Have you ever been in the middle of an argument with your toddler only to realize no one is going to win in that situation? When your toddler isn’t listening, it can be frustrating for everyone! This article will help you sort out why your toddler isn’t listening and give you strategies to turn things around. Good luck, you got this!
Why is your toddler not listening?
What a question, right? Your toddler might be having a hard time listening for any number of 1,295,374 reasons! But for real, if you want to know how to help your toddler through any type of behavior problem, it’s helpful to know why they are upset in the first place. It’s kind of like if you are sick, you can treat the symptoms, but it’s a better solution to treat the cause of the sickness. So, why is your child not listening?
- Their basic needs aren’t being met. Your little one might be hungry, tired, or thirsty. Make sure they have everything they need to be their best selves. (And don’t forget how hangry we can get, even as grown ups. The struggle is real!)
- Your child is sick. I don’t know about you, but when my toddler is sick, listening seems to be last on her to do list. If your child is sick, give them a break.
- They can’t hear you. Some children have hearing loss, and they honestly might not be able to hear you. If they don’t seem to react to noises around them, or don’t respond when you talk to them, consider getting their hearing tested.
- Your toddler does not understand what you are saying. You may be using language that is too complex, or too many words. Toddlers need you to keep things simple.
- Toddlers want attention. Sometimes your child chooses to be “silly” causing them not to follow directions. This combination of behaviors can cause a lot of frustration, and they know that. Even if the attention they are getting from you is negative, it’s still attention. (Check out my post here about working through tantrums and how to help your little one stop having them.)
- They simply don’t want to do what you are asking. They may be listening, but just don’t want to do what you are saying.
- Your child wants more control. Think about it. We tell our kids what to do a million times in a single day. Sometimes they just want some say in their lives!
When is your toddler not listening?
Although it seems like a strange question, it’s important to think about when your toddler is not following directions.
Is it a certain time of day? Maybe they need a nap sooner, or to go to bed earlier.
Is it always before lunch? Perhaps they need a snack or an earlier lunchtime.
Maybe your toddler isn’t listening when their sibling is awake and playing because they are too distracted.
Recognizing patterns and the WHEN of not listening might help you get to the root of the problem.
The First Tactic You Need: Offering Choices to Help with Behavior Problems
In the “why” section above I mentioned that toddlers sometimes just want some control. I can’t blame them, since they are getting told what to do just about every minute of every day.
Working to let your child have some control (but don’t worry, not all of it) will help both of you in the long run. If you give your child choices instead of demanding that they do exactly what you say, you might get more buy-in and less push back. You will also help them to listen to you without yelling!
Giving choices can be simple. Just let your child have a choice between two things that you are okay with. If you need them to drink more say, “Do you want to drink from your red cup or your blue cup?” It’s that simple. Just think about something you can let them decide within the bigger task at hand.
Here’s an example: it’s lunchtime but your toddler is busy playing. You tell them, “Time to eat.” but they go right on playing. So you tell them again, “Time to eat, come to the table.” but you have no luck. Then you try yelling, “Come over here right now because it’s time to eat!” That little booger still doesn’t come! What’s your next move? What do you tell them now? Do you physically go get them? Maybe!
If that scene seemed realistic, it’s because it is. That very thing has happened in my house many a time. But gosh, it’s so frustrating. And there is a better way.
Let’s run through that same example, but let’s give your kiddo some options.
Mom: “Hey honey, time to eat!”
Kiddo: “I don’t want to, I’m playing.” (Or as my little one loves to say, “I can’t want to!”)
Mom: “Hmm you can finish up what you’re doing, and then do you want a yellow plate or a purple plate?”
*Little side note, I recently started saying, “Finish one more thing you are doing, then I need you to….” It has helped SO MUCH! My little one is so much more compliant if I don’t immediately demand that she change everything she’s doing.
Mom: : “Do you want peas or green beans?”
Kiddo: “Green beans!” (child comes running…hopefully!)
And just like that, you have helped your kiddo be part of the decision making and the transition is way easier. Okay, so it’s not always this slick, but it really does help a lot. Your toddler will feel like they are more in control, even when you are still holding the cards!
When to Offer Choices
All. The. Time. I offer choices all the time. I offer choices for what clothes to wear, what books to read, which toy to play with, what to eat, where to go on a walk, honestly all the time.
Offer choices throughout the day so your toddler can establish and figure out what they like.
Offer choices when you know your little one is going to have a meltdown. Sometimes, when I know we have to do something my toddler doesn’t want to do, I think about how I can give her options within the activity.
For instance, if it’s clean-up time I ask if she wants to clean up her animals or her kitchen toys.
When it’s time to leave the park I ask her if she wants to hold my hand or walk by herself.
Every night before bed, I ask her to choose two books so she can feel in control, even though she doesn’t want to go to bed. The choice kind of distracts her from having to do the thing she doesn’t want to do.
Benefits of Giving Your Toddler Choices
Giving toddlers choices has plenty of benefits:
- Children are more likely to listen if you give them choices.
- Allowing children to choose gives them more independence. (Check out this research article about it)
- Giving simple choices is one way to help children increase their vocabulary. (If you need more tips to get your little one talking, check out my other article here.)
- When children choose what they want, they feel like they have more control.
- Toddlers tend to be more engaged in activites when they get to make choices.
The Second Tactic You Need: Tell Them What You DO WANT Them to Do So They Can Follow Directions
Kids hear us saying “Don’t touch that!” or “Get down from there!” all the time! We are often telling kids what NOT to do, but what we need to tell them is what they CAN DO. Kids simply don’t always hear or understand the “no” or “stop” or “don’t” in sentences when we are telling them what not to do.
If you have a toddler who is not listening to you, it might be because they keep hearing what they AREN’T supposed to do. By telling them what they can do, you get them distracted from the behavior you want to prevent and focused on something fun they can do.
And even if they understand it, they might be in the “testing phase” in which they want to do exactly what you asked them not to.
If your child is throwing something you don’t want them to, give them ideas about how to use the toy in the correct way. Like this: “If you want to play with those stacking cups, you can roll them, or make a tower”. This gets your child thinking about what they can do, not what they aren’t supposed to be doing.
Another great example of when to use this tactic (well I think it’s helpful to pretty much always use it) is when your child is biting, hitting, or kicking someone. If your little one is biting a sibling, instead of saying “no biting”, you can say, “If you’d like to play with your baby sister, you can tickle her belly, give her a high-five, or share a toy with her”. You could also tell your toddler what things are okay to bite, like a chewy toy or a snack.
If you need more help because your toddler is biting, check out my article about it here.
When to Be Specific About What They Can Do:
All. The. Time. I sincerely don’t think there is ever a time when this isn’t a helpful strategy to use with a toddler who isn’t listening. By telling a child what they can do, they are no longer as focused on the negative behavior they were doing before.
Additionally, some kids just really don’t know what is right/nice yet. It’s our job to teach them how to act kindly to others, how to treat our things well, and how to be good humans in general. If we only tell them what not to do, this will take so much longer to figure out!
I will say that if your child is being unsafe to self or others , it’s really important to tell them that it’s not okay to hurt people. You don’t want them to repeat this action, so be clear why they can’t do what they just did. However, I still think it’s majorly helpful to tell them what they can do. This will help them redirect their energy and frustration.
The Third Tactic You Need: Catch Them Being Good
As a parent, it’s way too easy to get in a rut with only noticing your toddler not listening, not following directions, and generally not doing anything “right”. When we get caught up in this, we might completely overlook the times when our toddler IS listening and doing a great job.
Our toddlers need to hear us tell them what they are doing the right way! (And actually, I think we all enjoy this!)
Using positive reinforcement does not mean empty praise. It’s not just saying “good job” when your child does anything. Positive reinforcement is more than that.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
“the use of positive reinforcement is the-Ellen A. Sigler and Shirley Aamidor
act of identifying and encouraging a behavior, with
the hopes that the desired behavior will increase…”
Positive reinforcement is 4 major things:
- Positive feedback should be specific. If your child shares with another child, don’t just say, “Good job!”. Say something like, “Wow! I love how you shared your toy so nicely!” If your child uses an inside voice instead of yelling, say “Thank you for choosing to use an inside voice.”
- Positive feedback should be immediate. Don’t let too much time pass from the desired behavior to the positive feedback. If you do it right away your child will take notice of it and hopefully want to repeat the behavior. Children have a hard time linking events if too much time has passed.
- Positive feedback should be positive. This is obvious, but it’s necessary. Make sure you are really making your child feel good about themselves. You don’t always have to use words, either. You can clap, give huge smiles, or whatever will make your toddler feel better.
- Positive feedback means trying to ignore the negative behaviors. It’s hard to ignore bad behaviors, but if you can it goes a long way. Often, children are just looking for attention. If they get a lot of attention by doing something you don’t like, they are gong to keep doing that. Positive feedback is all about reversing that cycle by paying attention to what your child is doing right.
When to Use Positive Reinforcement to Help Them Follow Instructions:
Honestly, this is the approach I would start with. Do it whenever you can, but make sure it’s for real. Avoid praising efforts that aren’t actually that good. Kids (even young ones) can see right through that.
Positive praise works because your child wants to make you proud. They also want your attention. Be sure to make a BIG DEAL about the times they listen and do exactly what you are asking of them. Whenever possible, make sure it’s a bigger deal to do something well than to not do what you ask. That is what will truly make the difference.
Use positive reinforcement whenever your child does something truly wonderful! Seek to find more positive than negative throughout your day. It will help you and your toddler.
So where do you start when your toddler isn’t listening?
Honestly, it’s up to you where to start. If you need to, start with one tactic that’s perfectly reasonable. I suggest starting with the “catch them being good”. It’s an easy shift and honestly, it might put you in a better mood too. If you give yourself permission to stop getting upset every time your child does something wrong, then you will be less frustrated too!
As you get more comfortable with one tactic, try implementing another one. With the combination of all three strategies, I think your child will start listening a lot more! And more listening means less frustration for everyone. What a relief!