Getting your toddler to listen

Toddlers are just like everyone – they don’t always listen. But they are still young so you need to teach them how to listen. “But what often happens,” says Roni Leiderman, associate dean of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, “is that parents say something ten times, then they start counting down to punishment. What this does is actually condition the child not to listen until the tenth time.” Your child knows that he is getting your attention when he is not listening (although constant nagging isn’t the best way of getting it).

When your child is a good listener it will help him to learn more effectively, obey warnings, get along better with you and everybody, and make better friends.

There are a lot of ways to teach toddlers the skills of how to become a good listener. And, as Leiderman points out, “It’s never too early to begin teaching your child. A toddler may not listen as well as a 5-year-old, but she still has lots of these skills.”


1. Get on his level
What every parent probably has experienced is that roaring from a distance (for example from another room) seldom has the desired effect. It’s more efficient to squat down next to your child or to pick up your child, so you can look him in the eye and get his full attention.

Eye contact is crucial and works the best when you’re face-to-face with your child. For example: Your child will listen better when you take a seat next to him at the table when reminding him to eat up his cornflakes, or when you sit next to him on his bed when he has to go to sleep and you are telling him that you are going to turn off the light.

2. Be clear
Your message must be simple and clear. Your toddler will lose his concentration when you nag on a topic too long. For instance, when you say: “It’s freezing outside, and you’ve just been sick, so I want you to put on your scarf before we go to the mall.” it’s too hard to find the point of this message for your child. You got to keep it short and simple and say something as “Put on a scarf when we go outside”. This is much more effective and clear for your child.

Another thing you shouldn’t do is asking your child to do something when it isn’t a question but a command. Make a statement. “You gave to climb into your car seat now” has much more impact than “We want to leave, come and climb into your car seat, okay, honey?”

Of course it’s good to give your toddler choices, and let him take decisions by himself. Make sure that you are satisfied with the options you are giving your child, and stick with a maximum of two. When your toddler has the feeling that he is making his own decision it will make him feel empowered, and you will be pleased with the result.

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3. Follow through — quickly
Be clear in what you say, mean it and don’t make threats or promises you won’t keep. If you tell your toddler, “You need to drink milk during dinner,” don’t give in a few minutes later and let him have juice instead. Stick to your principles!

Be sure that you and your partner share the same rules and that you both respect them. And if there’s a disagreement, talk it through (when your child is not there with you) so you’re both clear about what needs to be said or done when your toddler does something.

It is also very important for your child to know when something is dangerous and when not. It’s up to you to demonstrate how to safely approach such a situation. For example, when your child wants to cross the street, always hold his hand, that way he will associate the danger of cars with vigilant and careful.

Don’t make the mistake of constantly have to repeat less urgent instructions, such as “Wash your hands” over and over again. When your child does not obey, help your child by guiding his hand to the sink so he knows what is expected of him.

4. Reinforce your message
Many times it helps to support your verbal statement with some other directions. Say “Time to go to bed!” and then give a visual indication (like clicking the light switch), a physical indication (like placing your hand on her shoulder to get her attention away from her toy she is playing with), and a real demonstration (like guiding her toward her bed, pulling down the covers, and patting the pillow).

5. Give warnings
Let your child know in advance when something big is going to happen, especially when he’s very happy in what he is doing. For example when you’re almost ready to go to the supermarket, prepare your child by saying something like “Just a few minutes and then we are going to the supermarket. When I call you, it’s time to put on your shoes.”

6. Give realistic instructions – and make them fun
If you command a toddler to clean up her toys she will look around the room and don’t know where to start. Give realistic tasks, such as “Let’s start to put the green blocks away.” Then you can make a game of it “Well done, now let’s put the red blocks away.” This will be much more effective.

7. Motivate
Roaring orders may work with some children, but no one will like it. Most children will react best when you treat them with confident good humor. Maybe you could sometimes use a silly voice or a song to say what you want to say. You will see that a child will react much better on this.

Emphasize the benefits of good listening.”Brush your teeth and then you can pick out your favorite pajamas” instead of “If you don’t brush your teeth or you’ll get cavities” or “Brush your teeth now!” Commend him when he has listened and his teeth are brushed with something like “Well done!”

If you approach your child with good humor, affection and trust he will want to listen to you because he knows you love him and that he is special. This is an important aspect of the strategies that even firmness required.

Giving clear, authoritative instruction does not mean you have to look angry, such instructions are often when accompanied by a hug or a smile. In this way your child will learn that listening to you is worthwhile.

8. Model good behavior
When toddlers see that you are a good listener, they will copy this and also become a good listener. Make it a custom to listen to your child in the same respectful way as you would listen to an adult. Watch her when she talks to you, respond civilly, and let her finish her story without any interruption.

It may be hard to listen to your toddler when you’re busy preparing dinner, but try not to walk away from her or turn your back towards her while she’s telling her story to you. As with so many other behaviors, the old advice “Do as I say, not as I do” has no value when teaching your children to listen.

9. Catch your child being good
If you think about it, would you want to listen to someone (like for example, your boss) who only gives you negative guidance? No, of course not. The same goes for your child. Your child is more likely to listen to you when you give him positive feedback. “Well done, you put your toys away right after I asked you to” or “You were very nice to your brother. I’m proud of you!” Make sure you give your toddler plenty of positive guidance and he’ll be less likely to tune you out when you reproves him.

2 thoughts on “Getting your toddler to listen

  1. karen

    I really enjoyed this article and would love to see more parenting tip examples.


  2. Kate

    Great article summarizing all the main aspects of getting your toddler to listen. I wouldn’t be able to formulate all of them myself. But when you read them, they all make sense and I’m nodding while reading, I’ve been doing a lot of that unconsiencely myself


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