How to avoid overusing negative words

By Kristi York on June 02, 2019


During her daughter Abby’s second year, Laurel Lavell felt like a Negative Nelly. “I found I was saying ‘no’ to her all the time,” says the mom of two from Waterloo, Ont. “I was trying to guide her behaviour and keep her safe, but it was becoming tiresome and irritating for both of us.”

Lavell was also concerned that constantly using the word “no” would make it lose its effectiveness. “I wanted to save it for urgent and emphatic situations,” she says. “And I certainly didn’t want my daughter to start tuning me out at a year old!” So she decided to expand her vocabulary and try a new strategy. “I realized I was relying on ‘no’ in every situation, so I started choosing more specific words,” she says. If her kiddo approached the fireplace or stove, Lavell would firmly say “danger” and lead her away. If Abby pulled on Lavell’s necklace, she’d respond by saying “gentle” and guiding Abby’s hand to touch it softly instead.

Finding alternatives to “no” can be worth the effort, according to Dr. Sandra Wiebe, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, and director of the Alberta Brain and Cognitive Development Lab in Edmonton. “Constant negativity is frustrating for both the parent and the child. Parents may feel ineffective if the child doesn’t comply, and children may feel as if they are only receiving negative attention.”

The first step to cutting back on throwing out “no” is to assess your home for potential safety risks. An age-appropriate play space free from hazards (stairs, sharp corners, exposed electrical outlets, etc.) helps keep toddlers safe and gives parents a break from having to verbally rein them in all the time.

Use your tone

In addition to choosing the right words, parents can also communicate more effectively through tone of voice. “Babies pick up on parental emotions through tone and facial expression before they under- stand what the words mean, and this carries over into the toddler years,” says Dr. Wiebe. This means that parents should pay attention not only to the words they’re saying, but how they say them. For example, saying the word “slowly” in a warning, measured tone will communicate the idea of proceeding with caution.


As with most behaviour strategies, positivity and praise are key components to help little ones learn to make good decisions. “Ultimately, parents want children to internalize their standards and regulate their own behaviour, even when mom or dad isn’t around,” says Dr. Wiebe. “A factor that seems to promote this process is a warm, positive relationship with the parent. One study found that toddlers who had more upbeat and encouraging interactions with their mothers were better at complying with their mothers’ instructions not to play with some attractive toys, even when unsupervised.”

Cutting back on “no” isn’t about monitoring toddlers any less; it’s about using more expressive language to direct their behaviour. Lavell applied this tactic with Abby and was able to avoid the “tuning out” effect—hopefully for good, or at least until the teen years.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Winter 2018.

By Kristi York| June 02, 2019

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