When I ask the question, “Why do toddlers and preschooler say no to us?” in talks and workshops, the answers I get tend to run along these lines:
- They’re differentiating themselves from us.
- They’re testing boundaries.
- They’re expressing their individuality.
As sensible as these answers sound, I’d like to suggest an alternative perspective (or mindset) that can change your day-today interactions with your child in an enormously powerful way. It starts with the idea that, while the answers given in the list above are indeed important developmental undertakings during the toddler years, they are actually not the reasons that children say no to us the vast majority of the time. In fact, I propose that most of the time when children say no to us, what they are really saying is, “I don’t feel as connected to you right now as I wish I did.” If we are able to hear this when they say no, our responses can more easily change so we’ll be less likely to get into power struggles. Our days can go more smoothly and be more enjoyable.
Using Connection to Help Children Say “Yes”
Most people who spend time with toddlers and preschoolers know that if they turn what they’re asking into a game, the child is usually happy to go along. This is not because we’re somehow tricking them into forgetting that they want to be separate from us. It’s because games feel connecting, and when we respond to their requests for connection, children are more able to be responsive to us in return. When we ask a child to do something and we don’t get an easy “yes,” turning things into a game can turn things around completely! Not because we’re distracting them, but because we’re connecting with them. When we realize this, we can stop mentally rolling our eyes when we turn things into a game. We can stop feeling guilty for tricking them. When we realize that games are connecting, and connecting helps people say yes AND strengthens our relationships, then it can feel worth it to reach deep into our reserves and come up with a game when we’re tired, or over-committed, or running late, or any of the other times that children are the most likely to feel disconnected from us.
What We Wish Children Would Say
Certainly it would be so much nicer and easier if our young children would calmly state, “When you ask me to get my coat on, I feel resistance because I’m enjoying my play. Your energy feels rushed and you’re not even really paying attention to me. Could you please take a moment to reconnect first? Then I’d be happy to get my coat on.” Unfortunately, they can’t do this. They just know that things don’t feel right, and they reflect that through their behavior.
Ways Children Feel Connected
What type of interactions feel the most connecting for your child? Humor and being silly? Physical fun? Engaging his or her imagination? A lap and a hug? What makes them say, “More!”? Share in the comments! Not sure? Many of the blog posts in this blog suggest ideas for connecting while we help a child follow through with what we ask. If you’re new here, poke around a bit.
You can learn more about different ways to connect with your children, and what to do when you can’t manage to connect in a given moment, in my book Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love (Hohm Press, 2017). Available here or anywhere books are sold.
Warmly, ~Faith Collins