Negative, Stubborn Toddler

Why is my child so negative?

Negativism is a normal phase most children go through between 18 months and 3 years of age. It begins when children discover they have the power to refuse other people’s requests. During this time, children respond negatively to many requests, including pleasant ones. In general, they are stubborn rather than cooperative. They delight in refusing a suggestion, whether it’s about getting dressed or taking off their clothes, taking a bath or getting out of the bathtub, going to bed or getting up.

How do I deal with a negative, stubborn toddler?

Consider the following guidelines for helping you and your child through this phase.

  1. Don’t take this normal phase too personally.

    By saying no your child means, “Do I have to?” or “Do you mean it?” This response should not be confused with disrespect. This phase is important to the development of independence and identity. Try to look at it with a sense of humor and amazement.

  2. Don’t punish your child for saying no.

    Punish your child for what he does, not what he says. Since you can’t eliminate the no, ignore it. Arguing with your child about saying no will prolong this behavior.

  3. Give your child extra choices.

    This is the best way to increase your child’s sense of freedom and control, so that she will become more cooperative. Examples of choices are letting your child choose between a shower or a bath; which book to read; which toys to take into the tub; which fruit to eat for a snack; which clothes or shoes to wear; which breakfast cereal to eat; which game to play, whether inside or outside, in the park or in the yard; and so forth. For tasks your child doesn’t like, give her a say in the matter by asking, “Do you want to do it slowly or fast?”, or “Do you want me to do it, or you?” The more quickly your child gains a feeling that she is a decision-maker, the sooner this phase will be over.

  4. Don’t give your child a choice when there is none.

    Safety rules, such as sitting in the car safety seat, are not open to discussion, although you can explain why the rule must be followed. Going to bed or to day care also is not negotiable. Don’t ask a question when there’s only one acceptable answer, but direct your child in as kind a manner as possible (for example, “I’m sorry, but now you have to go to bed”). Commands such as “Do this or else” should be avoided.

  5. Give transition time when your child’s activity must change.

    If your child is having fun and must change to another activity, he probably needs a transition time. For example, if your child is playing with trucks as dinnertime approaches, give him a 5-minute warning. A kitchen timer sometimes helps a child accept the change more readily.

  6. Eliminate excessive rules.

    The more rules you have, the less likely it is that your child will be agreeable about following them. Eliminate unnecessary expectations and arguments about wearing socks or cleaning her plate. Help your child feel less controlled by having more positive interactions than negative contacts each day.

  7. Avoid responding to your child’s requests with excessive no’s.

    Be for your child a model of agreeableness. When your child asks for something and you are unsure, try to say yes, or postpone your decision by saying, “Let me think about it.” If you are going to grant a request, do so right away, before your child whines or begs for it. When you must say no, say you’re sorry and give your child a reason.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call during office hours if:

  • You or your spouse can’t accept your child’s need to say no.
  • You or your spouse have trouble controlling your temper.
  • Your child has several other discipline problems.
  • This approach doesn’t bring improvement within one month.
  • You have other questions or concerns.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2002-03-11
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 Barton D. Schmitt, MD. All rights reserved.

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