I don’t know what has happened to my beautiful baby! We were so excited when Evelyn started walking right after her birthday. We thought that it would make life so much more fun for her and us when we could go places and do things with her without having to hold her or strap her in a stroller. It’s been a few months and now I dread leaving the house—she is so difficult to take anywhere. She runs away, won’t listen, and then laughs when I try to stop her. She does the same sort of thing at home, but not as extreme, and it’s not as embarrassing. I feel like she’s saying “No” even when she’s not talking! What can we do?
Answer:Sounds like you have a toddler now, not a baby!
A toddler’s saying “No” is a symbol of her increasing ability to tell you she has a will of her own. Most toddlers, just like Evelyn, begin saying “No” in non-verbal ways for months before they say the word. Do you remember the first time she pulled back from a spoonful of food you offered her and shook her head from side to side? The shaking movement of an infant to avoid her parent’s spoon is one of the earliest ways she says “No”!
Once a 1-year old begins to express “No” you will probably see an increase in the number and variety of ways she resists you. The term “oppositional behavior” has been used to describe this resistance, because at times parents feel that whatever they suggest, the child wants to do the opposite. At times you may feel as though whatever you say or do it’s wrong. As one parent said, “I asked my toddler if she wanted a cookie or ice cream. She threw herself on the floor saying ‘No! No!’ I finally found out she wanted a cupcake like she had a week ago, but we didn’t have any. I can’t figure out how to make her happy.”
If you try to please a defiant 1-year-old, you probably won’t be successful. The more absurd and trivial her demands are, the less likely they are to be ones that you can fulfill. In fact, if you keep attempting to please her, you may find that she simply increases her demands until you are exhausted, angry, and finally willing to say “No” to her as well.
If parents can treat their toddler’s negativity as a part of normal daily life, they find it easier to stay casual and matter-of-fact when they are faced with an outburst. When your one year old says “No!” check to see if she is resisting something that she is reasonably within her rights to resist. If she refuses to eat her cereal, or to wear her pink socks, or to kiss Aunt Mildred, it’s okay. to respect her “No!” But if she refuses to sit in her car seat, or to let you change her diaper, or to put down the scissors she found in the desk drawer, you’ll have to be firm.
No matter what the issue, it helps to stay calm. Most parents try either to give their child a brief explanation of why she can’t have or do what she wants, or ignore her protests and get on with their activities. As you watch your toddler’s reactions to these different responses, you’ll figure out which ones work best for both of you.
Occasionally parents are told that a toddler learns to say “No!” because she hears it from others, and that if parents can avoid confronting their children with the “N” word they won’t hear it directed back at them later. This advice sends parents the message that their toddler’s defiant “No!” is something bad to be avoided. In fact, your toddler’s saying “No!” is an important sign that she is becoming her own person, willing to take the risk of defying the parents she loves and needs. It may be too much to ask parents to enjoy this stage of development, but it is a stage that should give you the satisfaction that your child is ready to begin becoming independent.
You don’t need to be so strict with your toddler that you wind up challenging her into a battle of wills about issues that don’t matter. That battle has no winner. If you force your child to give in she will feel angry and resentful. If you then decide to give in because it’s not worth a fight you will feel silly for taking on the issue in the first place.
StrategiesOne strategy that often works to avoid head on collisions is to offer your one year old a choice between two realistic options. Instead of asking “Do you want milk?” ask, “Do you want milk in the red cup or the blue cup?” Instead of, “Do you want to go shopping?” ask, “Do you want to go to the store now or after a story?” Don’t ask her to make a choice that isn’t reasonable: “Do you want to take your nap now or later?” isn’t a fair question to ask an overtired and cranky toddler. Offering choices is one way to avoid some negative responses, but it won’t always be practical and will not help you to avoid ever having to deal with your child refusing to cooperate.
Some toddlers can be more challenging than others because of inborn temperamental characteristics. For example:
An active toddler will have more trouble being cooperative in situations where she has to be still. She’s resist sitting in a stroller or car seat or in a group because she needs to move, not just because she’s being oppositional.
A persistent and non distractible toddler can be stubborn and refuse to follow even the most clear limits. The best that you can do will be to be very firm and act rather than argue (as in take away a toy immediately if he throws it, remove him from the table if he spits his food)
An intense toddler may shriek or scream when you tell her no or try to keep her from doing something she wants to do. Her protests may tempt you to back down or to walk on eggshells to avoid frustrating her.
A highly sensitive toddler may seem oppositional when she is actually trying to avoid a situation that is physiologically uncomfortable, such as being in a noisy environment or wearing clothing that scratches her.
Figuring out how to manage Evelyn’s behavior, whether it stems from her age and stage of development, her temperament, or from causes that once understood can be resolved will be a challenge, but over time the patterns that are unique to her will emerge.
The bottom line is this: all toddlers, sometime between 1-1/2 and 3, will begin to be unreasonably and mystifyingly resistant. It’s not a sign that you have a difficult child or that you are a failure as a parent. It’s simply a stage and it will pass (and recur, and pass, and recur again . . . sorry to say!)
Meg Zweiback, RN, MPH, is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and family consultant in Oakland. She is an associate clinical professor of nursing at University of California, San Francisco and posts articles and other resources on her Web site, bringingupkids.com. To possibly have your question included, please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org