How to “make” kids listen is a huge struggle. It goes something like this…
Mom: “It’s time for bed.”
Toddler: “No, I don’t want to go to bed.”
Mom: “No, you have to go to bed.”
And just like that the war of egos begins. You and your toddler are in battle mode: She is determined to stay awake, you are determined for her to go to sleep.
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How do you find the words to say “yes” to your toddler when you really need to say “no?”
Setting boundaries is an important part of parenting. There’s no doubt about that. But is there a better way than engaging in power struggles with my toddler?
Does it seem like you “spend all day saying things like…
Don’t do this.
Don’t do that.
No, no, no.
I told my husband the other day, I would feel hopeless and defeated if someone was constantly correcting me all day long. Geeze, it would pretty much make me want to go in a room and hide under the covers with a giant chocolate bar.
Recently, we started to choose our words a bit more wisely. We started setting boundaries and teaching consequences while using phrases that conveyed the meaning of “no” without actually using the word “no” or a negative phrase (e.g. don’t do that).
Here’s what I’ve learned about how to say “no” to a toddler without actually saying “no:”
Affirm the “yes” first.
- Of course you want to stay awake. I want to stay awake too. I get it.
- Of course you want to watch the movie. I want to watch that movie too. I get it.
- Of course you want to eat another cookie. I want to eat a lot of cookies too. I get it.
So you could replace the words with anything. But basically, what I’ve learned is that toddlers and kids in general simply want to know that you get it. That you know where they are coming from. That they are understood by others.
Saying yes first, helps toddlers feel validated. Seriously, life-changing things started to happen even with that first step—affirm the “yes” first.
Shift the energy.
- You want to stay awake later than bedtime? Okay. How about you pick one day this weekend and you can stay up 15 minutes past your bedtime. Mommy will write it down so she won’t forget. Let’s see if we get to bed now, we will have so much more energy to stay up late tomorrow.
- You want to watch this movie? You can watch this movie when you are older. Mommy will write a note on this movie so that she won’t forget. Let’s find the movie that you can watch.
- You want to eat this cookie? Okay. Mommy will save it for you so you can eat it after you finish all your lunch tomorrow. Let’s find a healthy snack that you can have right now.
Shifting the energy helps move the child’s mindset to something else. They are determined to win the battle, so if you move the energy away from the battle altogether, there isn’t a battle to fight.
Reflect and connect with the child’s need.
- You want to stay awake, and you’re really mad that it’s bedtime right now.
- You want to watch this movie, and you’re really mad that you have to wait until you are older to watch it.
- You want to eat a cookie, and you are really upset that you have to wait until tomorrow.
Reflecting the child’s emotions back to him is another way to help him feel validated and understood. Toddlers are much more likely to surrender with dignity when they feel understood. Avoid resisting against each other.
Listen with a third ear and see with a third eye.
Being in charge does not mean you have to reign supreme control. This is something both my husband and I needed to let go of. We didn’t need to exert our dominance over our son in order to parent successfully. Many times when toddlers are resistive there is an underlying meaning or cause for the issue. So I kind of changed my mindset a bit and started listening with a third ear and watching with a third eye.
Is my toddler acting out because he didn’t get enough attention today? Is he acting out because there are changes in our life? Is he acting out because his dad is away for work? Is he acting out because he is simply over-tired?
Is he acting out because he didn’t get enough energy out through physical activity?
More ways to say “No” without actually saying “No”:
- In place of…”No more ice cream.”
- Try…”I know you like ice cream, but eating too much is not good.”
- In place of…”Get down off the table right now.”
- Try…”Can you sit nice on the chair please?”
- In place of…”Stop throwing food.”
- Try…”Food is for eating, not for flinging.”
- In place of…”Don’t touch those plants.”
- Try…”Things need to grow. Let’s be gentle.”
- In place of….”Stop hitting.”
- Try…”We use our words, not our hands. Please be gentle.”
- In place of…”Stop whining now.”
- Try…”I can’t understand you when you whine like that. Tell me in your regular voice.”
- In place of…”Stop touching the phone.”
- Try…”Can mommy have the phone? You can have this toy.”
- In place of…”Stop hitting.”
- Try…”Can you show me how you are gentle?”
- In place of…”Don’t take your shoes off.”
- Try…”Leave your shoes on. We take our shoes off only at home.”
- In place of…”No, you can’t have any candy.”
- Try…”Yes, you can have candy after dinner. Let’s go look for an apple for now.”
- In place of…”Stop banging on the table.”
- Try…”You’re hurting the table when you bang on it. Can you show me how you are gentle?”
- In place of…”Don’t throw that ball.”
- Try…”You can roll the ball indoors or take it outside and throw it. Which would you like to do?”
- In place of…”Stop playing with your food.”
- Try…”Can you show me how you eat nicely?”
- In place of…”No, you can’t have knives.”
- Try…”Knives are dangerous. What can you play with that is safer?”
- In place of…“You can’t go across the street”
- Try…“Can you help Mommy in the backyard?”
So does this mean that you should never tell a toddler no?
Of course not. I find it nearly impossible to never, ever say no. I try my hardest to avoid negatives and tell my toddler no without using the actual word, but sometimes you simply have to use the word no. The goal for me really is to simply say no and teach consequences without making him feel like he is pushed around all the time. Just these few things have made a huge difference in our home.
Print this free toddler listening checklist.
This post comes with a free printable checklist to help with toddler listening. I always have the hardest time remembering these phrases. This printable simplifies it!
Here is a sneak preview…
Download Your Free Printable
- Download the checklist. You’ll get the printable, plus join 37,000+ parents who receive my weekly parenting tips and ideas!
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
- Place it on your refrigerator. Check things off as you go and don’t forget a thing!
Want more on toddlers?
- Dear Moms of Toddlers
- The Parenting Tip You’re Missing to Help End Power Struggles
- 9 Phrases that Change Life with a Toddler
- 3 Parenting Phrases to Avoid When Teaching Kids to Listen
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I agree with most of your suggestions. I do however have one comment about using “Can you…” When you say that, you are inviting them to make a choice and say “no.” Instead, I would just say ” Sit on the chair in a safe way” or “Give Mommy the phone now so I can make a call” Never word your sentence in such a way as to give them options when you really are NOT giving them a choice.
Exactly what I was thinking.
Prefacing the demand with the word “please” may also be successful way to not come across as a dictator, while at the same time teaching the child to be polite.
Thank you for your great ideas! I love it!
What would you do when a child bites another? Or is abt to bite them?
Hey Dorothy! Great question. I have two articles that go into lots of detail: https://themilitarywifeandmom.com/what-to-do-when-your-child-hits-you/ and https://themilitarywifeandmom.com/why-is-my-child-so-angry-and-aggressive/. Hope that helps!
No. No is a complete sentence. I do get your connecting before redirecting so you don’t poke the dragon technique. However, if your child hit, spit at, or bit another child I don’t think taking the time to connect and redirect while the parent of the child your kid hit, spit or bit would appreciate the connect before redirect approach to parenting.