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When Your Toddler Says “No”: Tips for Navigating the Challenging Toddler Years

Ah, the captivating stage of parenting where your toddler picks up the word “no” and uses it frequently. Navigating a toddler’s constant self-assertion can often drain even the most patient parents, making them feel frustrated and overwhelmed. If you’re worried that your toddler’s “no” signifies defiance, you’re not alone. But guess what? These episodes indicate a vital stage in your child’s development. Stick with me to learn why, and how to gracefully handle these intricate parenting moments.

An Introductory Glance at Child Development Theory

The act of a young child saying “no” signifies the onset of an essential psychological process termed “differentiation” (Psychology Today, n.d.). This process involves balancing a healthy emotional connection with a sense of individuality, a vital skill for maintaining fulfilling adult relationships. This journey kicks off right from infancy, where the child forms a secure attachment with the parents and gradually evolves to discover they are a separate entity (Psychology Today, n.d.).

Erik Erikson, a well-known psychosocial theorist, theorized that toddlers start grappling with the concept of autonomy at this stage of their lives (Mcleod, 2023). This phase isn’t limited to just physical independence, like playing with toys alone or attempting tasks independently; it extends to emotional autonomy as well. When your child emphatically states “mine” or demands to “do it myself,” consider these as telltale signs of a successfully progressing developmental journey (Mcleod, 2023).

Moreover, another pertinent term to consider is “boundaries.” According to Cloud and Townsend (2012), the act of saying “no” serves as a pivotal mechanism for setting boundaries and limits in relationships. This skill is not just beneficial but crucial for healthy relational dynamics in adulthood.

Your response to these episodes carries significant weight. Treating every “no” as a power struggle could present an obstacle to your child’s development in critical areas like independence, differentiation, and boundary-setting. On the flip side, a permissive approach that allows your child to do as they please is equally problematic. So, how do we find the right balance?

Some Practical Tips to Consider:

  1. Enable Safe Exploration: Create home and yard spaces where your toddler can safely indulge their curiosity. Companies like Lovevery and Kiwico offer toys that align with your child’s developmental stage. Use baby gates or closed doors to restrict access to unsafe areas. Engage with your child in age-appropriate activities for them to explore, experience the world, and meet new people such as going to the park, going to the library, playdates with friends (and maybe do this with a parent who you want to connect with as well; win, win for everyone!)
  2. Introduce Emotion-centric Books: Start reading to your toddler to strengthen your emotional bond and teach them about various feelings. For some great suggestions, take a look here.
  3. Choose Your Battles: Offer your child a choice whenever possible to avoid a power struggle. For instance, you can ask, “Would you like to read a story or cuddle before bed?” This approach allows them some control, while still maintaining essential boundaries. For tasks that they may want to try on their own first like getting in the car seat, getting dressed, putting on shoes, try to allow extra time for them to try it first before you just do it for them. This can hopefully help minimize the meltdowns of rushing through processes that your child needs to learn how to do for themselves eventually.
  4. Consistent Routines: Children feel more secure with a structured routine. Set routines for your child. Certain times of the day can be helpful to have routines such as morning, during school/daycare pickups, and bedtime. Regular routines around bedtime can be particularly helpful both for parents and children. A specific and set routine that includes a couple of tasks that can help signal to your child that it is time for sleep (for example: brush teeth, bottle, change diaper, cuddles or story, lights out). For older toddlers, make sure to include time for drinking water and using the bathroom.

In Summary

Your toddler’s frequent use of “no” represents a healthy, albeit challenging, phase of their psychological and emotional development. By fostering their independence and setting reasonable limits, you’re paving the way for a balanced adult life.

For a condensed and visual explanation, watch this informative short film by Circle of Security International here.

Lastly, when you are feeling overwhelmed, remember that this is a season. Your child is learning how to interact with you and with the big world around them and you are navigating and learning how to parent them through it. And as always, if you find yourself feeling stuck, we are here to help



Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (2012). Boundaries: When to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life. Zondervan Publishing House.

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Differentiation: The crucial relationship skill you need.

Mcleod, S. P. (2023, August 2). Erik Erikson’s stages of Psychosocial Development.

YouTube. (2014, December 1). Circle of Security Animation.

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Veronica Gillen, MSW, LSW

Veronica Gillen is a licensed social worker with a Masters Degree from West Chester University of Pennsylvania with an emphasis on trauma informed care and strengths-based recovery support. Veronica is a bilingual therapist and provides services in both English and Spanish. Veronica enjoys working with women, children, and teens as well as families.

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