Updated: Sep 10, 2019
Have you ever wondered, "Why won't my child listen?" Do you find yourself losing your patience after repeating directions again and again?
For children who are in the toddler and preschool age they are learning to assert their independence. For them the world is exciting to explore and discover. So you may find that after giving a direction they are still engaged in what they are doing and may not respond.
It is common for children in the early years to be distracted with their world of play as this is their most important job as they grow. They also like to assert their independence to show they can do things on their own. When my son was growing he would commonly say, "Me do it!" and he would love to try everything from putting on his shoes to pouring his own juice.
If you are going through the two year old stage you have probably experienced your child saying "No." to you at least once and most likely it has been 20 times or more. This is common for all children who are going through that stage of development! Fortunately, we can help them assert their independence and help them listen as they are going through this stage by focusing on the 7 key areas below.
Give Choices to Encourage Compliance and Avoid Power Struggles
When we allow choice instead of a direction without a choice children are more likely to choose one and comply with your directions. This allows parents to give a choice which gives children a chance to make decisions and parents can avoid a power struggle. If children are highly motivated by an activity and you can see that it may be difficult to pull them away from so much fun you can give a warning before transitioning to the next activity. When the warning is up you can offer a choice for the next preferred activity such as would you like to have peanut butter and jelly or a ham sandwich for lunch? That way the child knows what is coming next in their routine and can also make an age appropriate decision based on your choices for lunch.
Break Down the Directions into Smaller Parts
Children in the early years are still developing their listening skills and a two and three step direction can be more challenging for them. When you add a hungry or tired child it can be hard for them to comprehend when they are thinking about being hungry so comprehension and compliance can be more difficult. In the evening you may say, "First put your toys away and then we will pick out our story for bed time."
You can also break down big tasks such as clean up into smaller parts so the child is not overwhelmed. For example, you may say "Mommy can pick up the blocks while you pick up your books."
Get Down at their Level to Give a Direction
Sometimes we may think that we are speaking clearly from the kitchen, however young children often may tune out a yelling voice and directions giving too far away. Young toddler and preschool can easily be distracted playing toys so they can miss the first direction.
It's important to get down on your child's level, gain attention first and eye contact and a gentle touch to help with compliance. When possible show them what they are to do.
Give Good Commands with Fewer Words
When asking a child to do something saying "Please" in a respectful tone and using a few words can help them understand what to do. When giving a command try to make sure your voice stays calm, speaking in a low voice and keeping your facial expressions neutral. Children can pick up on frustrated, angry, or overly excited tones and this may cause them fear or excitement themselves and they may not understand the direction.
Try Giving Yourself and Your Toddler Extra Time
Children take a bit longer to complete tasks and taking time to provide a relaxed environment can help children process and understand directions without being rushed or adding stress on them and you. So have you noticed when you are anxious or in a rush in the mornings how your morning goes? Children often can sense your feelings and some children are known to avoid angry protests or shouting directions by going the opposite direction. They may even refuse to do what you need done. So giving yourself plenty of time before you go somewhere can help your stress level and give your toddler time to process your directions easier and develop their self control. It takes time for children to put their shoes on correctly and practice putting on their coat so giving yourself time can help them focus on the tasks you want them to learn.
Give Positive Praise
This one can be very powerful. You may wonder, "Why should I praise my child for doing what she should just do?" or "Won't I spoil him/her if I praise them? Praising a child for what they are doing well teaches them what you expect from them. It is so much easier to spend time praising for behaviors you want to see, than resorting to reacting by yelling or punishing after they have done something you do not like. So each day you can catch them being good, focus on how well they did listen to your directions throughout the day and thank them for listening to your direction. This teaches them that listening is important to you and you notice when they listen!
Listen to Them
As parents we may feel we are always listening and that is great because this can be one of the easiest ways to teach them how to listen. When you model listening to them you are modeling respect for the questions they ask and the funny things they say! So taking the time to listen by respecting their thoughts, feelings, and answering their questions they will be able to understand what it's like to be listened to. They in turn want to listen to your directions.
If on the other hand you disregard their conversations telling them you are busy or we have to get going then they learn what it's like to go unheard.
When you are have conversations with them and listen when they are this young you are starting the building blocks of developing open communication. It can be very helpful when they become a teenager because they will know they can come to you with anything.
We are human and so of course we are going to make mistakes as parents! There are no perfect parents and on this journey of motherhood it can be exhausting and overwhelming. However, there are those moments when they snuggle up for stories, give hugs and kisses, and say the funniest things that make parenthood the best and most important job in the world!