What to Do When Your 3 Year Old Says No to Everything

What do you when your 3 year old says no to everything, no matter what? Learn the vital tactics to discipline and handle the endless no’s.

3 Year Old Says No to EverythingWhat do you do if you set expectations, yet your child resists them?

You ask him to bring the dishes to the sink or wash his hands after using the bathroom, but he simple refuses. He’s supposed to clean up the toys after play time, but he sits and looks at you, waiting to see what you’ll do.

It’s not that he doesn’t understand what you’re saying—he just says “no” to everything you ask. And when he doesn’t get his way, he’ll throw a huge temper tantrum, yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs.

What can you do when all the words out of his mouth is a defiance to your rules, both big and small?

You hear that defiance is normal child development for preschoolers from toddlerhood through the teen years, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Especially when simple rules and responsibilities provoke power struggles.

Neither you or your child enjoys the dreaded back-and-forth arguments. You might even resent waking up and spending time with him because it’s gotten that bad. And trust me, this is not how he wants to interact with you, either.

Thankfully, all is not lost. It’s never too late to rethink your approach to discipline, even if you’ve tried putting him in time outs or giving a warning. As you’ll see, sometimes it takes a different way to discipline and set limits, or even the understanding of what discipline truly is (hint: it’s not punishment).

Here’s what you can do when your 3 year old says no to everything:

Why Time Outs Don't Work

1. Show empathy to show you’re on her side

Often, the most effective way to get your child to finally listen is to make sure she feels heard. Show empathy by saying you understand how she feels and letting your body language express that you’re on her side.

“I know it isn’t much fun—sometimes I don’t like putting my dishes away either. We have to keep our house clean though, and that’s why we need to put our dishes in the sink.”

With empathy, she knows you understand the hurt and frustration she feels and that you’d feel the same if you were in her shoes.

Free resource: As frustrating as her behavior may be, a lot of it can be prevented simply by seeing things from her perspective. In The Power of Empathy, you’ll learn how empathy is the secret key that makes a huge difference in how we interact with our kids.

Imagine transforming your relationship, using just the lessons you’ll learn right here. Grab your PDF below—at no cost to you. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:

“I came across your blog, and it’s so relieving to finally read something that  relates to what I need to hear to help me go through this phase of life. So, a big THANK YOU! I feel like I can start over again with my three year old. Since I’ve started consciously practicing what you’ve preached, it’s helping my three year old and me to stay cool. Thanks again for doing such a great job.” -Yousreen C.

The Power of Empathy

2. Offer choices

Why are choices powerful? They provide your child the autonomy to decide how she wants to do the task. No doubt she needs to do the task, and she might even resent that she has to do it. But given the autonomy, she’s more likely to comply when the choice falls on her.

Phrase the task as a choice she gets to make. “Do you want to put the toothpaste yourself, or do you want me to do it for you?”

Notice that the choice isn’t “either / or.” You’re not giving her the choice to brush her teeth or not—that is a non-negotiable.

Instead, you’re giving her the choice in the matter. And always provide parent-approved choices. You should be happy with either choice she makes, not use them to pit one against the other (“Do you want to brush your teeth or not read a book later?”).

Get more tips about giving choices.

Giving Choices

3. Give a “better” option

Sometimes all we need to do is phrase the task as something kids “get” to do. Let’s say you haven’t allowed your child use the dishwasher yet. You can give him the new responsibility of putting the dishes away: “Hey, want to help me load the dishwasher?”

When phrased as a privilege, the chores become something he gets to do. My son loved spraying and wiping surfaces in the house because he thought it was awesome to spray just about anything. Well, there you go—I was able to get him to do a chore.

4. Offer an incentive

Frame the chore as a means to an (awesome) end. We shouldn’t reward kids with typical incentives like toys and money (because external rewards only work for so long). Instead, you’re highlighting a positive consequence of doing the task: “After we go to the grocery store, we can start the new puzzle you got.”

The focus is on the “after” part—the fun part—and less on the means to get there. The chore doesn’t have to be the big battle and power struggle, but something to do so he can move on to a fun activity.

Why You Shouldn't Reward Kids

5. Pick your battles

Have you counted how many times you say “no” to your child? And not just the word “no,” but any alternate of it: “Please don’t jump on the couch,” “We don’t hit one another,” or “Not too loud.”

If you’re like me, it’s a lot.

And for the most part, we have to. We provide boundaries and show our kids appropriate ways to behave.

But can you imagine living under those circumstances? It’s tough being a kid sometimes. And we have to remember that when we’re on the brink of another power struggle.

Instead, be particular with which behaviors need correcting and which ones you can ignore. Young children, like us, have a limited amount of space for discipline for it to be effective. Focus on the best lessons and leave the rest.

6. Phrase the task like asking for help

It may not always seem like it, but kids are wired to please their parents, including helping out. Phrase the tasks your child needs to do as something you need help with: “It’d be a huge help if you put on your pajamas while I get ready for bedtime.”

The focus is on being a helper, rather than being bossed around. She’ll feel more independent knowing she’s helping you out, not just obeying orders.

Plus, you emphasize teamwork. She’ll feel that her contribution is something essential to the family unit and will feel proud to take part in it.


Listening to 3-year-olds and their endless “no’s” is challenging for any parent, but with a few changes and habits, you can get your child to comply more often.

Offer choices so he feels more autonomous and independent in his decisions. Show empathy to diffuse power struggles and let him know you’re on his side. Phrase the task like you’re asking for help.

Provide a better option and give “perks” that come along with doing the job. You can also highlight an incentive or a positive consequence to getting the task done. And when all else fails, pick your battles and see which behaviors need most correcting and which you can let go.

Kids will at some point (or rather, many points) say “no” to our instructions and requests. Now you have the tools to better communicate and encourage your child to comply, starting with putting his dishes in the sink.

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  1. Our 4 yr old disregards the choices we give her and always chooses something that isn’t offered and is almost always non-parent approved, as if she’s deliberately forcing an impass. Take bedtime for example, she says she wants a story, which is fine (she always has a story) but when it comes to it, she refuses to chose one. We can go through the whole library of books, multiple times, without her chosing one, until eventually it’s way padt her bedtime and we have to resort to just picking one, which she rejects and we have to go through them again. At which point she says she wants 3 stories. We put our foot down and say its late, if you want a story im going to count to 5 and if you haven’t got one in your hand for me to read, you won’t get a story. By 4 she has grabbed one, but while reading it to her she’s huffing and puffing to show she isnt happy. Once the story is over she has a tantrum because she “isnt tired”, when she clearly is. She then finds any excuse to keep us talking so she doesnt have to go to sleep. If we leave she screams the house down, saying the bed is uncomfortable, her blanket is wrong, she doesnt like having her baby brother in the next room, shes got a booboo, etc. And its not just bedtime, every morning we get a similar thing before nursery where she doesnt like any of the clothes we give her to chose from, all her socks feel wrong, she won’t wear a jumper or coat because they make her arms itchy, then she has a full on tantrum about wanting to stay at home because she hates nursery, even though she’s fine there once we’ve left. The delaying tactics are so bad that eventually the only think we can do to leave the house is pick her up and put her in the car then fight to keep her seatbelt on. The stress is horrendous.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Oh Bevan, big hugs! It does sound stressful, especially going through that day in and day out.

      I think you’re right—you’re daughter is sensing the power struggles and is upping the ante each time you make an attempt to offer a choice or discipline.

      I think the key in this case is to put your foot down at the first choice. Let’s start at the beginning and let’s say she wants a story. She can either pick a story quickly, or you pick one. If she doesn’t pick one quickly, then pick a story for her and end it at that. If she’s throwing a fit or huffing and puffing because she doesn’t want the one you chose, then you can say she can either enjoy the story with you or go straight to bed. And it’s important to follow through with what you say. Don’t let her convince you to let her pick (and spend 10 minutes doing so).

      While all of this is going, it’s also important to watch your own tone of voice. I like to tell parents to act as if this doesn’t ruffle their feathers, that it’s no big deal, that you’ve got it. If she senses that you’re upset or stressed, that only makes her feel just as upset and stressed. Think of this as her problem, not yours, basically don’t make her problem yours. If she can’t have a story because of the way she has behaved, then that’s too bad for her, hopefully she’ll get one tomorrow. You’ll also want to keep your tone of voice calm and kind, and remind yourself that you’re both on the same side here. You both want her to enjoy a story and cuddle at night, not go into a battle where one of you tries to win.

      Hopefully by putting your foot down and adopting a firm, kind and nonchalant tone, you can avoid these types of power struggles. And try to nip it in the bud: If you sense that you’re going down a rabbit hole and going on and on, you know you’ve gone too far and it’s time to call it a night. xo, Nina

  2. My son says “Stop” to everything. even if it doesn’t make sense. Ask him to clean up “Stop”. Ask him to sit down “Stop” Ask him if he wants PBJ or Meatballs, “Stop” My wife and I are both like whats the comeback to “stop”. We try the above but the answer is you guessed it “Stop” 🙂

    Im starting to think about using it in my own professional life. Boss asks me to do something “Stop” Supervisors says I can’t have days off work “Stop” 🙂

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Haha, if only! That’s funny he still says “stop” even when presented with choices. My husband and I thought we’d be clever by not saying the word “no” around our eldest so that he wouldn’t answer it back to us. Well, he made up his own version and would say, “wait” instead of “no” lol.