What is toddler refusal?
Between the ages of 1 and 3, toddlers start to become very independent. They discover that they can make things happen and they can do things for themselves.
They are also learning new words. It is very common for toddlers to use words like ‘no’, ‘I won't’, ‘give me’ and ‘me do’. This behaviour is called ‘toddler refusal’.
Saying ‘no’ and refusing to do things is a normal part of toddler development. Here are some tips for managing this annoying stage.
Why does my child say ‘no’?
Saying ‘no’ to everything can start at any age between 1 and 3, but it is often a phase that goes away quickly.
Sometimes toddlers refuse to do anything you ask — it can feel like you are battling all day long. But it is important to remember that your toddler is not refusing things deliberately to upset you.
At this age, toddlers can only think about themselves. They are not aware of what you are feeling.
Asserting their will is important for toddlers. It means they are starting to understand that they are a separate person from you. They are trying to take control of their own life and learning how to live in the world.
Dealing with difficult behaviour
Difficult toddler behaviour is often a sign of difficult feelings and thoughts. For example, they may be over-excited, angry or disappointed. Saying ‘no’ is one way for them to express how they are feeling.
It is important for children to feel heard and understood. Attend to their needs and give them lots of love while they learn to manage difficult feelings on their own.
It is easier to change the child’s world than to change the child. If your toddler is saying ‘no’ a lot, look at ways to distract them and show them they are special and loved. Make sure their environment is safe so they can explore and develop their independence.
Tips and techniques
Offer choices: Don’t let the choice be yes or no, let it be 2 things you agree with. For example, ‘Do you want to put away your blocks or your stuffed toys?' ‘Do you want to wear your red coat or your green coat?' This will give your toddler the feeling of being in charge.
Teach your toddler a different response: Often toddlers say 'no' so often it becomes automatic. They might not be able to think of another word. Start to expand your toddler’s vocabulary: for example, ‘What’s a nicer way to say no?’ (‘No, thank you’).
Don’t say ‘no’ so often yourself: Parents often tell toddlers what not to do, but if you say ‘no’ all the time your toddler will copy your behaviour. A better way is to calmly tell your toddler what they should be doing instead. For example, instead of saying ‘no’ when they are splashing water out of the bath, say ‘We play with water in the bath, not on the floor’. If they carry on, bath time is over.
Set limits: Make sure your toddler understands the rules — both what they can and cannot do in the house. For example, say ‘Use a nice quiet voice inside’ instead of ‘Don’t shout’. When asking your child to do something, use a calm voice, get down to their level, look them in the eye, stay calm and firmly tell them what you would like them to do.
Reward good behaviour: Try to distract your toddler from a difficult situation. If they do as they are told, reward them with a kiss and a hug, a sticker, a small toy or extra play time. Do not reward bad behaviour.
Don’t give up: Sometimes your toddler needs to do what they are told — for example, if they are in the middle of the road and refusing to move. It is OK for your toddler to know you are in charge. Be firm, but gentle.
Where to find help and support
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Last reviewed: August 2021