What “No” Means
The technical name for your child's fascination with the word "no" is "toddler refusal" — and the simple fact is that toddlers say "no" because they can. "They've just found out that they have a will, and they want to exercise it," explains Susanne Denham, professor of developmental psychology at George Mason University and author of Emotional Development in Young Children.
Young children are not saying “no” to try and drive parents crazy, as much as it may seem that way at times. They are like little scientists running experiments to learn more about their world.
What happens when I do this?
What happens when I say “no”?
What happens when Mom or Dad says “no” and I do it anyway?
What does “no” really mean?
If I keep saying “no” and throw in a temper tantrum, will I eventually get my way?
Young children are testing limits and mapping the boundaries of their independence. From the preschool point of view, this a normal part of child development.
Wise parents hold the line in the face of toddler refusal. They know this is a crucial part of loving, caring for, and guiding their child. This can be accomplished without morphing into a tyrant or engaging in a battle of wills with little ones. The first step is recognizing that young children need our help learning how to harness their powerful urges, wants, and desires.
What parents can do:
Offer choices. Offering a limited choice is absolutely the best way of avoiding a showdown with your toddler. "Do you want to wear the white shoes or the red shoes today?" "Do you want juice or milk?" "Okay, time to choose! Do you want to put away your blocks or your stuffed animals?" Two choices are enough at this stage, and this technique can be used for everything from getting dressed to solving playdate disputes: "Do you want to play nicely with Timmy, or do you want to play by yourself?"
Counting sometimes works with indecisive children: "I'm going to count to five and then you choose, or I'll choose for you." Your child will likely become decisive once you start the countdown. (Save this counting technique for last resorts because it loses its power if you use it too often.)
Offer the appearance of options. To make this work, you have to keep two important facts in your mind: You know more than your preschoolers does, and virtually everything can be turned into a choice. Say, "Do you want to get out of the car now or play for two minutes and then get out of the car?" Either way, she gets out of the car. Or say, "Do you want to put your sweater on frontward or backward?" And since you both know she's not going to put her sweater on backward, what you're doing here is using humor to break the tension (and yes, if she calls your bluff, you have to let her wear it backward). Either way, she thinks she has a choice.
Teach your preschooler other responses. One of the reasons young children say "no" so much is they don't know very many words. Help your toddler expand her vocabulary by turning "no" into a game: "What's the opposite of 'no'?" (That one's easy.) "What comes in between 'no' and 'yes'?" (Maybe, perhaps, and possibly.) "What's a nicer way to say 'no'?" ("No, thank you." If your toddler's very verbal, try, "No, thank you very much, I couldn't possibly.")
You can make a "no" response less automatic (and maybe even get a "yes!") if you set up a situation in advance with a silly question: "What would a bird say if you said, 'Mr. Bird, would you like a worm?'" When your child responds with, "Yes!" you follow up with: "And what would you say if I asked you if you'd like a hamburger?" With any luck, by this point your child will be giggling too much to rebuff the hamburger.
Use "no" sparingly. Your preschooler might be spouting "no"s in part because she constantly hears the word directed at her. If that's the case, try to cut back on your own use of the word and use alternatives to "no" whenever possible. One tactic is to replace the word with other phrases more specific to the situation at hand, like "It's not safe to play on the stairs, let's play with your blocks instead," "We don't hit the kitty," or "Use your indoor voice, please." See more here: Talking Back
Stand your ground. There will be times when, despite your best efforts to avoid or distract, you end up in a showdown with your child. If she stops in the middle of the street and refuses to move, for example, you'll move her, and quickly. But safety concerns aren't the only reason to be firm. "A toddler has a will — but she can't always be exerting it all over the place," says developmental psychologist Denham. "It's just too messy."
It's perfectly appropriate at times to say "This is not a time when I can give you a choice. There's no choosing now. I know that you don't like this, and I'm sorry, but this is the way it's going to be." You might even pull rank: "I'm the mommy, that's why."