If you’re struggling with a toddler not listening and behaving, you’re not alone. Discover 7 things you need to do to get kids to listen without yelling.
My then-toddler sat flipping through a book when I called, “Breakfast time!” He ran to the dining room, with the book in hand.
“You can put the book on the couch,” I suggested. We typically don’t allow other items at the dining table when we’re eating meals, even books. “Then, you can have it after you’re done eating,” I continued.
“No!” he shouted, adamant about bringing the book to the table. This went back and forth, with him insisting on bringing his book to the table and me trying to reason with him why he shouldn’t.
Seriously? I thought. We’re going to fight about a book on the dining table?
These went beyond books at the table, too.
He’d refuse to change his diaper every time I suggested it, never mind that he himself was complaining about it. I’d ask him to put a toy back in its place, only for him to throw it carelessly. Sometimes he’d even ignore my request, all while looking me dead in the eye.
What to do with a toddler not listening
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One of the biggest challenges for parents is figuring out how to get toddlers to listen without yelling.
Maybe you need to say the same thing multiple times just to finally get your toddler to cooperate. Daily tasks he should know by now like taking a bath and changing into pajamas are taking twice as long as they should. Sure, he eventually does as he’s asked, but it takes constant repetition that only leaves both of you frustrated.
You don’t want to spank, and timeouts don’t work (he just laughs at you). You know he’s in a “testing” phase, but will it eventually pass? Otherwise, how do you discipline a toddler not listening, especially when it really matters?
It’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong, never mind that parenthood is all about trial and error.
Still, after three kids, I’ve found that there are a few areas a lot of parents can work on when it comes to a toddler not listening. Thankfully, they’re easy to implement, and they truly do work to help your child behave (and no, you don’t have to deal with any more useless timeouts!).
If you’re frustrated with your toddler not listening, don’t worry—the tips below will help turn things around:
1. Guide your toddler through the task
Kids feel just as challenged as we do during power struggles. They may not feel compelled to wash their hands as soon as we ask, for instance, and can be just as stubborn with holding their ground and saying “no.”
But rather than engage in battle, guide your toddler through the task you’re asking him to do. If he refuses to move after you ask him to wash his hands, you might say, “Here, let me help you with it.” You can then walk with him to the bathroom to help him wash his hands.
You see, if the task needs to get done no matter what, then hold your ground on that. After all, he has to know that there is no other option to washing his hands—it must get done.
But here’s the thing: you don’t need to be equally stubborn about him doing it on his own. By doing the task with him, you soften the request (by guiding and helping) while still being firm with the task that needs to get done (washing his hands).
2. Be calm and firm
Sometimes we think that in order to hold our ground, we need to get hysterical and raise our voices. This is especially true when it seems like we can’t get them to listen unless we yell and get upset.
But this only backfires, as you’re then parenting using fear-based tactics, rather than doing what discipline truly is: teaching.
You see, not only is it possible to discipline by being both calm and firm, it’s actually far more effective to do so.
You’re showing your toddler that you’re correcting his behavior, not himself as a person. At the same time, you’re holding your ground and setting boundaries, which he absolutely needs you to do.
Rather than getting irritated or frustrated, talk to your toddler from a calm, almost matter-of-fact way about what needs to happen.
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3. Hold your toddler accountable
Does your toddler like to “stall” when it comes to doing what you asked? Maybe it’s taking forever to brush his teeth, or several times of telling him to get dressed. As you might imagine, this allows him to channel all his frustration on one target: you.
But what if you put that responsibility on him and held him accountable? You can do this by setting expectations within a time frame.
Let’s say you normally read for 20 minutes before turning off the lights for the night. Except for the past several nights, he balks at each step of the bedtime routine, or perhaps blows it off so he can play longer.
Rather than hounding him to get things done, put the responsibility—and the consequences of his decisions—on him. You might say, “You have 20 minutes before we turn the lights off. The longer you delay, the less time we have to read before bed.”
By holding your toddler accountable, he’ll know what to expect and, more important, learn to make better decisions.
4. Ask at a good time
My toddler was drawing one morning, which normally would be fine, except that he hadn’t packed his lunch, brushed his teeth, or gotten dressed for the day.
Typically when we see our kids not doing something, we remind them right then and there. Except this isn’t always the best idea. You see, we only gave the reminder because we happened to notice that the tasks weren’t getting done. We don’t always consider the frame of mind our kids are in.
In the past, I’d have asked him to stop what he was doing to get those tasks done. After all, they need to get done before we head to school. As you might imagine, he’d groan and whine before begrudgingly taking on the tasks—at a snail’s pace at that.
These days, though, I’ve had much better luck asking at a good time.
In that example, I still reminded him that he hadn’t done his morning tasks. But this time, I followed it up with, “You can do them when you’re at a good place to stop drawing.”
Given that we still had plenty of time before leaving, allowing him time to wrap up would avoid the extra whining and groaning. He’d also do these tasks at a regular pace, since he felt no resentment at having to stop his activity.
And perhaps best of all, he understood that he had a choice of when to stop, and a responsibility to do so within a reasonable time frame.
5. Use positive language
Neither parent nor child feel good when we tell them “no” all day long, except we do this astoundingly often. For anyone who’s had to say “Stop…” “Don’t…” or given that “look” of exasperation, you know what I mean.
But what if, instead of telling them what not to do, we simply tell them what they could, or should?
It’s amazing how different kids perceive these instructions when we frame it in a positive way versus a negative one.
For instance, instead of saying “Don’t throw that pencil,” you could say, “Put the pencil on the table.” Instead of “Stop running,” you say “Walk.” And perhaps we can follow up “We don’t hit” with “We treat people kindly.”
That way, your toddler isn’t just inundated with all the things he can’t or shouldn’t do. Instead, he’s filled with ideas and instructions on exactly what he can.
6. Keep communication simple
I’m a fan of talking to kids in a normal way, even similar to how we’d talk to other adults. That said, simplifying how we talk and what we say can work wonders with a toddler not listening.
For instance, I know I’ve been guilty of stringing multiple instructions in one breath, then get upset when my kids get flustered and don’t do them.
These days, when I truly want them to understand what I’m saying, I make sure of two things. First, I give instructions one at a time so they can focus on just that one task. And second, I trim my words and only say what needs to be said.
In fact, I limit instructions to one or two steps at a time. That way, they don’t have to try to remember too many steps to complete a task.
How and what we say plays a huge role in whether kids listen and follow through, or simply glaze their eyes and stay put. Be clear with what you need your toddler to do, both in giving instructions and the words you use.
7. Praise your toddler’s positive behavior
The previous tips all involved corrective measures—in other words, what to do when your toddler isn’t listening. This one, however, is a preventive measure: how to encourage him to listen moving forward.
And one of the best ways to do that is to praise his positive behavior. In other words, acknowledge all the other times he does listen, instead of only admonishing him when he doesn’t.
It’s easy to take for granted all the other times kids listen when we’re so focused on correcting the times they don’t. But by acknowledging how well they behave, the more likely they’ll continue that positive behavior. After all, kids will continue doing what gets attention, whether positive or negative.
Even if it feels like your toddler gives you more trouble than not, I’m certain there are pockets in the day when he’s behaving well. It might be when we came to the dining table all on his own without you reminding him. Or when he was gentle with the dog, or shared toys with a friend.
These are all worthwhile moments that should be encouraged, not overlooked. You don’t need to throw a party each time—a simple “Thank you for sharing!” or rub on his back as he’s playing quietly will do.
Dealing with a toddler not listening is one of the biggest challenges all parents face. Thankfully, you don’t have to simply wait for the phase to pass—you can take action now to discipline for better behavior.
Hold your child accountable so that the decisions he makes affect the outcome. If he stalls, guide him through the activity rather than engaging in a power struggle. And even then, make sure you’re asking at a good time instead of when you happen to remember to give instructions.
Use positive language so you’re telling what he should or can do, instead of what he can’t. When you do, keep your words simple and concise so he truly understands what you need him to do. Similarly, encourage positive behavior by acknowledging the times he does behave.
And finally, remember to remain calm even as you’re firm. You’re still providing the boundaries your toddler needs while reminding him you love him, even if you don’t love his behavior.
That morning when my toddler insisted on bringing a book to the table, I switched gears and said, “When you’re done reading, you can come eat breakfast.” The result? No epic battles, whining, or raised voices—just a toddler who wanted to finish reading a book before coming to the table.
Get more tips:
- Top 10 Toddler Discipline Books to Get Your Child to Listen
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Hits
- 5 Ways to Stop Toddler Power Struggles Many Parents Don’t Think to Do
- How to Stop Your Toddler Whining (Even When You’ve Tried Everything)
- 5 Things to Remember when You’re Losing Your Temper with Your Toddler
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