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  • Writer's pictureDr. Luisa Bryce

Why saying “no” to your toddler simply doesn’t cut it

Toddlerhood is a tricky phase. As a parent, you may find yourself just trying to figure out how your sweet baby is growing up so fast. Meanwhile, your little guy or gal is caught somewhere in-between infancy and childhood. Being a toddler is no easy feat, as there are many tasks to be conquered. Toddlers are discovering they are individual beings, separate from their parents, and so they start to assert their independence by doing things for themselves. Toddlers are also becoming aware of what they want and when they want it, which means that as a parent, you’re constantly taking things away, putting things up out of reach, and wondering what your child will get into next. Often times, this can lead you to feel like the word “no” is the only word in your vocabulary.


Saying “no” is a form of punishment. It usually goes a little something like this: Your toddler hits her younger brother, who is trying to take her crayon. You punish her for it by yelling, “NO HITTING!” and maybe even threatening her. As a result, your child stops the hitting immediately, but the result is short-lived because the punishment works only temporarily. Plus, your daughter still wants her crayon. Research demonstrates behavior stopped by punishment is very likely to reoccur. So again your daughter hits her brother, and again she is punished; only this time, you yell a little louder, for a little longer. And the cycle begins. Punishment stops the hitting for a bit, only to have it return with increased frequency, which leads to more severe and longer lasting punishments for your little girl. Pretty soon you’re beyond frustrated and your patience is fried. The situation may even get physical, which leaves you feeling guilty and powerless.


Here’s why just saying “no” to your toddler doesn’t work: Punishment does not increase the likelihood that your child will behave, and it teaches nothing about alternative, positive behaviors. If you yell at your daughter when she hits her younger brother, she is learning that when she hits her brother, you pay attention. Yeah, it’s negative attention, but it’s still attention. On the upside, punishment does let your child know that you want her to stop hitting. So mild punishment can be effective when paired with a positively reinforced, alternative behavior. For example, let’s say Jenny (who is 2 years old) has just hit her 8-month-old brother for trying to take her purple crayon while she colors. Immediately you say to her, “Jenny, please don’t hit your brother. We don’t hit in our house” (mild, very specific punishment). Then you say I really LOVE it when you show your brother how to share. Can you show me how you are teaching him to share?” (positively reinforced, alternative behavior). Be sure to make a huge deal out of Jenny showing you how she shares. Express excitement and offer lots of specific praise (e.g. “Jenny! Great sharing! What a big girl! You are really showing your brother how to be such a good sharer!”). Most kids love praise, so Jenny will be more likely share instead of hit in the future.

What’s your secret for good behavior with your toddler?

The technique discussed above is great for some behavior. But what happens when your toddler is losing emotional control, as in fits of crying, hitting, kicking, and throwing herself on the floor… better known as a temper tantrum. What then? What’s the best way to handle a tantrum? If your child is throwing frequent or severe tantrums and you’re beyond frustrated, contact me for help. I can reduce stress and bring harmony to your home!

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