3 Effective Phrases to Use with Strong-Willed Toddlers

Parenting a toddler is a lot like being a hostage negotiator: it takes planning, strategy, and some out of the box thinking. When we ask a toddler to do something, 90% of the time the reaction is a Big. Fat. NO. Eating dinner, getting strapped into the car, taking a bath, going to bed; almost any daily task can turn into a battle of wills when it comes to toddlers. At times, toddlers are so committed to saying “no” that they say “no” even when they mean “yes.” For example:

Parent: “Do you want your eggs?”
Toddler: “No!”
Parent: (takes eggs away)
Toddler: (crying) “I want my eggs!!”

Sound familiar?

Even though they still learning to talk, toddlers can understand almost everything that we say. By two years old they have learned that they can have some control over their environment, and they are looking to exercise that control in any way that they can. It takes some creative wording and unique phrases to get toddler buy-in for everyday activities.

Here are 3 effective and unexpected phrases that make toddlers think they are in control, and improve their likelihood of listening and actually doing what we ask.

1.  “Are you going to do it by yourself or am I going to help you?”

With this phrase, there is no question as to whether the child is going to do what you have asked them, it’s just a matter of how they are going to do it.

Let’s say you ask your toddler to walk to the car and they are resisting. By asking them “are you going to do it by yourself or should I help you?” implies that it’s going to happen, and if they want the chance to do it independently they need to get going. If the child decides to walk to the car on their own, they feel the excitement of doing it “all by themselves.” If they don’t start to make their way to the car, you can say “it looks like you need help” and pick them up and head to the car. They won’t like the fact that they weren’t able to do it on their own, and the next time they will be so much likely to do it independently.

What I love about this phrase is that it’s so “matter of fact,” there’s no yelling or shaming the child, and the child makes the decision whether they would like to do it on their own or if they need some help.

2.  “You are hoping for” or “You are wishing for”

This phrase has been an absolute game-changer with my 2.5 year old. This phrase is all about validation and letting your child know that they are being heard.

Let’s say it’s 4:30pm and my son is asking me for some goldfish. I say “no” because it’s almost dinnertime, and my toddler starts crying. I say to him, “You were really hoping for goldfish, weren’t you?” “Yes, mama” he says. “I hear you, you really wanted those goldfish.” My son wipes his tears and goes back to playing. End of story.

So much of the time, our children just want to be heard. The beauty of this phrase is that it also models the appropriate language our children can use when they are disappointed about something. After all, saying “I wish we could go to the park” is much better than screaming for the park.

3.  “Would you like to try again?”

The reason why toddlers have tantrums and meltdowns is because they lack self-regulation, which is the ability to keep themselves calm when they are upset. Knowing that despite our toddlers’ best efforts, they are going to lose it (probably multiple times) on any given day, we need to give them a chance for a “do-over.”

When your child refuses to share their toys or has a tantrum in the grocery store, you can remove them from the situation, wait until they are calm, and remind them of how they should behave. It’s sad and embarrassing for toddlers when they can’t keep it together, so asking them if they would like to try it again (or saying “let’s try it again” to make it non-optional) gives them a chance to redeem themselves. When they have success the second time, they will feel proud of themselves and it gives you a chance to praise them for making it right. We can model for our children that it’s ok to make mistakes, and that sometimes grown ups need chances for do-overs too.

Need support in raising your strong-willed toddler? Here are some great books to get you started!

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14 thoughts on “3 Effective Phrases to Use with Strong-Willed Toddlers

  1. This is amazing! I know that I will use these as Scarlett grows. Sometimes talking to them like a little adult helps but of course keeping it on their level!

  2. Great tips! Number one and three are ones I haven’t really tried yet, but I feel like they would work well for our daughter, who just turned two. Thank you 🙂

  3. “Are you going to do it by yourself or am I going to help you?” has been a GAME CHANGER in our house! Most of the time my daughter will scramble to do it on her own, but sometimes she’ll ask me to “do it for her” and we always get a laugh out of it. I try to exaggerate and be goofy, and it defuses the situation well. I’ll definitely have to try #3!

    1. Yes! My little guy does the same thing – he’d so much rather do it on his own. Like you said, it’s so helpful to be silly – lots of times that distraction is enough to keep our day moving without a tantrum 🙂 Thank you!

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