5 Tips for How to Get a Toddler to Listen + Cooperate

Few things in life will test your patience like a toddler with a mind of their own. Many parents struggle with getting their kids to listen, and it often causes a great deal of stress. If you’re like most, you’ve tried everything from the calm and deliberate approach to the frazzled raised voice and threats of screen time loss. Toddlers are an obstinate bunch and it can be difficult to get through to them, especially without yelling or tears (yours or theirs!). Luckily, the experts at Positive Parenting Solutions have developed tactics that truly work, based on what we know about childhood brain development and toddler psychology. Here are some tips for how to get your toddler to listen to you and put the power struggle to rest.

How to Get a Toddler to Listen + Cooperate

First, it’s important to take a moment to understand why children have such a difficult time listening. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of psychology around this behavior. Kids’ brains are actually hard-wired to seek control. Think about it: most of their lives are completely controlled by adults, from what they wear to the foods they eat, so choosing not to listen is a way that toddlers are asserting their power.

Here’s where things get tricky because we want our children to learn to assert themselves and to develop independence and identities that are separate from us. So, it’s a matter of balancing their need for control with our own need to set boundaries as parents. The following tactics have been developed with all of this in mind. So, the next time you’re struggling with your toddler, here are five time-tested approaches designed to help you get them to finally listen.

Get Down on Your Child’s Level

Getting a toddler to listen requires something that can be even more elusive ”“ their undivided attention. The best way to get this attention is through eye contact. When you physically lower yourself down to your child’s level, you can hold their gaze and ensure they truly hear and understand you. This type of communication is much more impactful than hollering across the room or giving a command while your back is turned at the stove. You will be shocked at how your little one pays attention when you are on their level. 

Eliminate “Don’t” When Trying to Get Your Toddler to Listen

More often than not, we find ourselves telling our toddlers what NOT to do. As it turns out, our phraseology is actually making it more difficult for them to comprehend. Negative requests and commands require toddlers to double-process. That is, they first have to determine what we want them to stop doing, then figure out what we want them to do instead. By eliminating “don’t” from your vocabulary and focusing your commands on what you DO want your kids to do, you simplify it for their developing brains.

Here’s an example:

“Don’t leave your toys all over the floor” becomes “Put your toys in the toy bin.”

Look for Reasons to Say YES

Toddlers ask for things hundreds of times each day, and most parents have the knee-jerk reaction to say “no.” However, this reaction doesn’t typically get our toddler to listen to us without a tantrum. 

No, you can’t ride the dog.

No, you can’t eat fruit snacks for breakfast.

Again No, you can’t finger paint in your Sunday best.

This doesn’t make us bad parents, it’s truly difficult to respond to all of these requests in a meaningful way day after day. Plus, there are many times when we are completely justified in our ”˜no’ answers. However, because our children are hearing our canned ”˜no’ responses over and over, they begin to tune us out. For this reason, it’s important to look for opportunities to say ”˜yes’ to their requests.

Now, this doesn’t mean giving in to everything your toddler wants but instead reasoning with them and choosing battles. The truth is, even if you just rephrase your “not right now” responses, you can change how the response feels to your child.

Consider this example:

“Mom, can I have ice cream?”

“Not right now” becomes “Sure! Do you want it for dessert on Friday or Saturday?”

You’ve still accomplished your goal of not feeding your child ice cream, but this feels like a win to your toddler, too. Not only did he get a positive response, but you also gave him a choice to offer him even more control in the situation. Part of getting your toddler to listen to you is listening to them as well. 

Try the ”˜Teach Back” Method

A major facet of getting your toddler to listen is ensuring she understands what you’re asking her to do. Comprehension is often the missing piece when it comes to getting a toddler to listen. You can overcome it by asking your child to repeat what you just said.

This “teach back” method is commonly used by doctors to ensure adult patients understand their orders. Studies have shown that 40-80 percent of the information doctors relay to patients is either immediately forgotten or completely misunderstood. If adults have this much difficulty with comprehension, imagine how it is for toddlers.

Stop Counting 1-2-3 to Get Your Toddler to Listen

We’re all guilty of using this common counting tactic to get our children to do what we’re asking. It typically goes something like this: you ask, they ignore; you ask again, they ignore again; you start counting and your child finally acts when you get to ”˜3.’ This tactic clearly works, right?

Actually, the opposite is true because counting teaches our kids that they get multiple chances to listen. We are virtually ensuring that they will never listen the first time. I know it’s tempting to use this tactic when you are in the moment. However, do yourself a favor and discontinue counting in order to save yourself more stress in the future. Instead, employ one of the four strategies above.

How to Get Your Toddler to Listen- Tips in Practice

It’s easy to get frustrated with our toddlers when they aren’t listening. BUT it’s important to remain calm and remember that they aren’t necessarily being defiant. They are simply looking to assert their power, as is developmentally appropriate for their age. When you think of it in this way, it’s easier to remain calm and to use one or more of the tactics described above.

Parenting is hard, and parenting toddlers is a special kind of challenge. As you navigate this challenging time in your child’s development, you can learn more and find support at Positive Parenting Solutions. We wish you the best of luck getting your toddler to listen! Remember every day is a new chance to start again on a positive note.

Find More Parenting Tips Here:

Embracing a Compassionate Discipline Mindset

5 tips for dealing with a toddler who won’t stay in bed! -18 Month Sleep Regression

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