12 Best Ways on How to Get a Toddler to Listen in 2024
3 year old not listening
Are you struggling with how to get a toddler to listen?
It can feel quite exasperating.
As a middle school teacher with a two year old and a four year old, I see LOTS of similarities between an 8th grader and a toddler:
- Both age groups have attitude.
- Both want their freedom but also need clear expectations.
- Both like to push limits and want to know they have a safe place to lose control if needed.
- Both are ego centric (“It’s all about me”…”I can do it myself”…).
- Feelings are easily hurt.
- Both need lots of reassurance.
- Both play hard and sleep hard.
Most importantly, both age groups need our unconditional love, support, and acceptance. They need to know we are a safe place and are always there for them to nurture, guide, and teach.
I am not an early childhood expert, but I have read a ton of parenting books. You can check out my favorite ones in The Top 10 Best Books for New Parents.
Through the literature I have read and the parent newsletters and forums I participate in (and through personal trial and error with my own littles), I have developed a list of my most favorite strategies for how to get a toddler to listen.
I of course sometimes lose my temper and wish I would have done things differently. When that happens, I remind myself of the below tips.
Whenever I go through them, there will be one that works great depending on the situation I am in. They are a culmination of tips and tricks that are great to keep in your back pocket.
What I love most about these strategies is that they get your toddler to listen in a way that helps you deepen and strengthen your relationship with your child; they are tips that give the respect, dignity, and love that they absolutely deserve.
12 Best Ways on How to Get a Toddler to Listen
Learning how to listen is a skill. All skills require practice and take time to master. As parents, we need to provide ample opportunities for our children to practice listening and to do so in a patient, loving way so that they may thrive.
1. Count to TEN in your HEAD.
This is my most favorite suggestion I have read in a few parenting books.
I learned that young, developing minds need extra time to process what it is we are saying.
Adults often expect immediate results to the directives we give. But often times, we just need to slow down and wait.
For example, if I say, “It’s time to get out of the tub. Please stand up,” I then count silently in my head, “1, 2, 3….” By the time I get to 8, I see my daughter standing up and listening.
10 seconds is a long time! It’s hard not to jump to, “Stand up! Come on! I said stand up!” Try counting to 10 and you’ll be amazed!
If you DO count to 10 and your toddler is not listening, think about what it is that you are saying, which leads me to the next suggestion.
2. Keep sentences SHORT.
This is one of my most favorite things I have read in multiple parenting books. Adults are often too wordy.
Short and sweet sentences are best for developing little brains. With toddlers’ limited vocabulary knowledge, less is best when wanting them to listen and actually absorb what you are saying.
Have your directions be clear and to the point.
For example, if it is time to leave and your toddler does not have his shoes on, don’t say, “Go get your shoes.” He may not know where his shoes are or even realize his shoes are kept in the entryway closet, etc.
And he may not know how to articulate, “I don’t know where my shoes are,” and will instead just not do your directive.
This can be interpreted as him not listening to you when really he just needs more guidance but doesn’t know how to ask yet.
Instead say, “Go to the closet and bring me the shoes you want to wear.” 2 step directions (max) is easiest to absorb.
Notice how the direction of “bring me the shoes you want to wear” is a choice. That leads me to the next suggestion I’ve read and love.
3. Offer choices.
Toddlers are discovering their independence and want to feel in control (as we all do). Offer them choices whenever possible.
In the example above, the child gets to choose which shoes to wear. When children get to participate in the instruction, they are more willing to listen.
Let them pick where they want to brush their teeth, which pajamas they want to wear, etc.
When I am tired after a long day and I am rushing to get things done still, my choices look like this, “You can choose to walk to the bathroom or choose to have me carry you.”
I then count backwards from 3 to 1 out loud, and my children know that by the time I get to 1, I will be picking them up to go the bathroom. So they easily oblige and walk themselves. Follow-through is key.
4. Make it fun!
Who doesn’t want to do something that is fun?!
To get your child to leave somewhere, suggest racing to the front door. Or, maybe you two can hop like bunnies to the bathroom or jump like frogs. The more creative, the better!
I remember my daughter went through a phase where she didn’t want to brush teeth. It was becoming a battle.
One night I randomly had the idea to say to her, “Do you think you can have your teeth brushed even if your eyes are closed?”
My daughter got so excited over the “challenge”. She quickly shut her eyes, opened her mouth, let me brush, and then shouted, “Dad! Look! Mom’s brushing my teeth with my eyes closed!”
Speak in a funny voice….Have a stuffed animal whisper in your ear what to do…
My son lost it laughing the other night when I pretended to have his toothbrush tell me my son’s teeth were dirty and that he really wanted to clean them.
Putting the responsibility of the task on someone/something else (i.e. the toothbrush), leads me to the next awesome strategy for how to get a toddler to listen.
5. Put the responsibility on a 3rd party.
If your little one is not in the mood to listen to you, get creative and say it’s not you whose directions he/she needs to follow, it’s the____. Fill in the blank with the dentist/a police officer/a teacher etc.
Let me explain…
If I have tried giving choices, making it fun, counting to 10, etc., and one of my toddlers STILL isn’t listening, I use this strategy.
Here are some examples:
One time my son wanted to climb the checkout counter conveyor belt at the grocery store and was flailing his arms and legs, trying to break free to ride the belt.
I mouthed to the cashier woman, “HELP me,” and she said to my son, “We can’t have kids up here. I’m sorry.” He immediately listened, intimidated by a stranger telling him what to do.
Another time my daughter didn’t want to get buckled in her car seat. I said something like, “I wish we could ride unbuckled. That would be fun. But, what if we see a police officer on the road? He will pull us over and tell us to get buckled.”
My daughter replied, “I don’t want to get in trouble with a policeman,” and happily complied to getting buckled.
When either of my children have refused to brush teeth, I have said something like, “I know you don’t feel like brushing teeth. But the dentist told me we have to brush our teeth every night. I want to have good manners and listen to the dentist.”
Putting the authority/responsibility onto someone other than you does wonders for great listening!
6. Do NOT interrupt, when possible.
Let’s say you are in the middle of a really important thought in a work email you are writing, and a coworker comes into your office and just starts talking without letting you finish your thought.
Or, let’s say you are on an important business call and a coworker does the same thing…they just start talking while you’re still listening to the person on the phone.
It would probably really bother you!
Your WORK is equivalent to kids’ PLAY. They are focusing, learning, thinking as they play, just like you do with your work.
If you come in interrupting their train of thought as they are building a tower, etc., they are going to be annoyed and try to tune you out so they can concentrate.
If possible, wait to give them instructions until they are transitioning from one activity to the next. Or, if this is not possible due to time, etc., gently rub their shoulder to cue to them you are there. Politely state your instructions and do it at eye level.
7. Be at eye level.
Communication is A LOT more effective when made with eye contact.
Whenever giving instructions or guidance, squat down and look your little one in the eyes. This conveys the message that what you are saying is important. It also lets you know they are hearing you.
If your toddler is not listening to you, standing big and tall over them probably doesn’t feel good to them and probably won’t solicit vibes of, “I want to listen to you.”
8. Communicate expectations AHEAD of time.
My son absolutely LOVES eating at Costco. Sitting in the food court to eat a slice of pizza or a hot dog is one of his favorite things to do.
The other day, I was on a time crunch and knew we would not be eating in the food court. I knew ahead of time that we were only going to quickly grocery shop, order our pizza slices, and then leave.
I made the biggest mistake by not letting him know my plans BEFORE we arrived. He so excitedly grabbed his pizza slice but then proceeded to throw it on the ground as he realized I was carting him past the food court. As I was pushing the grocery cart, he began climbing out of it.
As I picked him up and held him, he started to scream, kick, bite, writhe his way out of my arms all the way out the door and into our car before tears came (more on what to do in a tantrum further down the article).
Hindsight is 20/20. I felt terrible for not letting my son know ahead of time that we were not going to be able to do his most favorite thing. Would he have still thrown a toddler tantrum if I had?
Maybe. But I bet it would have been a lot smaller. And it would have happened in the privacy of our home instead of in the public of Costco.
I have learned the outbursts and expressions of anger/disappointment are WAY SMALLER if I communicate what is going to happen in advance.
9. Stay calm.
This can be REALLY hard to do sometimes, especially like in my Costco scenario above.
Limits are often pushed. But energy is contagious. If you are in a room with someone who is in a good mood, you naturally feel better.
We have all experienced being in a room with an “energy zapper”, someone who is grumpy, rushed, or negative. It doesn’t feel good.
That’s the same for toddlers. If we stay calm, they will listen better. Think of a time when you were being trained or given a directive by a boss…you receive the information a whole lot easier if the person is calm and friendly versus when they are yelling at you.
When the screaming gets loud, or the defiance is big in my face, I take a deep breath before responding. The big deep breathe helps us pause and think twice before we speak.
In fact, breathing exercises for toddlers are wonderfully effective. If you have a toddler needing help calming down, suggest taking deep breaths together.
When my toddlers start getting worked up, they now say (or yell, ha), “I need a deep breath,” and I get down to their eye level and we breathe together to feel better.
10. Empathize, validate, relate
Who is your most favorite person to vent to? They are probably your favorite because they let you just “let it all out”. They listen. They have your back.
They validate and relate to your feelings. You feel heard and understood.
Toddlers need that, too. No matter how big or small their feelings are. They are valid and true and just as important as adults’ feelings. Don’t shrug them off. Acknowledge and accept them.
I remember this one time I was being so pushy with wanting my daughter to sleep under her covers. It was winter. Our house was cold. She refused. We argued.
When she fell asleep, I put the covers over her. Later that night, she woke yelling, clearly mad at me for putting covers on her.
She kept telling me she was hot and didn’t need them. She was two and a half, and I was worried she would freeze.
Well, the next night I went into her room in the middle of the night and decided to feel her. She was warm. I left without putting the covers on her.
I learned my lesson to listen to her. Everyone’s needs truly are different, and my daughter’s body runs way warmer than mine. To this day, she still sleeps without covers. She is a little heater.
Our children will be more likely to listen to us if we listen to them. Mutual respect is earned that way, and we listen to the people we respect and feel valued by.
11. Stop saying NO.
Change, “Don’t throw the toy,” to, “We only throw balls.” Change, “No jumping on the couch,” to, “We sit on couches.”
You can go a step further and put the couch cushions on the ground and let them jump there…Finding ways to meet in the middle goes a long way.
Training our brains to stop saying no is a lot harder to do than I initially realized. But, if you can practice saying positive statements instead, and save the “no’s” for more serious situations, everyone will be better off.
12. Give compliments.
As a toddler, the world can be filled with lots of “no’s” and “don’ts” with so many rules to try to understand and remember. It can feel defeating and stressful.
Be sure to give positive, encouraging words of praise whenever possible. We all love to know that what we are doing is right and good. It feels nice to be complimented and reassured.
Give compliments that are specific. Instead of, “Good job!” for picking up toys, say, “Thank you for picking up the toys! You are so responsible!”
Naming the action “responsible”, teaches them a new word in addition to making them feel good with a compliment.
What About Time-Outs?
I personally am not big on time-outs. I find them to be escalators in negative emotions. Putting a child in time-out is isolating them when they need you the most.
They’re usually not sitting in time-out reflecting on their bad behavior. Rather, they are sitting there stewing, getting more mad.
If you do choose to do a time-out, I have read the time-out should equate to the child’s age. So, if a child is 2 years old, the time-out should be for 2 minutes. If a child is 3 years old, the time-out should be for 3 minutes, and so on.
Natural consequences are my preferred form of redirecting or “punishing”.
Natural consequences are actions taken that directly correlate to the behavior at hand.
For example, when I discovered boogers on our hall wall, I asked which child did the act and had them scrape them off.
When I saw one of my little ones coloring directly on the tile instead of on the paper, I gave them a wet rag to wipe it off.
If my children are being unsafe in the wagon as I push them, I stand still on the sidewalk and wait til they tell me they’re ready to behave well and be safe.
Natural consequences directly correlate to the behavior, instilling a sense of responsibility and ownership for one’s actions.
The outcome is helping your child see the results of their choices so that they learn to make better decisions in the future.
What About Toddler Tantrums?
I recently read about a really great analogy for toddler tantrums. The article said to imagine being on a train going through a tunnel.
If you wanted to get off the train, would you jump off while in the tunnel? No. You would get run over or banged up.
You would wait for the train to ride through the tunnel and safely stop before exiting.
Trains in tunnels are toddlers experiencing big emotions (or tantrums). We, as parents, need to ride the emotion through the tunnel and wait for a safe place to stop before talking to our toddlers.
If your child starts a tantrum, do not try to talk over them to calm them down. Do not try to do anything other than stay and be with them if you can withstand the screaming.
Staying with them lets them know you are okay with unhappy emotions, that you will be with them in the good times and the bad.
When your toddler starts to cry, THAT is the light at the end of the train tunnel. The tears symbolize the tantrum–the experience of the big emotion–is coming to an end.
Once the tears are settled and breathing is steady, THAT’S when you can talk things through. THAT’S when your child will hear you and listen. And often times, that’s when your toddler will love a hug.
With my son at Costco, during his fit, I stayed calm and let everyone stare at me. By the time the tears came in the car, I said, “I’m sorry you are upset. Can you tell me why you’re mad?” And we talked it out until we both understood each other.
Final Thoughts on How to Get a Toddler to Listen
Encouraging toddlers to listen is a blend of clear communication, positive reinforcement, empathy, and consistency.
I hope my stories and strategies help you find what works best for you and your little one.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Share in the comments section below.