Three-year-old Max Colby doesn't like to wear underwear or short-sleeved shirts. His mom, Andrea, would love to know why -- but Max can't quite explain his objections. "All he does is rip his clothes off and yell 'no, no, no,'" she says. "I have no idea how to handle it."
If you think that you and your defiant toddler are constantly sparring like this, you're right: A recent study in Child Development showed that 2- and 3-year-olds argue with their parents 20 to 25 times an hour! You may get exhausted just looking at those numbers, but there is an upside to all the showdowns. "Kids this age are realizing that they can assert themselves, and arguing with you is one way they gain confidence," says John Sargent, MD, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. Remember: The world is still a big, mysterious place to your toddler, and he feels pretty powerless in it. Saying no is a normal, healthy way for him to feel as if he has some control.
Still, constant conflicts aren't fun, and they're often tricky to solve. Giving in sets a bad precedent, while being too strict or forcing your child to do what you want can make him feel helpless, scared, angry -- and even more defiant. Try these strategies to turn your talking-back toddler into a "yes" kid.
Your toddler doesn't like hearing "no" all the time any more than the rest of us, but think about how many times you say it to her every day ("No pulling the dog's tail!" "No standing on the chair!"). It's enough to put anyone in a crabby mood. "Tell your child what you want her to do rather than what you don't want her to do," says Angie T. Cranor, PhD, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. For example, "Don't roll on the floor in your new dress" is more likely to start an argument than "Please sit on the couch in that pretty dress so it stays clean." Tone is also important. Of course you're going to yell if your child is about to run into traffic, but she's more likely to do what you ask when you use a calm, firm voice.
Toddlers are less likely to pitch a fit when you tell them why they can't get their way. Vivian J. Malauulu's 3-year-old son, Jordan, loves climbing the jungle gym in his backyard, but he often stops halfway up and refuses to budge. And Malauulu, who is seven months pregnant, has no choice but to talk him down. "When I explain that I can't come up to get him because I have a baby in my tummy, he usually stops trying to convince me," she says. Most toddlers can understand simple explanations like that, says Deborah Laible, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. You don't need to go into all the details; if you do, your kid could tune you out or end up confused.
"Giving your toddler choices helps satisfy her need to feel in control," says Dr. Cranor. If she refuses to put down her favorite blocks when it's time to eat dinner, distract her by asking whether she would prefer a glass of milk or apple juice with her meal. If getting dressed is a constant drama, let her choose her outfit, even if she ends up looking like a Project Runway reject. "When you allow your child to make small decisions, she'll feel proud -- and be more likely to say 'yes' to your requests in the future," says Dr. Cranor.
You know your toddler loves to imitate you and play grown-up, so use that to your advantage the next time he won't cooperate, says Dr. Laible. If he won't put on his socks, for example, say, "My feet are cold, so I'm going to put on a warmer pair. Your feet must be cold too -- why don't we put on our socks together?"
There are certain times when your toddler will always say no. If you try to break up her dolls' tea party because it's bathtime, chances are she'll refuse to get anywhere near the tub. But if you can turn your request into a game, you're both more likely to end up laughing instead of arguing. Suggest that she hop her way to the bathroom, count how many big (or teeny-tiny) steps it takes to get there, or make up her own silly bathtime song.
Chances are you've been guilty of giving your child a cookie or treat to head off a meltdown at the supermarket. But while this tactic might work, it's not a good long-term strategy, says Dr. Cranor. "When you reward your child for misbehaving, she'll probably act even worse the next time." The better bet: Praise her when she behaves and shower her with hugs and kisses. "A little positive attention can really go a long way," she says.
That's not to say that rewards are always off-limits, says Dr. Sargent -- though food and money should be. Instead, offer stickers, crayons, five extra minutes of playtime, or an extra book at bedtime when your toddler behaves. Just be sure to reward her for her good behavior quickly -- time is too abstract for toddlers to understand yet, so future promises don't mean much.
There are some occasions when you can clearly see a "no"-fest coming on. Be prepped to head off your toddler's defiance when you encounter these sticky situations.
Naptime or bedtime
This one's a biggie, because children are even more likely to spar with you when they're tired.
Your child almost always has to make the transition from a fun activity when it's time to eat a meal.
Meeting new playmates or starting daycare
Any kind of unfamiliar experience can make some kids freak out.
At the mall or a busy playground
When they're overwhelmed by people, sights, and sounds, kids are rarely agreeable.
A trip to the doctor's office
Hey, your child hasn't forgotten the shots or icky medicine from the last appointment!
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Parents magazine.