Cincinnati Family Magazine

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May 25, 2024

What to Do When All He Says Is, “NO!”

Three-year-olds can go through a defiant stage, so it's helpful to have parenting strategies to help reroute him.

You thought the terrible 2s were rough, welcome to age 3! Of course, young children are famous for defiance as they discover their own selves. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. So you can avoid a power struggle that results in tears, here are tools for those ongoing “No!” moments.

  1. Provide empathy
    Those tantrums you thought were over with? No, they’re not quite over yet, they’ve just modified a bit into the dramatic N.O. Children in this age group “haven’t mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings,” say authors Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., in their book, The Whole-Brain Child (Delacorte; 2011). They have learned the word “No” from you and anyone else who cares for them and understand its power. So, power-hungry, they start using it. Think of it as a mini tantrum. Siegel and Bryson say remaining clam and empathetic during your child’s “No” phase is more effective than a punitive approach. However, if your child is saying, “No!” and disregarding your efforts to keep him safe, keep in mind that attaching consequences to bad behavior is the surest way to minimize his outbursts.
  2. Offer choices
    Avoid the “No” response by offering a choice instead of making a command and don’t make it an either/or choice if what you want is non-negotiable. For instance, if you know your little one doesn’t like to brush his teeth and that a battle will be coming, grab this tool. Ask him, “Do you want to squirt the toothpaste on the brush yourself or do you want me to do it for you?”
  3. Make it something he can “get”
    When a little one feels like there’s something good in it for him, he just may fall in line. With anything you may ask your child to do, try turning it into a privilege.
  4. Offer and incentive (not a bribe!)
    For example, “After you show Mommy what a big boy you can be at the store, we can come home and play with your trains together.” Just be sure you do what you say! 
  5. Pick your battles
    Parents say “No” to their little ones in multiple ways. “Please don’t talk so loudly,” “Don’t jump on the bed,” “We don’t put candy in the dog bowl,” and on and on. So that you are not a non-stop drone of “No” to your child, pick your battles. Focus on the most important lessons and let your child explore and learn.

Other Tools for When All They Say Is, “NO!”

Stay calm. You should be the thermostat, not the thermometer, says Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., author of The Tantrum Survival Guide (Guilford Press; 2018). It is not your fault that your child is being defiant, but it is your responsibility to guide him out.

Consider the root cause. Your child’s non-stop “No’s!” may be an expression of hunger, fatigue or simply frustration at not getting his way. Try to find instances where he can get his way.

Distract, distract, distract. This is a fabulous tool, Hershberg says. If your child is in a “No!” mood, try moving to a different setting or putting on music. The distraction method works well with young kids who can forget their frustrations from one moment to the next.

About the Author

Susan Day

Susan Day is the editor in chief of Cincinnati Family Magazine and a mother of four.