It can be very frustrating when your toddler pesters you, or repeatedly asks you for something even after you say no. Here are tips on standing your ground and how not to give in to pester power.
Why do toddlers pester?
Children ask for things all the time — it's a natural part of growing up and learning about the exciting world around them. But when your child keeps asking for something repeatedly even after you've said 'no', it's pestering.
Most children pester their parents for things they can't have, like junk food at the supermarket or toys in a shopping centre. In fact, 'pester power' is an important marketing tool for manufacturers. Advertising on children's television and placing products in view of young children in the shops is a proven way of increasing sales because children pester their parents to buy them. Parents giving into their children's pestering is one of the causes of child overweight and obesity in Australia.
Pestering is very common. One survey found children in Australia ask their parents for something in the supermarket once every 3 minutes, on average. Parents give in and say yes more than half of the time.
In toddlers, being told 'no' can lead to whingeing or tantrums. That's because at this age the disappointment can be too much for a child to bear. But it's important not to give in, as that will teach your child that pestering works and make them more likely to pester in future.
How do I manage pestering?
Pestering can wear you down. It's hard to stand your ground, especially in a public place like a supermarket. Stay calm, manage your temper by breathing slowly and counting to 10, and use these techniques to help you cope.
When your child asks for something, make sure they use their manners. Don't give in to threats, demands or whining and never give them something unless they ask for it nicely.
You do not have to say 'no' to everything your child asks for. Listen to your child's request, praise them for asking politely, and take a moment to consider it. If you don't want them to have something, explain the reasons why.
Even if they ask nicely, the answer might still be 'no'. For example, you might not want them to eat a certain food, or you might not be able to afford the toy they want. It is important that your child understands that 'no' means 'no'.
Don't say 'no' unless you mean it. If you say 'no', stick to it. Try to distract your child from asking again with a new activity, a game or a trip somewhere else. A bath, music or a story can help to calm down the situation.
If the pestering turns into a full-blown tantrum, stay calm, ignore the behaviour and move away — but stay within sight so your toddler doesn't feel abandoned. If you are in a public place, you can pick up your child and take them to a quiet, safe place to calm down.
When they are calm, give them a cuddle and talk about it. But make it clear they still cannot have the thing they want.
Can I prevent pestering?
Children are more likely to pester if they know it will work. The key to preventing pestering is consistency. If you are consistent, your child knows you mean what you say and will be less likely to ask again. If you are inconsistent, your child knows there is a chance they will get what they want, so they will keep pushing.
Before you go to the shops, lay down some ground rules and tell your child what behaviour you expect. Praise their good behaviour and offer a healthy reward, like a play in the park, if they can get through the trip without asking you for something.
Try not to say 'no' too often. If you only say 'no' to things that really matter, your child will be more likely to listen.
It can also help to protect your child from advertising, both in the home and through product placement at the shops. The more they see these products, the more they will want them. Distract them or offer them an alternative.
How can I encourage good behaviour?
It is up to you to model good behaviour for your toddler. That means being honest with your child, listening to their point of view, and keeping your word. Try not to change your mind when you have offered a reward or a consequence — remember, consistency is the key.
Use simple instructions so your child understands, pick your battles, and don't lose your sense of humour.
Where can I get help and support?
If you're struggling to handle your toddler's behaviour or if nothing seems to work, talk to your doctor or child health nurse.
You can call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 for advice on managing your child's behaviour.
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Last reviewed: August 2021