Parenting an Oppositional Child

What to do when your preschooler constantly says "no"

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Parenting an oppositional child is a common part of life. Sometimes you have to wonder if there is anything that your preschooler likes at all. Whether it is time to get dressed, go to sleep -- heck even go to the playground - what's the response? "NO!" Whether the dissent comes shouted, whispered or even just as a forceful head shake, it can be frustrating to parents leaving them both confused and annoyed.

Parenting an oppositional child or at least a child who is in a stubborn phase can be tricky, but it can be done. The key is to have patience and a willingness to try an array of discipline techniques (including a little reverse psychology). Here's how.

Why Kids Say "No"

The biggest reason why preschoolers say "no?" Because they can. Especially for younger children (think three and under), being able to say "no" to something -- anything -- puts a great deal of power in their hands. So really, a child saying "no" is less about refusing to do something and more about exercising control over a situation they haven't been able to in the past. As your child gets older, saying "no" is still a way to control their own destiny and make their own decisions -- a way of declaring their independence -- even if what they are saying "no" to is something they'd like.

How to Parent an Oppositional Child

So what is a parent to do?

When a child consistently says no, with no real rhyme or reason as to why it can be very irritating. Take a deep breath and know that with a bit of different thinking and parenting, you both can get through this.

  • Check your own vocabulary. How many times a day do you say no? That's not to say you should start saying yes to your child's every request, but consider using different phrases and wordings when the answer is negative, such as "Stop!," "We have already read two stories, now it is time to go to bed. We can read another one tomorrow, I promise."
  • Don't make it a yes/no proposition. Instead of telling your preschooler that it is time to get ready for bed, ask her what she would rather do first, put on her pajamas or brush her teeth. When it is time to clean up the playroom, ask if he'd like to start picking up the blocks or the cars first. By giving the appearance of a choice, the situation is presented in a positive fashion and your child is more likely to be cooperative. Just make sure that the choices you offer are acceptable to you, no matter what your child chooses. If you really want your child to put on her pajamas before she brushes her teeth, come up with another set of option for your child to decide between.
  • Position your child as a helper. Often times a child says no because they don't want to do something -- clean up, feed the dog or some other simple household chore. So appeal to your child's wanting to please you. Say, "It would make me so happy -- you would be such a big helper -- if you could put your clothing in your hamper. Thank you!"
  • Try to avoid a battle. If you are already sensing that your child is going to reject whatever you say, you are going to be tense going into it. Instead, frame things in a positive light. Don't say, "We can't go to the pool until you eat your lunch," try "As soon as you finish your sandwich, we can go swimming!" By keeping it positive, your child will be more likely to agree.
  • Show empathy. When faced with a room cluttered with toys or a fun bath that your child clearly doesn't want to get out of, you might understand why his natural inclination would be to react negatively to what you are saying. Tell your child that. "I can understand why you don't want to get out of your bath -- we are having so much fun playing together! But if you get out now we can have a snack and read a story before going to bed."
  • Avoid mealtime battles. For many families, the dinner table is a source of much angst. No matter how nice the meal you are serving may be, a picky eater can easily put a damper on everything. If your child is consistently saying no to everything you serve up, you need to find a new strategy. A good way to encourage your child to try something new is to always offer it up -- don't assume he will say no right away. If he does reject what you are serving, offer an alternative, but make it the same alternative every time -- cold cereal (a non-sugary one!) for example. It's likely your child will get tired of eating the same thing again and again and might be willing to try something new. (For more tips, try reading 10 Tips for Feeding a Picky Eater.
  • Don't take it personally. Your child isn't telling you no because she doesn't like you. As with most preschool behaviors, this one is all about her. Just be patient. As your child matures, this is a stage she will likely grow out of. If you are still concerned, talk to your pediatrician or your child's preschool teacher or day care provider. They may have some ideas as well.

When "No" Is Never Acceptable

There are times when hearing the word "no" from your preschooler is not an option -- when their safety is at issue. If your child doesn't want to hold your hand in the parking lot for example, or if he's about to touch something hot. Make sure your child is safe and explain why it is important that he listen.

You also want to make sure you are firm in your parenting. If your child is still saying no, it's OK to exercise your authority. "I know you aren't happy, but I'm your parent and I make the decisions."

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