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Early Child Development

7 Smart Ways to Handle a Toddler Screaming "NO!"

Put a spin on your ask, be an admirer, and more sneaky expert tips for defusing a tantrum

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If you've ever dared to ask your toddler to do such outrageous things as get in the bathtub, put on jammies, or leave the house, then you've likely experienced a wrath like no other. Try these smart expert tips for defusing a tantrum and getting on with your day.

1. Offer choices. When you suspect that a wall of "NO!" is looming, offset it by offering your child a choice. This instantly passes power to your child, which she desperately craves. "But keep it to two options, both of which you can live with," advises parenting and youth development expert Deborah Gilboa, M.D., author of Get the Behavior You Want…Without Being the Parent You Hate . Instead of saying "Let's get dressed," try asking, "Would you like to wear your blue sparkly top or the one with the kitty?" Of course, not all scenarios lend themselves to an either-or option (like getting buckled into the car seat). In those situations, create a related choice. Ask something like, "Would you like a fruit pouch or a bar once we're all buckled in?"

2. Dole out tools. "Toddlers jump to 'NO!' so quickly because it's a word they've nailed," Dr. Gilboa says. "It means exactly what your toddler thinks it means. Everyone understands it, so she naturally starts there." Help your kiddo expand her responses-in words and tone-by showing her. "If you get a 'NOOOO!' from your child, respond with 'No thank you, mommy?' If she says 'NOOOO!' again, tell her to 'Try again.'" Once your child has more tools, she'll be more likely to use them.

3. Be an admirer. "Spin an ask into a positive," suggests psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child . "Instead of barking orders-like putting away a toy-say things like, 'Show Mommy how you can put away your toy and get ready for bath time.'" And follow that up with a big ol' compliment about your child's stellar listening skills.

4. Give a heads up. "It doesn't seem like it, but we're often transitioning toddlers on our own schedules and routines," says Dr. Gilboa. "It's hard for them, but offering a 2-minute warning before you need to move to the next task will help calm your child and sidestep their defiance." Alternatively, allow your child one more round of whatever they might be doing before transitioning.

5. Empathize and distract. When your child starts wailing "No!" when you say it's time to leave the playground, it's probably because she really, really wants to stay and have fun-not because she wants to stick it to you. "Showing your toddler some empathy makes him or her feel seen, acknowledged, and validated," says Walfish. A response to try: "I know you are disappointed and want to play all day, but I'm hungry and need some lunch." Then, immediately distract her with something pleasant that will happen later: "Let's get home so we can eat and try some of those chocolate chip cookies we bought at the stor!"

6. Be a spin master. "When you tell your child that you have to go to the bank or the grocery store, that's not alluring to them," says Dr. Gilboa. "But if you swap out the word 'have' for 'get,' the whole story changes." Think: "Guess what? Put on your shoes because you get to run a special errand with me. We'll even get to see the nice lady you love at the checkout counter!"

7. Roll with it. While a "No!"-spewing kid is a bit soul-crushing, remember that this is a crucial developmental stage. "Your toddler is figuring out for the first time that she has some control over what she does and doesn't want to do-and that's a skill we want our kids to have," says Dr. Gilboa. "It's just that they do it with such gleeful abandon that it drives us a little batty!" To tame your own temper, understand that not every "No!" needs an answer. "You are totally allowed to ignore it," says Dr. Gilboa. "You're allowed to take one step away, wait 30 seconds, and then decide if this is a battle you really need to have."