Toddlers can be delightful, but their inability to listen can be profoundly frustrating for a worn out parent. So what is the best way to manage your little one when they simply don’t seem to be paying any attention to what you’re saying?
- Remember what you are dealing with. As clinical psychologist Joanna Elliot wisely points out, parents must remember toddlers have a very short attention span at this age. “Their brain is not fully developed and as such their capacity to maintain focus is limited. They usually have limited language skills and this makes it hard for them as well.”
- Always call them by name rather than simply giving them instructions. It is far more effective for a toddler when you say: “Kate put your coat on please” than simply “Put your coat on.” It reinforces the importance of the instruction.
- Make eye contact. This is crucial. As well as ensuring you have their physical attention, you can create a meaningful connection with them. It will show your toddler that you are interested in engaging with them and reinforce the meaning of what it is you are saying to them.
- Get down to their level. Elliot advocates that parents must do this frequently with toddlers. Not only does it enable you to see the world from their perspective, but as Elliot says: “This helps both parent and child in developing a bond and trust with each other, which makes the child far more likely to listen to what it is the adult is telling them.”
- Move them away from distractions. Adults are quite good as disregarding background distractions whereas toddlers are not. As Elliot points out: “The frontal lobe of the toddler is still developing and this means they will have a very short attention span.” Therefore, if you want their attention, move them away from things like the television or the other children nearby.
- Reinforce pro social behavior. Essentially this means when you want them to stop doing something, also make it clear what is you want them to do instead. For instance, if they’re hitting a sibling it is more effective to say: “James, stop hitting your brother. Keep your hands to yourself!” Children will usually respond far better to what they must do, rather than negative demands.
- Given the fact that toddlers have limited vocabulary, it is really helpful to get them to repeat your instructions back to you. This will ensure that you know they have heard you and also help you ascertain if they have understood it. So once you have issued a request or instruction simply say: “What did I say?” and get them to repeat it back to you.
- Elliot advocates the 1,2,3 magic as a very effective method, as consequences for not listening need to be: "quick, short and relevant at the time the incident has occurred when it comes to toddlers." This is based on the 1,2,3 Magic from Dr Phelan. This is how it works:
- Explain the plan before you begin that you will be counting and if they don’t listen there will be a consequence.
- Give your toddler an instruction. If they refuse or don’t comply you say: “That’s one, three will be a time out” (or whatever consequence you have decided on.
- If they still refuse, say “that’s two”
- You have the option to repeat the instruction, but if they still don’t comply, then you carry out the consequence, whether it is removing the toy they were playing with, or ending the play date.
- If you are placing the child in time-out, the rule of thumb is one minute for each year of their age.
- Clearly if the child is engaged in destructive behaviour, such as hitting someone then this method isn’t going to be needed as you will need to intervene immediately.
- Avoid long explanations. If you have disciplined your child then there is no need to spend a long time discussing it or explaining why you did so. They don’t have the language skills and they won’t recall exactly what they did anyway.
- Remain calm. This can be a challenge at the best of times, but it is important that your child feels that you are in control of the situation. At an age where toddlers are learning their place in the world it is important to modify your parenting to where your child is developmentally. Keeping calm when they don’t seem to be paying attention is an important way of modeling positive behaviour to your child.
Getting your toddler to listen can be a challenging task for parents. But by implementing positive parenting strategies and setting the tone you are able to reduce the frustrations levels you will sometimes feel. You are also paving the way for them to learn and flourish using skills that will empower you as a parent.
Last Published* December, 2022
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.