Frustrated when your child disobeys on purpose? Learn how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen and encourage cooperation instead.
“It’s clean up time! Can you put the cars back in the box?” I asked my toddler. I had been trying to implement a clean up routine after play time, starting with all the toys strewn all over the floor.
Except my toddler wasn’t having it. He stayed put, playing with the cars, as if he didn’t hear me.
“It’s time to put the toys away,” I tried again, my patience waning. “That means you have to stop and put those cars back in the box.”
I had hoped my tone of voice would lend some weight to its importance, but instead my son stayed rooted in his place, playing with the cars. Not only that, a smile spread through his face, as if the whole thing was a big joke.
Dealing with a child who outright doesn’t listen to what you ask him to do is challenging even for the most patient mom. The defiance triggers a raw anger you never knew you had, and you wonder what it’ll finally take to get him to listen. No matter how angry you get or the threats you make, nothing seems to get him to cooperate.
Then you feel terrible when you realize how petty the initial “argument” had been: talking when he should’ve been napping, refusing to clean up his mess, not coming to the bathroom like you asked him to.
How to discipline a toddler
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I knew something had to change. Nagging, repeating, and losing my temper clearly wasn’t working at all. I was at a loss on how to discipline my toddler.
I then learned an important lesson in what discipline really means that changed my whole outlook and my toddler’s behavior.
You see, most people think of discipline as punishment or time outs—the consequences that happen when children don’t do as they’re told.
But discipline is different. In No-Drama Discipline, authors Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain that discipline is teaching. We’re teaching children how to behave and helping them understand and express their emotions.
In the past, I’d launch into power struggles and feel—let’s admit it—threatened when my toddler wouldn’t listen. But when I focus on discipline as teaching, I’m forced to ask myself what he needs to learn instead.
What teachable moment can he gain from this? What new habits, values and consequences does he need to learn from this challenging behavior?
Better yet, I learned several techniques that helped make my son less likely to deliberately disobey. While I still maintained authority, I reduced the power struggles that had plagued our interactions before.
1. Find your toddler’s intentions
Defiance seems to be everywhere. You see it when your child refuses to come to the table to eat. Or when he should know better by now not to jump on the bed (especially after you’ve asked him not to many times before).
But kids don’t usually misbehave to make us angry. Go further and you might see your child was trying to fix a toy right when you asked him to come to the table to eat. Jumping on the bed wasn’t rebellion, but excitement—one he was unaware or unable to contain.
Pause before reacting to your child’s behavior and be curious about why he’s behaving the way he is. Doing so makes you more likely to show empathy and let him know you’re “on the same side.”
For instance, I asked my toddler to move a little so he’s not bothering his brother by sitting too close to him. He stayed put, so I tried again, “Can you move so your brother has some space?” Still no response, pretending not to hear me.
I then asked myself if there could be another reason he didn’t want to move, and I realized he wanted to stay close to his brother.
I then said, “You want to play near your brother, don’t you? It looks like he’s having fun and you want to do the same thing.” Only then did he move after I had acknowledged his underlying intentions.
Before laying out consequences, acknowledge and show empathy with how your child feels and why he’s not listening.
Maybe he felt tired from a long day, needs your company, or wants the same toy his brother is playing with. Dive into his mindset and look for the reason behind his actions—he’s more likely to comply when he feels understood, not attacked or scolded.
2. Get down to your toddler’s level and make eye contact
Seeing the situation from your toddler’s point of view can take a literal meaning. One of the simplest ways to better communicate with children is to get down to their eye level when we speak to them. Doing this has three benefits:
- Your toddler is more likely to take you seriously. A common scene in many homes? You’re trying to be serious with your child except he thinks the whole thing is funny. Get down to his level so you’re making eye contact and phrase your instructions in a calm but firm tone.
- You’re being more respectful. Children can feel “talked down to” when we’re speaking to them from high above. Kneeling to your toddler’s level forces you to speak more respectfully and address his needs.
- You avoid power struggles. Your toddler feels heard when he can see and talk to you eye-to-eye. By speaking to him at eye level, he gets less defensive and more likely to oblige. Try this and you’ll see his body relax as he becomes more willing to comply.
Kneeling down to your child’s level will help him take you seriously and feel respected while you direct your conversation away from power struggles.
3. Give and follow through with consequences
Have you ever told your toddler she’d better behave or else [fill in the blank]? Not only are false threats ineffective, they’re also rarely implemented.
Consequences that tie to your toddler’s behavior are learning experiences, so long as you follow through. Putting your foot down establishes limits she needs.
And keeping your word reinforces the trust your toddler places on you. While you may not win short-term favor, you’re gaining her trust when you follow through consistently. Otherwise, she learns she can continue to misbehave because the consequences you claim will happen never do.
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4. Pick your battles
Spending time with our kids can feel draining, but more so when every interaction leads to a fight. We watch them like a hawk, ready to correct at the first sign of misbehavior.
Sometimes though, we need to pick our battles and decide which behavior is critical to correct, and which ones aren’t as important. Not everything has to be a battle. While consistency is key, we also need to allow for flexibility and make room for the nuances of life.
Ask yourself if what you’re arguing about truly matters, especially in the long run. I had fought long and hard with my toddler because I wanted him to wear jeans while he wanted to wear shorts. It makes me cringe just thinking about it.
Now I ask myself how important it really is. Some behavior, like hitting or being consistent about putting toys away, do deserve our attention. But many of our arguments are petty and best let go.
Another simple way to let things slide? Help your toddler “save face” after he disobeys.
Let’s say he’s supposed to wash hands after eating, except this time, he refuses to. Rather than explode in anger, walk him to the bathroom together and say, “Here, let’s walk to the bathroom and get those sticky hands washed off.”
Keep your tone lighthearted and calm instead of bossy and “mean.” Your toddler will be less likely to drag his misbehavior and sour mood even further when you’re willing to pick your battles.
5. Give your toddler a choice
Giving choices can curb a potential meltdown and encourage your toddler to listen. How? Offering choices:
- Encourages kids to own the task. Putting on a jacket won’t seem like Mom’s Terrible Idea I Must Rebel Against. Instead, your toddler gets to decide between a green or gray jacket.
- Reduces conflict. I’ve avoided many tantrums by drawing attention to the choices my kids can make, not the task they’re resisting.
- Empowers kids. Your toddler is under the rule of adult decisions nearly all the time, making choices allows him to voice his opinions. He’ll embrace his choices and will be more likely to follow through with them.
- Shows we value kids’ opinions. Adults make most of the decisions in the house, but we also offer kids choices because we care and respect their decisions.
- Helps kids think for themselves. Giving choices allows your toddler to assert himself and develop critical thinking skills. He’ll hold himself accountable and decide which option he’d rather do.
Fair warning: Offering choices can backfire when not done correctly. Your toddler might demand choices when there are none (especially when you offer them often), or pick an option you don’t like.
The trick is two-part. First, limit how often you give choices (some choices aren’t his to make). And second, offer a choice between two parent-approved options, either of which you’d be okay with.
If your toddler refuses to put his jacket on, phrase the request as two options that lead to the same goal.
You might say, “We’re going to grandma’s. Which jacket do you want to wear—the green one or the gray one?” Don’t say, “Do you want to go to grandma’s or stay here at home?” especially if you don’t plan to have him stay.
6. Explain the reason
Researchers ran a study where a woman was able to cut in line to make copies simply by saying “because.”
Turns out, we’re more likely to comply when we have a reason. Rather than hearing what to do or not do, kids are more motivated to comply knowing why they should.
The next time you ask your child to listen, follow with a reason: “Don’t jump on the couch—you might fall and hurt yourself.”
In a world dominated by adults, kids can feel resentful being told what to do all the time. Imagine following rules you don’t always understand, or doing things you don’t feel like doing. They wonder if we’re abusing our power and bossing them around.
But giving a reason takes the parent out of the equation and focuses on the task that needs to be done. You’re not the “mean mom” who bosses her kids just because you can. You’re letting them know why they need to do what you asked them to.
And with the reason front and center, you’re also less likely to sound bossy. Your words will carry a respectful tone as you explain the reasoning behind your request.
Take a look at the video below for more tips:
7. Praise your toddler when he does what he’s asked to
Kids thrive on attention, whether good or bad. Unfortunately, arguments, yelling, and scolding are types of attention they’d rather have than none at all.
The best way to counter misbehavior is to praise your toddler and give him attention when he is behaving.
Maybe you saw him treating his little brother kindly. Point that out and say, “You’re so kind—you made your brother happy when you shared the blocks with him.” Or give him a high-five after he puts his dishes in the sink, all without you asking.
Deep down, kids want to please their parents. They want our approval and are crushed when we’re disappointed or angry with them. Use that to your advantage and praise your toddler when he behaves well.
It’s one thing when your toddler throws a tantrum or hits his brother, and another when he flat out disobeys you.
Encourage him to listen by acknowledging his emotions and intentions. Get down to his eye level and calmly but firmly explain what he needs to do. Explain why, and even give parent-approved choices of how to do so.
Pick your battles to avoid power struggles and help him “save face.” Follow through with consequences, and praise him when he does what you asked him to. All those moments of positive reinforcement are much more effective in the long run.
And yes, you’ll have off days, just like everything with parenting. You may be able to help your toddler behave more only for her to deliberately disobey once again. There’s no magic bullet—we’re all human and prone to bad days, including our kids.
But discipline isn’t about being strict or doling out punishments. Instead, it’s teaching your child to behave, manage emotions and cope with difficult situations.
Discipline with the intention of helping your toddler learn from the experience. Even as he sits and smiles, refusing to place the toy cars back in the box.
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Tell me in the comments: What are your top tips on how to discipline a toddler?
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