bored. Providing a new toy or new experience may focus your child's attention.
  • When your child is sick. A child who is coming down with an illness or getting over one may be extra negative. Try to be understanding.

Protect your child and other people. A child's normal desire to be independent is sometimes dangerous. You need to stop a behavior immediately if it may hurt someone. Talk about how the child feels as you stop the harmful behavior. For example, say, "I know you want the toy, but you can't hit your brother. Hitting hurts." Or say, "I know it is fun to run, but I can't let you run in the street. A car might hit you."

Encourage cooperation. Your child is more likely to do what you say if you use approaches like these:

  • Ask rather than tell. Say "Would you give me the book, please?" instead of demanding "Bring me the book."
  • Clearly explain what you want your child to do. Say "Let's put the blocks on the shelf" instead of "Let's put the toys away."
  • Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do. Say and show how to "Touch the kitty softly" instead of just saying "Don't poke the kitty."
  • Make requests that are reasonable. For example, a young child may find it easier to trade one toy for another than to give up a toy and have nothing left to play with.
  • Teach your child words to express his feelings or to tell you what he wants. For example, as you calmly take your screaming child out of the supermarket, say "You are really mad that you can't have the cookies." Or teach your child to say "That's mine" instead of hitting a playmate who tries to take away a toy.
  • Be consistent. Your child will be confused if you make her pick up her toys one day but not the next.

Take care of yourself. To be an effective parent, you need to think about yourself as well as your child.

  • Try to keep your child's actions in perspective. If this were someone else's child, would you be so upset by the behavior?
  • Think about why your child is acting the way he is, instead of just getting mad. This will help you think of ways to help your child.
  • Find ways to reduce your own stress. Ask someone you trust to care for your child while you take a short walk or a bath or take a relaxing drive.
  • Be aware of your limits. Ask others for help when you feel anxious or need a break.

If There Is a Real Problem

All children grow and develop in their own ways and at their own speeds.

But some families do face behavior problems that call for outside help. You should be concerned and ask your doctor about getting help if one of these situations is happening:

  • Your child continues to act the same way for a long time and you feel at the end of your rope. A doctor or another professional can probably give you some new ideas.
  • Your child seems angry or sad most of the time and is not happy very often. A professional can find out if there is a medical problem.
  • Your child cannot usually gain control within 15 or 20 minutes after being disappointed. Sometimes one new idea from a professional can really help you change what is happening with your child.

Getting More Information

There are many books to help you learn more about why toddlers act the way they do. Ask about these books at your local library or bookstore:

  • Toddlers and Parents by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. (Delta/Seymore Lawrence, 1989).
  • Touchpoints by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. (Addison-Wesley, 1992).
  • The Emotional Life of the Toddler by A.L. Liberman (Free Press, 1993).

Children often like to hear stories about their frustrations. These stories also can help you keep your sense of humor! Try reading these books with your child:

  • The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown (Harper Collins, 1942).
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper Collins, 1963).
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (Atheneum Press, 1972).