My Toddler Refuses to Listen – What Do I Do?

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When a toddler refuses to listen it’s like a day ending in “y”: both regular and expected. Nevertheless, normal as it may be, a toddler not listening is frustrating, maddening even. So what do you do? How do you get your toddler to listen (and as a welcome bonus, keep your sanity)?

Fortunately, as willful and obstinate as toddlers can be, there are proven strategies you can use for getting toddlers to listen (or at least, listen more often).

Use proximity to your advantage

Parenting a toddler is physical and nonstop. If you’re finally sitting down on the couch and you need to tell your toddler something, the last thing you want to do is get back up again to do it. Buuuuuuuuut you should. 

Barking your orders from far away is generally ineffective for kids of any age, not just toddlers. The best way to give instructions to a child is to get close to them (think “The Close-Talker” from Seinfield).

This ensures that they know you’re talking to them and can hear your requests. It’s also helpful because if your toddler refuses to listen (and chances are decently high of this), you’re right next to them. This will allow you to physically direct them into doing what they should. 

Bonus: getting close prevents you from frustratedly yelling your instructions repeatedly to no one (or at least, to no one listening).

When that happens, your sanity is typically hanging by a very thin thread, and your toddler hasn’t even heard your request once. Good luck tapping into your inner peace and patience at that point without a Valium…

Talking in a quieter voice can be effective when getting toddlers to listen

When your toddler refuses to listen, your first instinct may be to repeat the instructions more loudly, possibly even yelling. Fight that instinct. Instead, remain calm and possibly even lower your voice. 

Believe me, as someone whose natural tendency is to yell, this does not come easily to me, but it works. Keeping your voice quiet encourages your toddler to listen more closely.

They naturally have to focus more on your words. It makes sense when you think about it. Which captures your focus more: a loud yell or a serial-killer-like whisper?

If this doesn’t work, you should still resist the urge to yell. Instead, see the previous section and move closer to your child. Get close enough that you can be certain your child hears your instructions and repeat them.

If that still doesn’t work, move onto the next step, which is to scream and cry like a lunatic (just kidding). 

If your toddler still refuses to listen, intervene physically

Let me be up front: physical intervention does not mean an old-fashioned butt-whooping (though many of us born pre-1990ish have certainly been on the receiving end of one). It actually means getting your toddler to listen and obey by physically prompting them, hand over hand, to follow your directions. 

If you’ve given clear, calm, and direct instructions, but your toddler is still not listening, take them by the hand and help them do what you’ve asked.

For example, if you asked your toddler to start cleaning up and they still aren’t, help their hands start picking up toys. Typically, once your toddler gets started on doing what they should, the momentum will keep them going on their own.

Of course, if they continue to resist, tough cookies.

Cleaning up toys still needs to happen. At that point, you may need to continue physically assisting them with clean-up until the job is done. You certainly can’t pick every battle with a toddler, but outright refusing to listen is definitely a battle you should fight.

Keep your instructions short and sweet if your toddler refuses to listen

Toddlers have notoriously short attention spans, especially for something they don’t really want to hear (like your directions, you kill-joy).

Resist the urge to give a long, drawn-out explanation. The more brief you can keep your instructions, the more likely your toddler is to hear them all.

Naturally, the more of your instructions your toddler absorbs, the more he or she is likely to heed. 

Don’t get me wrong: it’s entirely possible that you give super short, perfectly direct instructions and your toddler still essentially flips you the bird by doing the exact opposite of your request.

Still, when you keep the instructions brief and manageable, you’re at least stacking the odds in your favor.

Make sure your expectations for toddler listening are reasonable

It’s great to have high expectations for behavior — children will often rise to meet them.

However, it’s important to make sure that those “high” expectations are developmentally appropriate. Expecting your toddler to listen and obey every time is not reasonable (but hey, a parent can dream).

Unrealistic expectations set up your toddler for failure and you for disappointment (and possibly a drinking problem).

Perhaps your toddler isn’t refusing to listen so much as he or she doesn’t actually know how to listen. Like walking and butt-wiping, listening is a learned skill for children.  If your toddler doesn’t listen, the good news is, that’s completely normal. But, here are some tricks to try.

Model good listening for your toddler

I love my kids and, for the most part, enjoy hearing what they have to say. Still, they just have SO MANY WORDS!

I’m as guilty as anyone of half-a$$ing my listening by thinking about something else or typing away on my phone.

However, this really isn’t the model you want to set for your kids.

If your toddler is not listening, you may want to make sure you’re modeling what appropriate listening actually looks like (ceasing outside activities, making eye contact, listening until the end of the conversation, etc.).

Perhaps your toddler isn’t refusing to listen so much as he or she doesn’t actually know how to listen. Like walking and butt-wiping, listening is a learned skill for children.

If your toddler doesn’t listen, the good news is, that’s completely normal.

Non-compliance is a part of toddlerhood. It’s also probably good preparation for you for the teenage years (when you can rest assured that yes, your teen heard you, and yes, they deliberately ignored you).

Fortunately, like all things parenting, toddler disobedience is just a stage. Follow these tips and, hopefully, it’s a stage that will be short-lived!

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