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What To Do When Toddlers Don’t Listen

& reasons why toddlers don’t listen

If you are a mom to a 2 - 3-year-old, the majority of your parenting energy will seem to be spent on trying to keep your cool as she/he tests every boundary you have made. You are not alone in this, either. So many other caregivers in your position are just as desperate to know what to do when toddlers don’t listen. This phase is exhausting, and some days, it can seem like it would be so much easier to just throw your hands up and give all of the control over to your tiny tyrant than to try to reason with them again.

Reasons why toddlers don’t listen

They’re still figuring this whole “listening” thing out

First, even though this is incredibly hard to do while your toddler is blatantly ignoring you, it’s important to understand that to them not listening has to do with them, not you. When toddlers ‘don’t listen, it does not mean that they are being defiant or thoughtless, they are still practicing lots of things, including listening. Not only are toddlers still learning and developing, but they’re also human, just like anyone else. Toddlers are human beings who are going to feel complex feelings and be affected by how tired they are, whether they are hungry, just like older children and adults.

They’re not understanding what you need them to do

What may be intensifying this, however, likely boils down to communication. The toddler may not understand the directives, or the caregiver may be giving directives before they fully gain the child’s attention.

Communication is often to blame in these situations. For example, if your directive is too complex, it might not be that your toddler isn’t listening but rather that your toddler may simply not be able to keep up with it. Another possibility is that you don’t have their full attention because they’re distracted by something, which means they aren’t hearing everything you say.

Transitions are a tricky time

Transitions are very difficult for young children, especially toddlers, so if you’re looking for an immediate response from them, you’re probably not going to get it. Similarly, if a toddler is engaging in a preferred activity and you ask them to do something they don’t want to do, you’re not only requesting a transition from them, but you’re requesting they transition from something fun to something boring, so it’s safe to assume they’ll take their sweet time before following directions (or they’ll have a temper tantrum).

They don’t have the right motivation

They may not be motivated to do as they’re told if you aren’t giving them positive reinforcement when they do follow directions, such as, “I like how you put your shoes in the closet when I asked you.”

What to do when your toddler won’t listen to you

Since communication is most likely the reason why your toddler won’t listen to you, the best thing you can do is to ensure you’re communicating in a way they can understand. Here are some tips :

Pair directions with gestures

When you’re delivering your request to your toddler, think of a way to gesture the directive as well. For example, if you’re asking them to put on their coat, mimic putting on and zipping up your own jacket to help make the directive clear.

Give verbal warnings

Since transitions are so hard for toddlers, it is helpful to warn them when one is coming. If your child is watching a show or playing with their toys and you would like them to stop or do something else and listen, give them a verbal warning for when their activity will end. This will help prepare them emotionally and give them time to revert their attention back to you. You could also use timers for this purpose (but only if they can understand what the countdown means).

Keep it simple and specific

Avoid getting too colourful with your language. When making your directive, get right to the point and use language your child can understand. “Instead of just saying clean up your room,’ try saying something specific, such as, ‘put the blocks in your toy chest,’

Make eye contact

It’s pretty hard to ignore someone when you’re looking directly at them, right? So try getting down to your toddler’s level and making eye contact when you’re delivering your message to ensure you’re getting their full attention.

Add some fun

If you’re noticing a pattern where your toddler refuses to listen about certain routines, add a fun aspect to the activity. For example, if your child refuses to listen around bedtime, you can set up a reward system or turn the activity into a race between you and your child.

To the dismay of every toddler caregiver out there, the first thing not to do when your toddler won’t listen is to get frustrated (easier said than done, I know). It’s incredibly difficult to do, but you have to model behaviour because if you start to get frustrated, so will the toddler, and the situation will only escalate into a power struggle. So try to stay calm.

Other things not to do when your toddler won’t listen include:

At Wriggles & Giggles Yarm, Hartburn & Thornaby we regularly share and sing fun rhymes that can help in many situations and improve reactions and responses as well as ideas and techniques to improve communication between you and your toddler. You don't need to book a course just book each week as and when you want to join us.

Don’t Expect too much

If you’re asking something of your toddler that isn’t in their normal routine, they may struggle (which could be interpreted as them not listening to you). Caregivers should remember that children don’t know the daily routine – like washing their hands or putting away toys – unless you tell them and regularly reinforce these activities.

Criticize them

Our words have power. If you’re using a negative tone or criticizing your toddler and/or their behaviour, they will likely tune you out completely (best case scenario) or have an emotional reaction (likely a tantrum). Instead of criticizing, use a pleasant tone and encourage them to follow your directive. This is a good time to try some of the communication tips like getting down on their level.

Order, beg, or ask them to do something

When your toddler isn’t listening and your patience is getting thin, your natural response may be to ask them nicely a few more times, then try ordering them, only to land on begging out of sheer desperation and exhaustion. Avoid doing this because they’ll either respond with a defiant “no!” or ignore you completely. Instead, you should be firm in asking them to complete the task and then providing positive reinforcement when they complete it or giving them a consequence if they don’t.

Use “don’t” phrases

The last item on this list of “don’ts” is: don’t use “don’t” phrases. Try reframing your reprimands into a positive light. Children don’t want to be bad — they want to have a relationship with you and make you happy, so taking this approach may help. For example, instead of saying “don’t run” say “use your walking feet, please.”

How to discipline a toddler

Assuming the toddler is not doing something that would put themselves or someone else in danger it’s important that caregivers don’t look at discipline only as a way to stop a child from doing something, but also to help teach them how to make good choices the next time a similar situation occurs. You’re not trying to teach your child fear. You’re trying to teach them how to behave differently in the future. To do this, you want to make sure your discipline is both a consequence and a lesson that will help them learn how to better control their behaviours and emotions moving forward.

When disciplining your toddler caregivers should focus on the ABCs to help them find the proper consequence: What are the antecedents of the behaviour (before), what is the behaviour (during), and what are the consequences of the behaviour (after)? Here are some other tips on disciplining toddlers:

Make sure the consequence makes sense in relation to the behaviour (there should be some kind of connection between the two). For example, removing your toddler from the sandbox because they threw sand after you already told them to stop.

Consequences should be immediate because toddlers don’t have a sense of time. “If you’re going to take away a privilege, make it clear but short enough that the child can remember why you took the privilege away.

If you practice positive reinforcement when your toddler follows directions/listens, then, for your tot, not receiving praise when they don’t follow the rules will feel like a consequence in itself.

Similarly, if they are throwing a tantrum, acknowledge their feelings but ignore their behaviour so that they learn they get more attention when they’re behaving (through praise and positive reinforcement) than when they aren’t. Example: “I see that you’re frustrated right now. I’m going to walk into the other room to read, come join me when you’re ready.”

Unfortunately, knowing what to do when toddlers don’t listen is not instinctive for caregivers, and it can feel extremely frustrating when it happens. The best thing you can do is to practice positive reinforcement outside these moments of conflict so that simply not getting praise will serve as a consequence for your tot. And, as difficult as it may be (and some days it can be really difficult), when conflict does arise, try your best to regulate your own emotions and model the behaviour you want from them so that they can slowly learn how to do the same.

Then, once they’ve gone to bed, feel free to scream into your pillow to get all of your irritation out before you wake up and do it all again tomorrow (just kidding... kind of)


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