Toddlers just have to say “no.” “Do you want an ice cream cone?” “No.” “Do you want your Teddy Bear now?” “No.” No matter how much the child believes, “yes” at two years old he just has to say “No!” Why is that?
Toddlers are just moving out of the symbiotic stage – the stage in which the child and Mommy blur into one. During infancy, infants and mothers live in the same rhythm almost seeming to share one body. This helps the mother sense when her baby is hungry, when she needs to be changed, when she is tired and all the rest. The baby has no words and everything must be communicated non-verbally. Mother tunes into the baby’s body language and little sounds to read her unspoken message. The better Mom can do this, the more successfully the baby’s needs will be met. Therefore, it is advantageous for mother and baby to share a oneness – a relationship that needs no language.
However, toddlers are beginning to speak. This marks the beginning of their independent existence. Now that they can articulate, they can offer an opinion, express a wish, or give positive or negative feedback. Now the child want to express himself or herself – the child needs to discover the “self” to express.
I am Not YOU
The child finds him or herself by distinguishing it from other selves. I know that something is warm only by comparing it to something that is cool. One thing is blue only if it is not any of the other colors. Differences define unique properties of things and people. Therefore, the toddler finds himself by distinguishing himself from his previously symbiotic partner – Mom.
If Mom wants the toddler to do something, the toddler finds herself by saying “No.” “No, I don’t want to do it whereas YOU want me to do it therefore clearly I am not you. I am me.” (The toddler, of course, doesn’t articulate the whole sentence – just the “no” part!)
Managing the Negativistic Toddler
As wonderful as this developmental stage is for the baby’s development, it can present a formidable parenting challenge. It seems that everything has become an argument. The child is no more Mr. Nice Guy. Now, everything is “no!” What’s a parent to do?
First of all, it can be very helpful to encourage the child’s independence. Instead of butting heads with a toddler (“I said, do it!”), a parent can acknowledge the child’s unique view. “Oh, YOU don’t want to do it. You want to sit here and suck your thumb. You are Joey.” This kind of response actually calms the child a bit, since you clearly understand his agenda and appreciate it properly. Sometimes, after hearing such a sentence, the toddler will end the battle and simply comply with the parent’s wishes. But don’t count on it.
Sometimes, the parent will have to insist – for safety reasons or other practical reasons, the toddler may have no real choice in a matter. However, even in such cases, the parent can first acknowledge the child’s opinion and then ease her into the correct spot. “I know you don’t want to get your shoes on now. That’s O.K. Mommy will come back in a few minutes and put them on you because we have to go soon.”
Giving a toddler some choices can help reduce the amount of nay-saying. “Do you want Cereal A or B?” can be less confrontational than “Mommy has some nice cereal B for you today.” Let the child pick out foods, clothes, toys and even some activities. This way the child can develop her sense of self without having to say “no” to your suggestions.
Most of all, just relax. This stage passes. Although children always need plenty of space in order to become themselves, the toddler’s dramatic negativity will eventually give way to a more moderate amount of dispute (until the teens years, that is). The more you can let your child make personal decisions at every stage of life, the better. Acknowledging his point of view, taking him seriously and showing consideration for his thoughts and feelings can go a long way toward preventing real rebellion later on. Help each child develop according to his or her unique needs and characteristics starting in toddlerhood: say “Yes!” to independent thinking!