Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents. She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

Question: My 1 1/2 year-old toddler, Teddy, has recently discovered the joys of ‘No’. This morning, for example, he yelled ‘No!’ when I told him we were going outside, ‘No!’ when I asked if he’d rather stay inside, ‘No!’ as I was putting my boots on, ‘No!’ when I opened the door, and ‘Out!’ when I was looking for my keys.

I’ve heard that you should respect toddlers’ wishes as far as possible, but I’m struggling with how to do so when his wishes are so inconsistent and unclear. Also, it seems that setting boundaries and being firm about them is necessary for his wellbeing. Help!

Answer: Teddy’s moving into the ‘terrible twos’ a bit ahead of schedule. From the sound of things, he’s well on the way to thinking for himself, which is one of the main developmental jobs of this time period. Teddy’s announcing to you that he’s got a will of his own. He’s embarking now on his journey toward independence, which will occupy much of your energy, and his, for the next two decades. Your job is to encourage that, while ensuring he stays safe and healthy along the way.

You’re right that respecting toddlers’ (and infants’, children’s, adolescents’, and adults’) wishes is a good thing, but you’re also right that that has to be balanced with firm boundary-setting. Teddy needs to know that he can be inconsistent, and that you care about his feelings and wishes, but that he can also trust you to be the adult—strong, reasonable, and consistent. One of the things he’s doing with his ‘No!’ is making sure you’ll keep him safe, even if he pushes you on that.

It’s essential that he learns to say ‘No!’ and mean it—it’s an essential skill if he’s going to resist pressures from peers or adults to do things he shouldn’t be doing. However, he also needs to learn to consider your needs and the needs of others, to accept that (at least for now) you are the boss, and to say ‘no’ in an acceptable way.

Negativity is healthy and normal during the terrible twos, but there are ways to minimize it. These include

  • making sure Teddy’s well-fed and well-rested; regular dependable food and sleep schedules (as much as possible) can make a world of difference
  • keeping change to a minimum, and making sure he’s adjusted to one change before you introduce another
  • ensuring he’s getting enough activity and stimulation—physical, emotional, intellectual, sensory
  • understanding that when’s he’s sick, he may be more negative than usual

You’ll find more useful tips for encouraging Teddy’s co-operation, keeping your own stress at bay, and recognizing when you need outside help at

You’ll also find some other good ideas, like offering Teddy choices between two acceptable options (milk or juice, blue shoes or red), teaching Teddy other response options, using ‘no’ sparingly, and standing your ground as necessary, at

Some children’s classics that illustrate the normal negativity of this developmental stage and that might help both you and Teddy feel happier about his current stage:

  • The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown (Harper Collins, 1942).
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper Collins, 1963).
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (Atheneum Press, 1972).

And some further resources to consider:

Alicia Lieberman’s The Emotional Life of the Toddler – you can read chapter 1 online at

What do you think?

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