Q: My twins, a boy and a girl, must be going through the “terrible twos,” so-called. Well, they really are! It’s just “no, no, no, no, no....” until I want to tear out my hair. My neighbor says that every time the twins say “no” if we put them alone in their room they will learn to say “yes.” Do you think this will work?

A: I believe that putting a two-year old in a room alone because he or she said “no,” will likely just teach them that saying “no” means they lose the companionship and safety of being in a relationship with loving parents. Can you imagine the emotions and feelings generated by those consequences in a brain that thinks and feels but cannot express much of that verbally yet? The child is beginning to individuate, to recognize that he or she is a separate human being from its parents and caregivers. Individuation is a skill that is critical for successful childhood and eventually adulthood. Research suggests that babies can understand a great deal more at the age of two than they have the skills to communicate verbally. I agree that it can be frustrating when a child is learning to individuate and when you can’t figure out what he or she wants. No doubt you can imagine to at least some degree how dreadfully frustrating it can be to know what you want but be unable to communicate that. (A similar thing can happen with a stroke when the patient cannot communicate what he or she wants.) Therefore, do whatever you can to help your twins communicate.

Many now recommend teaching babies a couple dozen simple sign-language words, such as hot, cold, tired, thirsty, hungry, come, go, up, down, and so on. Meantime, as you are teaching them these skills, guess what they want and give them two choices (because the brain only has two hemispheres). Offer a glass of water and some healthier juice. If they say “no,” they may not be thirsty. Do you think they are hungry? Offer a piece of apple or an orange segment. Do they have a soggy diaper or some other uncomfortable condition? Watch their response. Remember that they’ve had more practice saying “no” than “yes.” Some researchers even think that it’s easier to say the word “no” than to say the word “yes.” Sometimes a child can be distracted with a toy or another activity—unless the child is really trying to communicate (unsuccessfully) what is wanted.

What is the point? Understanding what you do not want and being able to say “no” is critical to making choices in adulthood. Teenagers who cannot say “no” because they were never allowed to do this during childhood, are at risk for engaging in undesirable behaviors. And in term of safety, it can be lethal for a female who is so insecure she cannot say “no.” Some even believe that you cannot truly and cognitively say “yes” to something until you can say “no” to something. Some even go further and say that until you can say “no” to what you do not want, you may not even be able to identify what you do want.