Struggling with your toddler not listening and behaving? You’re not alone. Discover 10 things 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 the 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’d complain 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. Toddler tantrums became a daily battle.
What to do with a toddler not listening
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 many times 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 what you ask, 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 aren’t sure when it’ll pass. 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 us can work on when it comes to bad behavior. 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 time outs!).
If you’re frustrated with your toddler not listening, don’t worry—the tips below can turn things around:
1. Guide your toddler through the task
Kids feel 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 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.
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 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 that the task needs to get done (washing his hands).
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2. Be calm and firm
Sometimes we think that 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 our kids to listen unless we yell and get upset.
But this only backfires, as you’re using fear-based tactics, rather than doing what discipline truly is: teaching a lesson.
Not only is it possible to discipline by being both calm and firm, but it’s also 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 needs you to do. Rather than getting irritated or frustrated, talk to him in a calm, matter-of-fact way about what needs to happen.
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 hold 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 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 him accountable, he knows what to expect and makes better decisions.
4. Ask at a good time
My toddler was drawing one morning, but he hadn’t packed his lunch, brushed his teeth, or gotten dressed for the day.
When we see our kids not doing something, we remind them right then and there. Except this isn’t always the best idea. 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.
Since then, I’ve had much better luck asking at a good time and giving advance notice.
I still reminded him that he hadn’t done his morning tasks, but I also followed it up with, “You can do them when you’re at a good place to stop drawing.”
Allowing him time to wrap up his drawing for a few more seconds avoided 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 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
Nobody feels good when we tell our kids “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 they perceive these instructions when we frame them in a positive way versus a negative one.
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 you can follow up “Hurting others is wrong” with “We treat people kindly.”
That way, your toddler isn’t inundated with all the complex rules she can’t or shouldn’t do. Instead, she’s filled with realistic instructions on exactly what she 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.
I’ve been guilty of stringing multiple instructions in one breath, then getting 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 give simple instructions one at a time so they can focus on just that one task. I’ll make eye contact so I know I have their full attention. Then, I trim my words and only say what I need to.
How and what you say plays a huge role in whether your toddler either listens and follows through, or simply glazes his eyes and stays put. Be clear with what you need him to do, both in giving instructions and the vocabulary 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 her to listen moving forward.
One of the best ways to do that is to praise her positive behavior. Acknowledge all the other times she does listen, instead of only admonishing her when she doesn’t.
It’s easy to forget all the other times she listens when you focus on correcting the times she doesn’t. But by acknowledging how well she behaves, the more likely she’ll continue that positive behavior. After all, she’ll want to keep doing the actions that get attention, whether positive or negative.
Even if it feels like she gives you more trouble than not, I’m certain there are pockets in the day when she’s behaving well. It might be when she came to the dining table all on her own without you reminding her. She 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 her back as she’s playing quietly can be all the positive reinforcement she needs.
8. Tell, don’t ask
Some tasks call for no compromise. Maybe it’s taking a bath before bedtime, or visiting Grandma’s house. But a big mistake we make when communicating these obligations? We ask.
I’ve been guilty of this many times. I’ve asked my kids, “Do you want to pee?” or “Should we put our jackets on today?” And more often than not, they’ll reply with a resounding “no.”
Now I’ve learned not to ask non-negotiable requests. I just say a specific task like, “It’s time to pee before bath time” or “Here’s your jacket—it’s cold outside.”
Giving kids choices can be an option, especially when they put up a fight. But keep those options between two parent-approved choices, and not whether they want to do it or not.
Instead of “Should we put our jackets on today?” you can ask, “Which jacket do you want to wear—the blue or the red?” Wearing a jacket is non-negotiable, but which jacket she chooses can be.
9. Keep your tone conversational
Sometimes we swear every request is a do-or-die demand, barking orders and warnings in a harsh tone of voice.
What if we soften the tone of our voices and keep it conversational instead? Let’s say you’ve been struggling with getting your 2-year-old out the door in the mornings. She wants to stay home and play all day, and transitioning to a new activity has been a challenge.
Instead of assuming an “I’m the boss” tone of voice, keep your words casual. “Oh hey, it looks like it’s 8 o’clock. Let’s start putting on shoes.”
We get wound up because we expect our young children to put up a fight, especially if they’ve been giving us a hard time. But disregard your child’s previous misbehavior and start new. Put down the defenses and stick to a casual tone—this avoids a bossy tone of voice and makes her feel less defensive.
10. Frame your requests as a benefit
Any request you can frame as a benefit to your child can be more successful than without one. So, what do I mean by a benefit?
Let’s say you want her to quit goofing around and finish eating dinner. You’ve learned not to say “Stop goofing off” and instead say, “Eat your dinner.” But let’s add another bit to that line and say “…so we have time to play at the park.”
Now the request ties to a benefit she understands (playing at the park), helping her feel more invested and motivated to follow through.
Dealing with a toddler not listening is one of the biggest challenges we face. Thankfully, you don’t have to simply wait for the phase to pass—you can take action now to get more cooperation.
Hold your child accountable so the decisions he makes affect the outcome. If he stalls, guide him through the activity rather than engage 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 understands what you need him to do. Similarly, encourage good behavior by acknowledging the times he does behave.
Avoid asking him for tasks you need him to do. Keep your tone conversational to avoid potential power struggles, and highlight the benefit of doing a task they can understand.
And finally, remain calm and firm, even during a temper tantrum. You’re still providing the boundaries he 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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