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Help! My toddler won't listen to me

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

First off, I want to tell you there’s probably nothing wrong with you or your toddler. For about 10-15% of kids, "not listening" might be due to a language delay, but for the test of them… They’re just doing their toddler thing.

Brief aside: I always recommend getting language looked at for those kids who don’t listen to age-appropriate directions. You want to confidently KNOW if your child is understanding, and a speech-language pathologist can help with that!

While you may have met or heard of some little angels who do exactly as they’re told, the vast majority of toddlers are out there pushing limits, not following directions, and living their little life on their own agenda.

It is supposed to be this way, because their developing brain is actively seeking out new experiences to learn more about the world around them. They also don’t have this fun thing we call “inhibition” yet.

Toddler brains and lack of self-control

“Inhibition” is the part of your brain that stops you from acting on the thoughts that pop into your head. You might want to eat a fourth cookie, but inhibition stops you. You might want to scream in frustration when your child colours the walls, but inhibition stops you!

Toddlers…. They have NONE of this. When a thought pops into their little heads, you best believe they are ACTING ON IT. No filter, no thinking it through, just straight action!

They also don’t have much ability to direct their own attention, and will likely just do the most interesting thing in their line of sight. Once something has caught their attention, they need to either have something more interesting to transition to, or physically move to a new place.

So we have this little person, who is starting to learn how to interact with things and use their body, that is automatically drawn to new interesting things and cannot stop themselves from acting on their ideas. When you tell them “No” “Stop” “Don’t”.... Pretty good chance even if they understand, love you, and want to listen… It is just not within their capabilities yet.

How to help your toddler listen better

Toddlers need to be set up to be successful. We need to use what we know about their little minds in order to engineer situations and environments that make it easier for them to stay safe and play appropriately.

If you want your toddler to stop doing something, you need to redirect their attention. Tell them what TO DO instead of what not to do. And physically help them to shift their attention if needed by tapping them, moving something interesting into their frame of vision, or leaving the distraction entirely.

Telling your child “STOP CLIMBING” does not redirect their brain to a new activity, and they don’t have the inhibition to stop doing what they are thinking about, so they are unlikely to be able to follow through once the initial startle at your “Mom voice” has worn off.

Our littles still rely on us so heavily at this age, even though they’re starting to learn some independence. They are still learning to listen, learning to control themselves, and some days they will be better at this than others. Next time you want to set some rules for your little one, consider the following:

Things to avoid when you want your child to listen :

  • Simply telling your child “NO” “STOP” “DON’T”

  • Leaving forbidden items out in the open

  • Telling your child to do something, then disciplining them if they do not follow through

Things to try when you want your child to listen:

  • Tell your child what TO DO in short simple sentences

    • E.g., Feet down please. We sit on couches, we bounce on this ball

  • Set them up for success. Keep breakable items out of reach. Hide anything that could cause a stain. Assume they cannot control themselves!

  • If your child is not listening try these steps:

    • 1. Get down to their level, make eye contact, and repeat the direction

    • 2. Show them with pointing what they need to do

    • 3. If they are still having trouble, say “Looks like you need my help with this today! We’ll do it together” and repeat the direction as you help your child.

Some kids act silly and avoid tasks because they don’t know how to be successful, and being silly at least makes it fun rather than disappointing for them. If your child is acting goofy and avoiding the task, continue to provide lots of support and give them praise/fun/encouragement once they complete it with you.

Best of luck toddler-proofing your home! Here’s hoping you have some high shelves. Thanks for stopping by today, I hope this was helpful! I sincerely appreciate you and hope to see you soon!


Chatty Therapy has wonderful speech-language pathologists who can give you more specific ideas on how to work with your child and tailor it to your daily routine. Or we can come into your home to help your child learn the concepts they need. Speech-language pathologists specialize in helping children understand others and following directions. If you are worried about your child’s ability to express themselves or understand, learn more about our services or book a free 15-minute consultation.


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