What is toddler refusal?
Between the ages of 1 and 3 years, toddlers start to become very independent. They discover that they can make things happen and they can do things for themselves.
They will also start to learn new words, like:
- 'I want'
- 'go away'
Sometimes toddlers refuse to:
- do anything you ask
- eat certain foods
- wear certain clothes
As a parent, this can be difficult and tiring. It's important to remember that your toddler is not refusing things to deliberately upset you. At this age, toddlers can only think about themselves. They may not be aware of what you are feeling.
Why does my child say 'no'?
Saying 'no' and refusing to do things is a normal part of toddler development.
Your child should be saying 'no' by the time they are 2 years old.
Saying 'no' and making their own choices is important for toddlers. It means they are:
- starting to grow as a person separately from you
- learning what they like and don't like
- trying to have some control of their own life
Difficult toddler behaviour can also be a sign of feelings and thoughts that are hard for your child to understand. These feelings might include:
- anger or frustration
Your toddler may not know enough words to tell you how they are feeling. This can lead to tantrums. Saying 'no' is one way for them to express how they're feeling.
How do I deal with difficult behaviour?
There are some tips and tricks you can try to manage difficult behaviour.
Help your child feel comfortable
It's easier to change your child's environment than change how they are reacting. If your toddler is saying 'no' a lot, you can:
- look at ways to distract them
- show them they are special and loved
- help them feel heard and understood
- attend to their needs
- make sure their environment is safe
If your child feels safe and supported, it will be easier for them to learn to manage difficult feelings on their own and become independent.
Offering choices helps your child feel in charge, while also making sure they don't feel overwhelmed. Choices should not be yes or no questions. Give them a choice between 2 things you agree with, such as:
- 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, you can ask your child 'What's a nicer way to say no?' You can suggest they instead say 'No, thank you'.
Don't say 'no' so often yourself
If you say 'no' all the time your toddler will copy your behaviour.
Instead of saying 'no' or telling them what they shouldn't be doing, tell you child what they should be doing. For example:
- if they are splashing water out of the bath, you can say 'we play with water in the bath, not on the floor'
- if they are raising their voice in the house, 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
- 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, praise them. You can reward them with:
- a kiss and a hug
- a sticker
- a small toy
- 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're in the middle of the road and refusing to move.
It's OK for your toddler to know you are in charge. Be firm, but gentle.
Resources and Support
If you need support with your toddler's behaviour, you can speak to your child health nurse or your doctor.
You can learn more by visiting the:
- Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne, Kids Health Information
- Parenting SA, Living with Toddlers – Parent Easy Guide
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: July 2023