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The Competent Parent: Toddler Says, “No!”

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Toddler Says, “No!”

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My usually sunny son has been having spells of negativity. Half the time he wakes up cranky. He refuses many foods he used to gobble up. He protests when I dress him. The cute tricks he used to perform for guests – holding his hands up for “So Big,” for example – are replaced with a grunt, a squinched-up face and turning away his head. He repeatedly says, “No” when it’s time for bath, but also says, “No” when I tell him it’s time to get out of the tub. He’s twenty-three months old. Is this what lays in store for us for his Terrible Two’s?

Dreading a Year of This


Click here to read last week’s post: fighting family time.

Dear Dreading,

Something amazing happens around the age of 2 years. Your toddler discovers he has a mind of his own and the best way to express that is to oppose yours. In a word, “No!” Try giving him a choice, such as “rubber ducky or beach ball in the bath tub tonight?” he can say “No” to one as he agrees to the other. A good discipline technique for now and the future is to make some steady rules for health and safety, create pleasant routines for dressing, feeding, bathing, etc. and try to provide an environment and activities through which he can make discoveries and express his own amazing ideas. Playthings needn’t be expensive, or even come from the toy store. Empty boxes, plastic bowls from the kitchen, and a durable set of coasters can provide hours of fun and learning. Toddlers also need to exercise their bodies, so when you can’t get outside, be sure to provide space and supervision for dancing, stair climbing, and playing chase with a friendly family cat or dog. Rest is important for physical growth and mental processing as well as for a pleasant mood, so schedule in some naps and a reasonable bedtime. The energy he expends with near constant motion needs regular refueling, so keep healthy drinks and snacks coming (in small portions) between his meals. Give him choices between two foods, and support for independent eating (finger foods) to satisfy his craving for making decisions about himself. Teething can ruin a good mood, so address your son’s comfort needs as his two-year-old molars come on the scene.

It’s easier to be cooperative when all one’s needs are met. Contrariness is, however a normal part of this age, so try to limit your demands on him. The less you and he are in opposition the better for your relationship.

Research on toddler behavior gives us some interesting insights into getting more cooperation out of them. One idea is that “Yes” is likely to follow “Yes.” Sales people use this technique when they get you to agree that “Yes,” it would indeed be nice to add some fresh color to your home and before you know it you’ve agreed to a whole remodeling job. Just the same, “No” is likely to be followed by a “No.” Say a restaurant you are trying out for the first time has you on hold for twenty minutes when you call for reservations, can’t find your name when you get there until you point it out on the list, then is out of the main course you were looking forward to. If at this point they ask to move you to a different table because the band needs to set up, you will probably walk out the door. They’ve lost the chance to gain your cooperation by not doing a good job of meeting your needs. Back to your toddler conflicts, if you see a cloud of negativity forming, this is not the time to insist on him performing for company. Research also tells us that the more that the caregiver yields to the toddler, the more the toddler is likely to acquiesce to the adult’s requests. So play along when he’s in a good mood. Blow raspberries on his belly when he pulls his shirt up. Marvel at his discoveries and inventions. Sing “Eensy Weensy Spider” a hundred times through if he asks. And although research tells us that toddlers are only compliant on average about 50% of the time, you’re more likely to get a “Yes” when you are agreeable, too.

All the more reason to be choosy about your restaurants.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com.

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