a young boy sitting at a table eating a chocolate donut

I hear this all the time from parents of little ones: ‘my toddler doesn’t listen to me!'” Toddlerhood is an amazing, fun time in your kiddo’s life, but if you have one, you know it can also be incredibly challenging. It’s sometimes so hard to know what to do to actually get them to listen. It’s easy to resort to yelling, threats, and punishment But you may have already realized those are not the most effective strategies, and they usually don’t make everyone feel good. Toddlers naturally want to challenge us and our boundaries, and they’re constantly seeking independence. So if you have a toddler that does not want to listen to you, congratulations! You have a normal toddler. But I’m here to help. In this post, we’ll dive deep into proven strategies to get your toddler to listen to you without resorting to yelling or punishment.

1. Connection

Toddler brains are still developing. When they are dysregulated, whether it be because they are upset or just acting silly, they’re not using the “upstairs” part of their brain1 – the part that controls thinking and logic. They’re using the “downstairs” part of the brain – the part that controls feeling. Therefore, if you try to use just logic with a child who is not using the logical part of their brain, you’re not going to get very far. You’ve probably been in this situation before, I know I have. When you’re talking but you may as well be speaking another language cause your kid is absolutely not listening to you. If that happens, that means you missed a step! They are using their downstairs brain and we are in the upstairs brain. Focusing on connection first will get you a lot farther and will help them be able to access that upstairs brain,

Okay great, but what does “connection” mean?

Great question. Basically it just means getting down on their level, literally, and slowing down. With my toddler, I know that hugging her is helpful. For a lot of kids, some type of physical stimulus can be helpful, but others need space. You know your kid best! If you’re not sure you can try a few things. For some kids its helpful to make eye contact – you could even use the hand signal for eye contact to get on their level. The goal really is just to make sure you guys are on the same page. If they’re upset, make sure you listen and validate them before moving on.

Additionally, fostering a connection doesn’t just happen in the heat of the moment. It’s also about building a strong bond through quality time spent together. This could mean engaging in activities that your toddler enjoys, such as reading books, playing games, or simply cuddling on the couch. By prioritizing connection in both everyday interactions and moments of conflict, you lay the groundwork for effective communication and cooperation with your toddler. When you have that solid foundation, it’s a lot easier to connect and attune with them in the moment.

2. Make it positive

It’s so easy to get into the habit of telling our kids what not to do, but it’s so much more effective if we tell them what they can do. You’ve probably heard this before, but it can be so hard to actually put into practice. Sometimes my instinct is to first say no, “Stop jumping on the couch! Get off the table! No running!” It’s normal! But if I find myself doing this I will try to follow it up with a positive statement, “couches are for sitting, you can jump on the floor! Sit in your seat. Walking feet!”

This works for a few reasons. One, when toddlers hear “no” they’re more likely to want to do whatever we’re saying no to. Since they are constantly testing boundaries, they think its fun and exciting to do things we are saying they cannot do. Secondly, it tells them exactly what they should be doing. This helps them better understand what we’re expecting of them rather than just saying what they can’t do.

3. Figure out the purpose of the behavior (when possible)

All behavior is communication. So when my toddler is climbing up on the table at dinner I try to figure out what is going on. Is she looking for attention? Does she just want to climb something? Is she overstimulated and needs an outlet? We often think that kids do things just to purposefully annoy or defy us. This is rarely the case, and even when it is, its still usually about something else going on. There’s always an underlying need to the behavior. When we can figure out what this is, it makes it so much easier to help them change their behavior.

Sometimes, it’s really hard to know exactly what a kid needs. Sometimes it’s a multitude of factors. If you’re unsure, try to think about if they might be hungry, tired, or looking for attention. We tend to label “attention-seeking” as a negative. But in reality, kids wanting attention from us is perfectly fine! We just need to show them the appropriate ways to do this.

4. Redirect the behavior

Once you figure out what the purpose of the behavior is, you can offer ways they can get that need met appropriately. For example, if my daughter is jumping on the couch I can say “if you’d like to jump, you can jump on the floor or your trampoline” (notice how I didn’t say “no jumping on the couch!”) If I think she’s just looking for attention, I either give it to her, or if I can’t I say “I know it’s so hard to wait for Mommy to finish cooking. I can’t wait to sit and eat dinner with you soon. Would you like to color while you wait?” In this example I validated, reminded her that she would be getting her need met soon, and offered an alternative.

5. Offer choices

You’ve probably heard this before, but it really does work so well! I use this a lot when it’s time for a transition, like when it’s time to stop a fun activity. For example, when it’s time to go inside from playing on the swings I’ll say “It’s time to go inside! Should we hop like bunnies or stomp like dinosaurs?” This both distracts them into thinking about something and allows them to have some control. Toddlers have so little control over their day and they really don’t have a sense of time, so when they’re doing something they enjoy its really hard to stop. If I want my daughter to stop climbing on the table at dinner I might ask if we should read 3 books or 4 for bedtime, or should Mommy or Daddy give her a bath.

6. Praise the behavior you want to see more of

This one is so important, and so easy to forget. We want to make sure we offer praise when they’re behaving how we want them to. This not only allows for positive interactions, but helps them understand exactly what we’re looking for. For example, “wow I love how you got onto your trampoline when you felt like jumping!” or “nice job using your walking feet!” Toddlers love to push boundaries, but they also love praise (who doesn’t!?). This is such an easy step to forget but try to remember to praise the positives!

Also, in general, highlighting the positives helps strengthen the bond you have with yourt toddler. It allows for more positive experiences than negative ones, which just makes everyone feel good. It also lets them know they can get your attention by behaving in the way that is expected, not just by misbehaving.

Final Thoughts

Connection is SO important in getting your toddler to listen to you. If you’re not on the same page as them it’s just not going to work. You need to make sure they’re fully able to hear you before you can give them any direction. Try to focus on helping them navigate to a more positive behavior rather than relying on punishing them. Afterall, they’re just being a toddler. It’s absolutely possible to hold firm boundaries of what is allowed and what is not allowed while avoiding yelling at them or threatening them. For some of us, this is very new, but the research shows this is really the best way to help children learn effective and appropriate behaviors.

Incorporating these strategies into your parenting toolkit can help transform those challenging moments with your toddler into opportunities for growth, learning, and strengthened connection. So next time you find yourself struggling to get your toddler to listen, remember these tips and watch as your interactions become more positive and effective.

Frequently Asked Questions

Absolutely not! Sometimes all I need to do is offer another choice to my toddler and she’ll listen. If she’s jumping on the couch (I know I keep using this example, we’re in a big jumping on the couch phase) and being very silly, sometimes I can just remind her that she can jump on the floor or the trampoline and she’ll listen. There was no connection or explanations, but it’s because we’ve done all these steps above before that she does not always need it. So sometimes, you might have to to really get them to listen to you or stop the behavior, but certainly not every time.

I don’t typically recommend this strategy unless it’s directly related to the behavior. For example, when my daughter starts throwing crayons all over the room, or coloring on things that are not paper, I usually give her one reminder and then I will take them away. I let her know that I am taking them away because she is showing me that she cannot use them properly right now.

So, the focus should be on solving a problem (using crayons inappropriately) rather than punishment (I want you to feel bad because you’re misbehaving).

First, make sure you’ve *really* tried them. Sometimes it takes a few tries to figure out what works best for you and/or your kiddo. But, if you have, or if you just really feel like something is not typical, definitely reach out to your pediatrician to have them evaluated. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong, but it does not hurt to talk to a professional if you feel like something is off.

  1. Siegel, Daniel J., and P. H. D. Tina Payne Bryson. The Whole-Brain Child. Random House, 2012. ↩︎

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