How to Say No to Your Toddler Without Literally Saying “No”

Did you know that a typical toddler hears the word “No” 400 times a day? It’s true! Tired and overwhelmed parents end up saying this word repeatedly throughout the day in an attempt to regain the upper hand in the various power struggles that inevitably occur in this season of parenting.

While it’s our job as parents and guardians to enforce healthy boundaries, overusing the word “no” can cause our toddlers to be desensitized to its intended meaning and impact. That said, we need some creative alternatives that can achieve the same goal.

To help you get started, here are some strategies we’ve been successfully using at home!

How to Say No to Your Toddler Without Literally Saying "No"

Redirect whenever possible.

We’re going through a phase right now where our toddler throws parts of his meal that he doesn’t like to the floor. After observing him, we realized that it wasn’t that he was trying to make a mess; to him, throwing food on the floor was akin to throwing trash in the bin, which was something we taught him to do.

Instead of just saying “No throwing food on the floor!”, we say, “Extra food goes on the side of your plate.” It’s a better option that still achieves what he is trying to do, minus the mess. We revisit the discarded food later on to see if he’s still open to trying it; if not, that’s perfectly fine, too.

Find the "yes."

We have set limits on screen time at home. But naturally, our toddler tries to cross them quite often and asks for an extension. Needless to say, abruptly turning off the tablet results in the most dramatic and powerful meltdowns.

Apart from providing countdown cues to gradually ease him out of screen time, (We remind him when he has 10, 5, and 2 minutes to go.) what we’ve found useful is to turn a “no” into a creative “yes.” Instead of just saying “No more watching,” we say, “Yes, you can watch again after naptime,” or whenever the next scheduled screen time is.

Demonstrate the right way to do something.

Our toddler has a “heavy hand.” He hits us when he’s feeling particularly malambing! Even when he’s being playful, he can actually hurt! But we don’t want to tell him off for showing affection.

Instead of telling him not to hit us, we tell and teach him to be gentle. To do this, we either demonstrate stroking or patting the other parent’s arm or take his hand and guide him so he knows what “gentle” feels like.

Take the teaching opportunity.

There’s now a lot of risky play happening at our home, which fuels our instinct to shout “No!” and give our son the death stare! Different parents have different thresholds and preferences, but we’ve decided to embrace risky play as an inevitable part of life with our son. These days, this looks like climbing up railings, balancing on the arms and back of the couch, and jumping off elevated areas.

Instead of stopping him from experimenting and exploring altogether, we use it as a teaching opportunity and provide practical and specific instructions to build confidence. We remind him to look where he’s going, make sure his feet are on something stable, suggest where to place his hands or feet, or even ask him the question “Do you feel safe?” to help him develop self-awareness.

Of course, it goes without saying that it’s good and wise to immediately remove our child from a situation that we perceive to be life-threatening. In this case, stepping in is the right thing to do.

Empathize, then say "no" or provide an alternative.

Our deeply sensitive toddler takes our “no” personally. Apart from the usual big feelings that come with this phase, he really does tend to feel more than the average kid. Even a simple callout can result in genuinely sad tears!

In a lot of these situations, we need to stand by our “no” – even if it breaks our heart to see his face drop. So we literally kneel and go down to his level and connect to his heart:

“You feel upset that we _______. It’s okay to feel upset, but it’s not okay to _______.”
“You feel angry because __________. You’re allowed to cry and feel angry, but my answer is still no.”
“You feel frustrated because ________. I still can’t let you _____. Would you like us to try ______ instead?”

Sometimes, all our toddler needs is for his emotions to be validated. It makes it easier for him to accept the “no.”


It doesn’t mean that saying “no” is wrong or that we shouldn’t be saying it at all. But it might be wiser (and more effective in the long run) to reserve the hard “nos” for truly critical situations. That way, our kids will be able to pick up on our sense of urgency.

Personally, I try to do any (or all!) of the alternatives I listed above before resorting to a hard “no.” But to be honest, there are still many days when I slip back into old patterns because my fuse is just too short. During these times, I have to remind myself that tomorrow is another day to start fresh and try again.

Got any “no” alternatives to add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!

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