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 he wasn’t having it. He continued 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 help, but instead he stayed rooted in place, playing with the cars. Not only that, a smile spread across his face, as if the whole thing was a big joke.
Dealing with a toddler not listening 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 frustrated you get or the threats you make, nothing seems to get him to cooperate.
Later, you feel terrible when you realize how petty the initial “argument” had been: talking when he should’ve been napping, refusing to clean up a mess, not coming to the bathroom like you asked him to.
You know something has to change, especially when nagging, repeating, and losing your temper clearly aren’t working.
How to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen
It was around this time when I learned an important lesson in what discipline really means. A mindset shift that changed my whole outlook about 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 actually something different. Discipline is teaching. We’re teaching children how to behave and helping them understand and express their emotions.
As I say in my book, Parenting with Purpose:
“Discipline is nothing more than this: teaching and helping your child to behave. It’s a new way of thinking about discipline, isn’t it? Discipline isn’t just punishment, consequences, or what to do when kids misbehave. Discipline is teaching our kids how to act.”
You might get suckered into power struggles and feel—let’s admit it—threatened when your toddler doesn’t listen. But when you see discipline as teaching, you’re forced to ask yourself what he needs to learn instead.
What teachable moment can he gain from this? What new habits, values and consequences can he learn from this challenging behavior?
Below are several techniques that will help him stop deliberately disobeying and reduce the power struggles that can feel so draining.
So, let’s get started! Read the tips below or watch the video, which parents say are helpful:
1. 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 is to get down to his eye level when you speak to him. Doing this has three benefits:
- He’ll take you seriously. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to be serious except he thinks the whole thing is funny. Get down to his level, make eye contact, and phrase your instructions in a calm but firm tone.
- You’re being more respectful. He can feel “talked down to” when you’re physically speaking to him from high above. Kneeling to his level forces you to speak more respectfully and address his needs.
- You avoid power struggles. He feels heard, less defensive, and more likely to oblige when he can see and talk to you eye-to-eye.
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2. Find your toddler’s intentions
Defiance seems to be everywhere. You see it when your toddler 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 to stop many times before).
But if I had to guess, he’s not misbehaving to make you angry. Go further and you might see that he 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 over his new toddler bed.
Pause before reacting to his behavior and be curious about why he’s behaving the way he is. You’ll show empathy and let him know you’re “on the same side.”
For instance, I asked my toddler to move a little so he wasn’t sitting too close to his brother. 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.
So then I 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 he 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’ll comply when he feels understood, not attacked or scolded.
3. Give and follow through with consequences
Have you ever told your toddler he’d better behave or else [fill in the blank]? Not only are false threats ineffective, they’re also rarely implemented.
Consequences that tie to his behavior are learning experiences, so long as you follow through. Putting your foot down establishes limits he needs.
And keeping your word reinforces the trust he places on you. While you may not win short-term favor, you’re gaining his trust when you follow through consistently. Otherwise, he learns he can continue to misbehave because the consequences you claim will happen never actually do.
4. Pick your battles
Spending time with your toddler can feel draining, but more so when every interaction leads to a fight. You watch him like a hawk, ready to correct at the first sign of misbehavior.
Sometimes though, you need to pick your 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, you also need to allow for flexibility and make room for the nuances of life.
I once 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.
Ask yourself how important the issue really is to you and your family. Does what you’re arguing about truly matter, especially in the long run? Hitting or putting toys away might deserve your attention, but many arguments are probably petty and best let go.
Another simple way to let things slide? Help him “save face” after he disobeys.
Let’s say he’s supposed to wash his hands after eating, except this time, he refused to. Rather than explode in anger, playfully 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.” He won’t 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 him to own the task. Putting on a jacket won’t seem like Mom’s Terrible Idea I Must Rebel Against. Instead, he gets to decide between a green or gray jacket.
- Reduces conflict. Avoid many tantrums by drawing attention to the choices he can make, not the task he’s resisting.
- Feels empowering. He’s under the rule of adult decisions nearly all the time, whereas making choices allows him to voice his opinions. He’ll embrace his choices and follow through with them.
- Shows you value his opinions. You make most decisions for him, but you also offer choices because you care and respect his decisions.
- Helps him think for himself. Giving choices allows him 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. He might demand choices when he has 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’re okay with.
If he 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, people are more likely to comply when we have a reason.
The same is true with your toddler. In a world dominated by adults, he 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.
Rather than hearing what to do or not do, he’ll be more motivated to comply knowing why he should.
The next time you ask him to do something, follow with a reason: “Don’t jump on the bed—you might fall and hurt yourself.”
Giving a reason takes you out of the equation and focuses on the task that needs to be done. You’re not the “mean mom” who bosses him around just because you can. You’re letting him know why he needs to do what you asked him to.
With the reason front and center, you won’t sound bossy, especially when your words carry a respectful tone as you explain the reason behind your request.
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 him when he behaves well.
8. Don’t “ask” the instruction
Maybe you’ve pleaded with your toddler, whether it’s to take a bath, to behave, or to finish some chore. If I had to guess, he shrugged it off and tuned you out.
Avoid “asking” the instruction or negotiating when you can’t. When you say it’s time to take a bath, make sure you’re not ignored or met with silence. Don’t let him continue to play with video games or tinker with toys.
Sometimes you can pick your battles and meet him halfway. For others, you need to stand your ground.
Instead of “asking” him to do something (“Can you put on your shoes?”), state the task in unavoidable terms (“Let’s put on your shoes”).
9. Use positive language
Using positive language means phrasing your words in something your toddler can do, not something he can’t. It’s the difference between “Walk” and “Don’t run.”
Better yet, praise him with positive language when you catch him doing good. Let’s say he isn’t running off in public. Praise him and say, “Look at you walking!”
He’ll respond better to positive language because no one likes being told what not to do. Plus, he’ll also believe he can behave and do well. When you say things like, “Don’t you even think about…” you’re not showing faith that he could handle these instructions.
10. Don’t give empty threats
Saying empty threats or wild statements weakens your authority. “If you don’t pick up your toys, I’m going to throw them all out!” bears little weight when the story seems so outrageous. (Unless, of course, you actually follow through with it.)
You might also resort to unfair generalizations. For instance, you might tell your toddler, “You never listen to what I say,” or “You always misbehave.” These phrases not only label him instead of the action, they’re also untrue (he doesn’t always behave this way, 24/7).
11. Talk after the tantrum has finished
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Kids are past the point of logic once they’ve begun a tantrum, say Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in The Whole-Brain Child. It’s similar to how we feel during road rage—no point talking to us during one of those episodes.
Instead, wait for the tantrum to subside. Pull your toddler in for a hug and empathize with his emotions. Be there through his outbursts and allow him to settle down.
Once he’s calm, only then can you talk and expect him to actually listen and process what you’re saying.
12. Listen to your toddler
How often have you not listened to your toddler when he wants your attention?
My kids can be clawing for my attention, but my mind is wondering whether I have enough basil to make pesto. My usual response then? “Uh-huh…” as I feign listening to their stories.
Not exactly on my A-game there.
Listen when he talks. Yes, his stories can get incessant and make no sense half the time, or you’d rather be doing something productive or relaxing.
But listening to him builds a strong bond and earns his trust and love. And above all, listening is respectful. We can only expect to be treated the way we treat others, right?
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, like everything with parenting. He might behave one moment, only to deliberately disobey once again. There’s no magic bullet—we’re all human and prone to bad days, including kids.
But discipline isn’t about being strict or doling out punishments. Instead, it’s teaching him to behave, manage emotions and cope with difficult situations.
Discipline with the intention of helping him learn from the experience—even as he sits and smiles, refusing to place the toy cars back in the box.
Get more tips:
- Top 10 Toddler Discipline Books to Get Your Child to Listen
- A Better but Not Always Easier Alternative to Timeouts
- Your Cheat Sheet Guide to Handling Tantrums
- Toddler Acting Out at Daycare? What You Need to Do
- How to Raise Kids Who Want to Behave—Even when No One Is Looking
Don’t forget: Learn 9 out-of-the-box parenting strategies that will help you deal with these challenging behaviors. Sign up for my newsletter and download your PDF freebie below—at no cost to you: