Parenting an Oppositional Child


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There are probably times when you feel like all your child says is "No!" This is common among toddlers and preschoolers and it could be on any given subject. It doesn't matter if it's to get dressed or go to sleep, even something fun like going to the playground. Any of these can lead to a stubborn, "No!" 

This defiance may come out as a shout or a whisper, even just a forceful head shake. Nonetheless, it can be frustrating to parents. It may even leave you a little confused and annoyed.

Parenting an oppositional child—or at least one 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. 

Why Kids Say "No"

The biggest reason why preschoolers say "no" is because they can. This is especially true for children who are 3 and younger. Being able to say "no" to something puts a great deal of power in their hands. Quite often, their refusal is less about not wanting to do something, but more about exercising control over a situation they haven't been able to in the past.

As your child gets older, saying "no" may still be a way to control their own destiny and make their own decisions. Think of it as a way of declaring their independence, even if what they are saying "no" to is something they'd like.

What is a parent to do? When a child consistently says "no," with no real rhyme or reason, it can be very irritating. Take a deep breath and know that with a bit of strategy and a new approach, you can both get through this.

Respond to your child by saying, "You have strong opinions about this. I love that you know how to tell me exactly what you need to say and how you feel."

Check Your Vocabulary

How many times a day do you say the word no? This may reflect on your child's usage. That's not to say you should start saying yes to your child's every request. Instead, consider using different phrases and words when the answer is negative.

For instance, you could try "Stop!" or "Please don't do that." There are also times when it's better to explain why you made the decision: "We have already read two stories, now it is time to go to bed. We can read another one tomorrow, I promise."

Avoid Yes or No Propositions

Instead of telling your preschooler that it is time to get ready for bed, ask them what they would rather do first—put on pajamas or brush teeth? When it is time to clean up the playroom, ask your child if they would 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 which one your child chooses.

If you really want your child to put on their pajamas before they brush their teeth, come up with another set of options for them to choose between.

Position Your Child as a Helper

Often times, a child says no because they don't want what you've asked—clean up, feed the dog, or some other simple household chore. Encourage your child's sense of self and their desire to do things that feel good to do. Say something like "Are you ready to feel happy with yourself for being such a fabulous helper? Thanks for putting your clothes in the hamper."

Try to Prevent Battles

If you are already sensing that your child is going to reject whatever you say, you are naturally going to be tense going into it. Instead, try to frame things in a positive light and see how it affects both of you.

Try not to say, "We can't go to the pool until you eat your lunch." Turn it around to, "As soon as you finish your sandwich, we can go swimming!" By keeping it positive, your child will be more likely to agree.

Show Your Child Empathy

When faced with a room cluttered with toys or a fun bath that your child clearly doesn't want to get out of, try to look at it from their point of view. By doing so, you might be able to understand why their natural inclination would be to react negatively to what you are saying.

Tell your child that you recognize how they are feeling and offer your reasoning in a fun way: "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."

Don't Engage in Mealtime Struggles

For many families, the dinner table can be a source of angst. No matter how nice the meal you prepared might be, a picky eater can easily put a damper on dinner.

If your child is consistently saying no to everything you serve, it's time to find a new strategy. A good way to encourage a child to try something new is to always offer it. Try not to assume they will say no right away. 

If your child does reject what you are serving, offer an alternative, but make it the same food every time. For example, cold non-sugary cereal could be a deterrent. After a few meals, it's likely that your child will get tired of eating the same thing and might be more willing to try something new.

Try not to take the "no" personally. Your child isn't telling you no because they dislike you. As with most preschool behaviors, this one is all about them! Try to be patient. As your child matures, they will likely grow out of this stage.

If you are still concerned, talk to your pediatrician, your child's preschool teacher, daycare provider. They may have some ideas that can help.

When "No" Is Not Acceptable

There are times when hearing the word "no" from your preschooler is not an option. This is especially true when their safety is an issue. For example, if they do want to hold your hand in the parking lot or they are about to touch something hot, you need to quickly and firmly say "no." Make sure that your child is safe and explain why it is important that they listen to you.

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

A Word From Verywell

Constant opposition from your little one can be frustrating, but it's often a phase that improves with time. Be patient and keep trying—you might be surprised by the strategies that work for your child.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Effective discipline for children. Paediatr Child Health. 2004;9(1):37-50.

  2. Taylor CM, Emmett PM. Picky eating in children: causes and consequences. Proc Nutr Soc. 2019;78(2):161-169. doi:10.1017/S0029665118002586

By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.