Dealing with a toddler not listening to what you ask him to do is challenging even for the most patient mom. The defiance triggers raw anger you never knew you had, and you wonder what it'll finally take to get him to listen. No matter how frustrated you get or the threats you make, nothing seems to get him to cooperate. Later, you feel terrible when you realize how petty the initial "argument" had been: talking when he should've been napping, refusing to clean up after himself, not coming to the bathroom as you asked him to. You know something has to change, especially when nagging, repeating, and losing your temper aren't working.
It was around this time when I learned an important lesson in what discipline means. A mindset shift changed my outlook about my toddler's behaviour: you see, most people think of discipline as punishment or time outs—the consequences that happen when children don't do as they're told. But discipline is something different. Discipline is teaching. We're teaching children how to behave and helping them understand and express their emotions.
For many mothers, doling out effective discipline is one of the toughest and most frustrating parenting tasks, a seemingly never-ending test of wills between you and your child. Because just when your 2-year-old "gets" that she can't thump her baby brother in the head with a doll, she'll latch on to another annoying behaviour —and the process starts anew.
How exactly does one "discipline" a toddler? Some people equate it with spanking and punishment, but that's not what we're talking about. As many parenting experts see it, discipline is about setting rules to stop your little one from engaging in behaviour that's aggressive (hitting and biting), dangerous (running out in the street), and inappropriate (throwing food). It's also about following through with consequences when he breaks the rules—or what Linda Pearson, a Denver-based psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in family and parent counselling, calls "being a good boss." Here are seven strategies that can help you set limits and stop bad behaviour.
Get down to your toddler's level and make eye contact.
Seeing the situation from your toddler's point of view can take a literal meaning. One of the simplest ways to better communicate is to get down to his eye level when you speak to him. Doing this has three benefits:
- He'll take you seriously. It's frustrating when you're trying to be serious, except he thinks the whole thing is funny. Get down to his level, make eye contact, and phrase your instructions in a calm but firm tone.
- You're more respectful. He can feel "talked down to" when you're physically speaking to him from high above. Kneeling to his level forces you to communicate more respectfully and address his needs.
- You avoid power struggles. He feels heard, less defensive, and more likely to oblige when he can see and talk to you eye-to-eye.
Find your toddler's intentions.
Defiance seems to be everywhere. You see it when your toddler refuses to come to the table to eat or when he should know better by now not to jump on the bed (especially after you've asked him to stop many times before).
But if I had to guess, he's not misbehaving to make you angry. Go further, and you might see that he was trying to fix a toy right when you asked him to come to the table to eat. Likewise, jumping on the bed wasn't rebellion but excitement over his new toddler bed.
Give and follow through with consequences.
Have you ever told your toddler he'd better behave or else? Not only are false threats ineffective, but they're also rarely implemented. Consequences that tie to his behaviour are learning experiences, so long as you follow through. Putting your foot down establishes the limits he needs.
And keeping your word reinforces the trust he places on you. While you may not win short-term favour, you're gaining his confidence when you follow through consistently. Otherwise, he learns he can continue to misbehave because the consequences you claim will never happen do.
Pick your battles
Spending time with your toddler can feel draining, but more so when every interaction leads to a fight. You watch him like a hawk, ready to correct at the first sign of misbehaviour. Sometimes, you need to pick your battles and decide which behaviour is critical to fix and which ones aren't as important. But, of course, not everything has to be a battle. While consistency is key, you also need to allow for flexibility and make room for the nuances of life.
Give your toddler a choice.
Giving choices can curb a potential meltdown and encourage your toddler to listen. How? Offering choices:
- Encourages him to own the task. Putting on a jacket won't seem like Mom's Terrible Idea I Must Rebel Against. Instead, he gets to decide between a green or grey jacket.
- Reduces conflict. Avoid many tantrums by drawing attention to the choices he can make, not the task he's resisting.
- Feels empowering. He's under the rule of adult decisions nearly all the time, whereas making choices allows him to voice his opinions. He'll embrace his choices and follow through with them.
- It shows you value his opinions. You make most decisions for him, but you also offer options because you care and respect his decisions.
- It helps him think for himself. Giving choices allows him to assert himself and develop critical thinking skills. He'll hold himself accountable and decide which option he'd rather do.
Explain the reason
Researchers ran a study where a woman could cut in line to make copies simply by saying "because." It turns out. People are more likely to comply when they have a reason.
The same is true with your toddler. In a world dominated by adults, he can feel resentful being told what to do all the time. Imagine following rules you don't always understand or doing things you don't feel like doing.
Rather than hearing what to do or not do, he'll be more motivated to comply, knowing why he should. The next time you ask him to do something, follow with a reason: "Don't jump on the bed—you might fall and hurt yourself." Giving a reason takes you out of the equation and focuses on the task that needs to be done. You're not the "mean mom" who bosses him around just because you can. Instead, you're letting him know why he needs to do what you asked him to. With the reason front and centre, you won't sound bossy, especially when your words carry a respectful tone as you explain the reason behind your request.
Praise your toddler when she does what she's asked to
Kids thrive on attention, whether good or bad. Unfortunately, arguments, yelling, and scolding is types of attention they'd rather have than none at all. The best way to counter misbehaviour is to praise your toddler and give her attention when she is behaving.
Deep down, kids want to please their parents. They want our approval and are crushed when we're disappointed or angry with them. So use that to your advantage and praise her when she behaves well.
Don't "ask" the instruction.
Maybe you've pleaded with your toddler, whether it's to take a bath, to behave, or to finish some chore. If I had to guess, he shrugged it off and turned you out. Avoid "asking" the instruction or negotiating when you can't. When you say it's time to take a bath, ensure you're not ignored or met with silence. Don't let him continue to play with video games or tinker with toys.
Sometimes you can pick your battles and meet him halfway. For others, you need to stand your ground. Instead of "asking" him to do something ("Can you put on your shoes?"), state the task in unavoidable terms ("Let's put on your shoes").
Use positive language
Positive language means phrasing your words in something your toddler can do, not something he can't. It's the difference between "Walk" and "Don't run." Better yet, praise him with positive language when you catch him doing good. For example, let's say he isn't running off in public. Praise him and say, "Look at you walking!"
He'll respond better to positive language because no one likes being told what not to do. Plus, he'll also believe he can behave and do well. When you say things like, "Don't you even think about…" you're not showing faith that he could handle these instructions.
Don't give empty threats.
Saying empty threats or wild statements weakens your authority. For example, "If you don't pick up your toys, I'm going to throw them all out!" bears little weight when the story seems so outrageous. (Unless, of course, you follow through with it.) You might also resort to unfair generalizations. For instance, you might tell your toddler, "You never listen to what I say," or "You always misbehave." These phrases not only label him instead of the action, but they're also untrue (he doesn't always behave this way, 24/7).
Talk after the tantrum has finished.
Kids are past the point of logic once they've begun a tantrum. It's similar to how we feel during road rage—no point talking to us during one of those episodes. Instead, wait for the tantrum to subside. Then, pull your toddler in for a hug and empathize with his emotions. Be there through his outbursts and allow him to settle down.
Once he's calm, only then can you talk and expect him to listen and process what you're saying.
Listen to your toddler.
How often have you not listened to your toddler when he wants your attention? My kids can be clawing for my attention, but my mind is wondering whether I have enough basil to make pesto. My usual response, then? "Uh-huh…" as I feign listening to their stories.
Not exactly on my A-game there. Listen when he talks. Yes, his stories can get incessant and make no sense half the time, or you'd rather be doing something productive or relaxing. But listening to him builds a strong bond and earns his trust and love. And above all, listening is respectful. We can only expect to be treated the way we treat others, right?
Know Your Child's Triggers
Some misbehaviour is preventable—as long as you can anticipate what will spark it and create a game plan in advance, such as removing tangible temptations. This strategy worked for Jean Nelson of Pasadena, California, after her 2-year-old son took delight in dragging toilet paper down the hall, giggling as the roll unfurled behind him. "The first two times Luke did it, I told him, 'No,' but when he did it a third time, I moved the toilet paper to a high shelf in the bathroom that he couldn't reach," Nelson says. "For a toddler, pulling toilet paper is irresistible fun. It was easier to take it out of his way than to fight about it."
If your 18-month-old is prone to grabbing cans off grocery store shelves, bring toys for him to play within the cart while you're shopping. If your 2-year-old doesn't share her stuffed animals during playdates at home, remove them from the designated play area before her pal arrives. And if your 3-year-old likes to draw on the walls, stash the crayons in an out-of-reach drawer and don't let him colour without supervision.
Some children act out when they're hungry, overtired, or frustrated from being cooped up inside. Suppose your child tends to be happy and energetic in the morning but is tired and grumpy after lunch. Schedule trips to the store and visits to the doctor for when she's at her best. Prepare her for any new experiences, and explain how you expect her to act.
Also, prepare her for shifting activities: "In a few minutes, we'll need to pick up the toys and get ready to go home." The better prepared a child feels, the less likely she is to make a fuss.
"Between the ages of 2 and 3, children are working hard to understand how their behaviour impacts the people around them," says Claire Lerner, LCSW, director of parenting resources with Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting healthy development of babies and toddlers. "If your reaction to a situation keeps changing—one day you let your son throw a ball in the house and the next you don't—you'll confuse him with mixed signals."
There's no timetable for how many incidents and reprimands it will take before your child stops certain misbehaviour. But if you always respond the same way, he'll probably learn his lesson after four or five times. Consistency was key for Orly Isaacson of Bethesda, Maryland when her 18-month-old went through a biting phase. Each time Sasha chomped on Isaacson's finger, she used a louder-than-usual voice to correct her—"No, Sasha! Don't bite! That hurts Mommy!"—and then handed her a toy as a distraction. "I'm very low-key, so raising my voice startled Sasha and got the message across fast," she says. A caveat: by age 2, many kids learn how to make their parents lose resolve just by being cute. Don't let your child's tactics sway you—no matter how cute (or clever) they are.
Don't Get Emotional
Sure, it's hard to stay calm when your 18-month-old yanks the dog's tail or your 3-year-old refuses to brush his teeth for the gazillionth night in a row. But if you scream in anger, the message you're trying to send will get lost, and the situation will escalate fast.
When a child is flooded with a parent's negative mood, he'll see the emotion and won't hear what you're saying. Indeed, an angry reaction will only enhance the entertainment value for your child, so resist the urge to raise your voice. Instead, take a deep breath, count to three, and get down to your child's eye level. Then, be fast and firm, serious and stern when you deliver the reprimand.
Trade in the goal of "controlling your child" for "controlling the situation. This may mean re-adjusting your ideas of what is possible for a time until your daughter's self-discipline has a chance to grow a little more. You may need to lower your expectations of her patience and her self-control somewhat. If your goal is to keep the day going smoothly so that there are fewer opportunities for you both to feel frustrated, that would be a constructive direction.
Don't view discipline as punishment
Discipline may feel as though you're punishing your kids. However, discipline is more of a means of actively engaging with kids to help mould their moral character — a way to teach them right from wrong. And this is a skill that is vital to functioning in society.
It's one thing when your toddler throws a tantrum or hits his brother, and another when he flat out disobeys you. Encourage him to listen by acknowledging his emotions and intentions. Get down to his eye level and calmly but firmly explain what he needs to do. Explain why, and even give parent-approved choices of how to do so.
Pick your battles to avoid power struggles and help him "save face." Follow through with consequences, and praise him when he does what you asked him to. All those moments of positive reinforcement are much more effective in the long run. And yes, you'll have off days, like everything with parenting. He might behave one moment, only to deliberately disobey once again. There's no magic bullet—we're all human and prone to bad days, including kids.
But discipline isn't about being strict or doling out punishments. Instead, it's teaching him to behave, manage emotions and cope with difficult situations. Discipline with the intention of helping him learn from the experience—even as he sits and smiles, refusing to place the toy cars back in the box.
If she doesn't listen, take her to the quiet and safe spot you've designated for time-outs, and set a timer. When it goes off, ask her to apologize and give her a big hug to convey that you're not angry.
Luke adds that "the most psychologically damaging thing you can say to a child is a lie that they find out later was not true. If this pattern repeats enough times, it will be very psychologically damaging."
Disobedience can have a variety of causes. At times, it is due to unreasonable parental expectations. Or it might be related to the child's temperament, or to school problems, family stress, or conflicts between his parents.