elevating child care

5 Reasons Toddlers Won’t Follow Our Directions

Parents often ask me, “Why won’t my kids listen?” What they really mean is, “Why won’t they follow my directions?”
Children are ready to listen, primed from birth to begin decoding our words and intuiting our unspoken messages. They are also unique individuals who quickly develop ideas, opinions and wills of their own.  Babies and toddlers often understand exactly what we want but choose to do the opposite.

So why won’t our kids just do as we ask?  Here are the most common reasons:

1. Disconnection

Children feel disconnected for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we’ve been punitive and manipulative (sometimes without even knowing it), rather than the respectful, benevolent guides our children need in order to learn our expectations.

We might have made the common mistake of taking our child’s age-appropriate resistant behavior personally. How could this child for whom we do everything, and have essentially given our lives to, deliberately disobey or disappoint us (hit her baby brother, for example) when we’ve told her hundreds of times. Does she not love us?

Children often repeat their resistant and rebellious behaviors because they aren’t feeling our love. They sense they are out of favor with us — misunderstood and blamed when what they need is our help. Our behavior control tactics (usually applied with a dose of anger or frustration) can make our children uncomfortable, confused and even fearful, and this is manifested in their increasingly erratic behavior. These impulsive behaviors tend to continue and repeat themselves until we recognize the intense message our kids are sending us: be my gentle leader and help me feel safe again.

2. Words are not enough

Parents are often taken aback when their adorable 11-month-old infant hits them in the face and then smiles and does it again after they say, “OW! No, we don’t hit“, or “you’re hurting me!” Has this baby suddenly become evil or stopped loving us?  Of course not — she is simply expressing something she cannot verbalize, and this is a crucial time to demonstrate that we have a handle on these behaviors, that we’ve got her back. We show her by calmly holding her flailing hands while assuring, “I won’t let you hit me. That hurts.”  And if our little one is in our arms and continues to flap at us, we might add, “You’re having a hard time not hitting, so I will put you down.”

Then, perhaps after placing our child down she bursts into tears. Since we’ve taken the action necessary to prevent her from upsetting us, we now have the presence of mind to realize, “Aha, Josie didn’t sleep well last night, and even though it’s too early for her usual naptime, she’s exhausted. That’s her message, and no wonder she wouldn’t stop hitting.”

Once we’ve understood that our words are not enough for most young children (and how difficult it is for them to understand and express their needs), we see the ridiculousness of taking their refusals to follow our verbal directions personally. It’s on us to make our expectations clear by following through with firm, but gentle actions.

How our reticence creates guilt

Sometimes when parents believe their words should be enough or they are otherwise reticent to follow through, they try appealing to their child to do (or stop doing) whatever it is out of pity for them. For example, parents tell their child she hurts their feelings when she won’t clean up the playroom, or they get vulnerable and cry whenever there are power struggles (which usually only happen when parents are reticent to take charge by setting a clear boundary).  These responses are not only ineffective, they can also make children feel guilty and cause an unhealthy sense of responsibility for (and therefore discomfort with) the vulnerable feelings of others.

3. We are unconvincing or way too exciting

“If a parent does not really believe in the validity of a particular rule, or is afraid that the child will not obey, chances are the child will not.”Magda Gerber

The manner in which we give directions will determine whether or not our children follow them.  Some parents need help perfecting their confident, matter-of-fact delivery, remembering to put a period (rather than a question like “okay?”) at the end of their sentences.

Parents might also need to perfect what I call the “ho-hum stride” and use it to replace lunging towards the baby about to touch the dog’s dish and shouting, “NO!” Or charging after the toddler who runs away when it’s time to go home from the park (emergencies like running into traffic are a different story, of course). The moment we might save by rushing rather than sauntering confidently can cause numerous repetitions of the undesirable behavior, which has now become a thrilling game.

“Ho-hum responses” are also helpful when children whine, scream or try out the profane new word they heard at preschool. Kids are much more likely to forget that word and stop whining or screaming if we dis-empower the behavior by ignoring it (which doesn’t mean intentionally ignoring our child) or give a ho-hum, nonchalant direction like, “That’s a bit too loud”, or “That’s an unpleasant word. Please don’t use it.”

4. We over-direct

No one likes being ordered around, especially when they are toddlers (or teenagers). Whenever possible, give children (including babies) choices and autonomy. Children desire to be active participants in life beginning at birth. Include toddlers in decisions and ask them to help you problem-solve.  (Lisa Sunbury, author of Regarding Baby offers thoughtful suggestions in her post “Let’s Talk”. )

Balancing our instructions with plenty of free play time with children calling all the shots means they will be more willing to listen when we direct them. It also helps when we remember to always acknowledge our child’s point-of-view, for example: “We’ve been having such a blast outside and I understand not wanting to go back in, but we must.”

5. Our child has better things to do

Sometimes not following directions is a good thing, because it reflects our child’s healthy, delightful instinct to learn the way young children learn best — through play, exploration, and following inner-direction:

“My daughter is 2.5 years old and when we go to activities (structured playgroups, mom toddler stuff) she does not follow direction (or very rarely will follow direction). Maybe she will to a degree, but generally speaking she is the wild flower that is rolling around, running and dancing circles in the big open room while all the other kids are sitting quietly by their moms’ side….should I be concerned about this? or leave her to her own exploration ( it’s winter here so the big open space to run is a really treat!) or keep on trying to get her to listen to the ‘animator’ who is trying to run a session?”

Hmmm… listen to an ‘animator’? Or roll, run and dance? That’s a tough one.

 ***

I share much more about the terrific toddler years in my new book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

(Photo by Umesh Behari Mathur on Flickr)

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Pinterest
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

I LOVE your comments and questions. Please add them here...

73 Responses to “5 Reasons Toddlers Won’t Follow Our Directions”

  1. I love your last comment in italics. Now tell me this, would you even recommend going to these toddler “animator” classes? We tried one and it was just like you said, my kid wanted to do something more interesting than the activity going on. So we didn’t go back. I get swim lesson, ski lessons, soccer clubs, but never did understand directed toddler play groups.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Alex. Personally, I don’t recommend any adult-directed classes or clubs for children until they are old enough to want them (and, ideally, initiate the desire to participate in them). I highly value inner-directedness…and I have trusted my kids to know what they want and need (beyond their school requirements) as they’ve grown.

      However, I’m a big fan of free play groups and parents getting together!

      • avatar missy says:

        What about library storytimes. I have a 18 month old and I am also a children’s librarian. I often inform my parents that children are natural multitaskers they will hear what is going on and if it interests them they will participate and if not they will do as they please. But there are moments that I see them stop and watch and I see that I have gotten their attention and sometimes once is all it takes.
        My son is very busy and I take him to classes and there is nothing wrong with him roaming around at times…. The teacher bored him and he wanted to do something else but I also find if we bring my son back to the group he begins participating again. I am just confused as to what you meant by adult led classes??? She do you think that adult led classes should be introduced?

        • avatar janet says:

          Missy, I believe in introducing adult-led classes when children are actually old enough to be able to request them. Before that time, I see no point…and from what I have seen, adult-led classes can discourage inner-directedness when introduced too early. I have great trust in young children. Research is now proving that their ability to self-direct learning is unparalleled.

          • avatar Jen says:

            I’ve been taking my twenty-month-old daughter to music class for the last three months and she LOVES it! She is painfully shy but has opened up surprising amounts in this class, participating in activities and even interacting with the other kids, which she does not do at the parks or even with her cousins or our friends’ kids. She could never have known to ask for a music class, but it is a place where she blossoms.

            • avatar Amy says:

              Jen, I agree! I am taking my three year old daughter to a Music Together class and she loves it too. I took her last summer also. The teacher sings and the other adults sing with her, and the kids can dance around, play with musical instruments or scarves, or cuddle with mom or dad. I could never have provided this experience to my daughter on my own because I’m not very musical and wouldn’t even have known how to begin, but with a professional music teacher we are both learning and having a lot of fun. Oh, and my one year old son came with us last week–he usually stays home with dad because I thought he was too small–and he loved playing with the instruments also.

      • avatar Sam says:

        Hi Janet!

        Quick question: My daughter is 1 yr old, and we have found that she responds well to mommy-baby classes that teach skilsl through games and interaction.

        In fact, we saw such an improvement after the last class that we set her up for classes from now (Feb) until June.

        You say above that you don’t believe in toddler classes – but what about for babies not walking yet? We want to speed her development and think these classes could help. Thoughts?

        • avatar janet says:

          Sam – can you explain what you mean by “improvement” and why you want to “speed up development”? My short answer: no, I definitely do not recommend teaching babies skills that a “baby instructor” thinks they should be learning. And “speeding up development” is a terrible idea, in my opinion. Think about what happens to a flower when you force a bud open…

  2. A very common practice is to give negative directions ‘Dont go on the road’ the unconscious does not register the negative. So in effect what is actually being said is ‘Go on the road’ Better to give affirmative directions ‘Stay on the footpath’ ‘Walk next to me’

    • avatar janet says:

      Great point, Rachana. I have mentioned that in other posts, but am very thankful that you included it here. Telling children what we would like them to do is so much more effective than saying NO, you can’t, etc.

  3. avatar Krista says:

    The link for “Let’s Talk” is not working. Do you have another?

  4. avatar Shereen says:

    Great article! This is so helpful as we go through this a bit with our 3 year old.

    I have a quick question that maybe falls along the same lines. Sometimes our son will do this thing where he doesn’t want to talk to express what he wants. He will just grunt and point and become frustrated when we don’t understand what he wants or when we ask him to talk to tell us what he means.

    To clarify, he is VERY capable of communicating verbally. He started talking early and speaks more proficiently than most of his peers. And he usually talks a lot. Ha! So these little moments of refusing to speak are confusing. I’m not sure whether I should insist (kindly and nonchalantly) that he speak and not respond until he does, or if I should just decide that it doesn’t matter and play the guessing game to figure out what he wants. Any thoughts or experiences with this?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Shereen! Your son’s grunts-instead-of-words are the ideal scenario in which to employ a ho-hum attitude. I would not say anything about this or let it annoy you in the least, because that will empower and “feed” the behavior. I would totally trust and accept your son’s need to do this and just do your best to understand. You might acknowledge that you’re having a hard time understanding and you see that’s frustrating for him. Stay relaxed and ho-hum and this behavior will pass and/or you may figure out why he feels the need to do this. Enjoy! ;)

      • avatar Shereen says:

        Thanks! I will try that approach next time! Luckily it doesn’t happen TOO often. :)

  5. avatar Helen says:

    Positive choices always seem to to elicit greater cooperation. One I chose for my own children and others I’ve cared for is (probably at 18 months and older): on leaving the supermarket (when inevitably we are stepping out into ‘traffic’ where customers are vying for parking spots) offer “Would you like to hold my hand or the shopping cart?” which goes to:
    “If a parent does not really believe in the validity of a particular rule, or is afraid that the child will not obey, chances are the child will not.” – Magda Gerber. Instead of panicking and saying “Don’t run” or grabbing the child by the arm or putting them back in the cart ‘for safety’.

    I also agree with Alex about baby classes. Although I went to classes with my oldest son I knew it was because I was lonely, isolated and felt very foreign (English!), so I accepted that part of the reason for going was for me, yet for us both to be doing something together. Fortunately my son was respected when he didn’t want to join circle time. But I do retain one very good and loyal friend from those days. My son kept his freedom to choose and I gained a friend.

    Learning to respect your child’s desires, decisions, interests and passions by truly knowing them from their earliest days seems, from my experience, to develop sensible decision making as adults (35 and 32), and certainly develops adults who are passionate about everything they do and naturally respectful to others, of all ages.

    And by the way – they love to be with their parents! How very lucky are we?

    • avatar janet says:

      Well said, Helen! And, BTW, I’m all for joining a class (hopefully a low-key one) in order to build community with other parents.

  6. avatar Vanessa says:

    What is a good way to disengage a 4 year old from imaginative play when is time to make a transition? I give him a heads up and choices but sometimes I keep repeating myself over and over and it feels super frustrating to feel ignored.

    • avatar janet says:

      Great question, Vanessa. It certainly is frustrating to be ignored. My advice is to follow through, because when you keep repeating yourself you get frustrated and your son gets the message that this is a choice and up to him. I would ask once with conviction (after the heads-up a few minutes before) and if that doesn’t work, go close to him and say, “You’re having fun and it’s hard to finish your game, I know, but it’s time to go, so I will take your hand.” Your confidence will make or break this working! If he complains or struggles and you remain confident, his resistance will be brief. In fact, my experience has taught me that deep down he’ll be thankful for your leadership.

      I’m sure others would disagree, but I believe that it’s our job not to get frustrated with our children…at least not very often. This means following through with our words and, sometimes, facing their resistance head-on, which isn’t fun. But we do it because we SO value our child and our relationship that we won’t allow our frustration and resentment to cloud it.

  7. I just spent two hours trying to explain precisely this to a friend yesterday, so you can imagine my excitement to read this today! THANK YOU for writing it so eloquently and yet simply, in order to get the point across. :)

  8. avatar Simone says:

    Great post! (as always!). I’m really stuck on no.3 at the moment with my 4yo son who has suddenly become violent towards our cats. They are so placid they let him do almost anything. He now kicks them and lifts them by their neck. It’s to get my attention, I know (change in family living arrangements), and I have been piling extra love and time upon him. Initially I had the ho-hum approach, but his actions are getting worse, and my frustration levels at max. How can I help him? Thanks!

    • avatar janet says:

      Simone, I would not be “ho-hum” about your son hurting the cats. This sounds like an urgent situation and the attention your son needs is your leadership. This is about following through…blocking him, holding his hands, removing him from where the cats are if he’s behaving in an out-of-control manner. I would give him a very clear boundary (“you may NOT hurt the cats!”) and not allow him access to the cats unless you are watching closely. No matter how placid the cats are, animals are animals, and besides, your boy needs to know without a smidgen of doubt that you will not allow him to treat animals this way. This sounds like a BIG shout-out for firmer boundaries. It also sounds like your boy has some pent-up anger that he needs to release… When you hold firm with these boundaries, he will have the opportunity to express some of these feelings. Again, if your boy starts to act out with the cats, I would intervene immediately and physically remove him from the situation by walking (or carrying) him to his room, while saying something to the effect of, “I will not let you hurt the cat. Thank you for letting me know that you are not able to behave safely right now. We will stay in your room until you calm down.”

      • avatar Simone says:

        Hi Janet! Thanks for detailed response, really needed that. To help with frustration he’s now been enrolled into capoeira classes and we’re having more ‘adventures’ to get him out into fresh air (challenging in winter in london). And when you say leadership and boundaries, that resonates with me. The part that I am confused with is telling him that he cannot hurt the cats, as I have always used positive reinforcement ‘let’s stroke the cats gently’ and after a moment moved onto play with another toy/activity that is within their ability. Worked well with my daughter! Not so with my son. I have tried the room thing and he just throws all his stuff around, and kicks the wall, and on occasion attacks me. I also find this difficult to do when we are getting ready for school.

        • avatar janet says:

          Simone, your son’s behavior has gone well past the “gentle reminder” stage…and he is way too old to be distracted with another activity (which is not something I ever recommend doing, even with infants). He is waving big red flags and needs to know that you can handle him competently in these situations. Let him throw stuff around and kick the wall. If he tries to throw unsafe things, remove them from his room. Don’t allow him to attack you. You must be in charge here, not a victim!

          Don’t fear his anger… I believe he desperately needs to express it, while knowing you understand, but at the same time he needs to be 100% assured that you will ALWAYS prevent him from hurting you or anyone else, including his pets. He is letting you know through his behavior that he has way too much power right now. He feels out-of-control and very unsafe. If you don’t address this firmly and decisively, I worry that your son’s harmful behaviors will escalate.

          • avatar Simone says:

            Hi Janet! I put your words into action immediately and Flynn’s behaviour got worse BUT I repeated the words that you wrote, and I remembered what you said about leadership and boundaries. His behaviour is so out of character that previously I had really just been flailing about with no idea what to do! He had obviously been picking up on my own uncertainty and feeling uncertain himself and unable to rein himself in.
            With my new stance I felt confident that we could get through this together, and after a few days Flynn actually started crying after his outbursts and apologising for his behaviour. He said once that it was his ‘brain telling his head on-off-on-off’ and he just couldn’t stop it.
            Thank you so much for your responses, it helped me remember that my son’s behaviour had a message for me that I needed to help him with. He’s almost back to his normal gentle self again, and a few days this week he has actually been napping in the afternoons after nursery. He’s worn himself out with his outbursts!
            You’re an absolute superstar, wish you lived in London :)

            • avatar janet says:

              Thank you, Simone, and I am so glad to hear that your boy’s feelings are emerging and being expressed appropriately. Moving and changes of any kind are a much bigger deal for our little ones than it is for us. Take good care. And I love London, BTW!

  9. avatar Helen says:

    Sorry Janet – What was in my mind were the large classes I attended with my son 35 years ago at our local private university – not RIE classes like yours – and can I add, my small RIE/Pikler-based Bradwell Baby Cottage classes here in Fort Lauderdale, FL!

    • avatar janet says:

      Glad you mentioned your classes, Helen. That is very good to know!

  10. avatar Shereen says:

    I shared this article with my husband yesterday. I’ve shared things from your blog with him before, but this time it really seemed to resonate with him. When he came home from work today, I noticed right away the change in how he was talking to our son — and the change in our son’s response! Usually they clash a bit when my husband tries to get him to do something, but I think this really showed him another way. Takes practice to make it a habit, but I have definitely seen how effective it is!

    • avatar janet says:

      Shereen, thank you! That’s the best news I’ve heard this week.

  11. avatar Julie says:

    Hi Janet,
    Thanks so much for another great post. I have found your various posts about setting limits with toddlers to be so helpful. As a result of incorporating so many of your suggestions, my daughter (2yo) is normally able to assimilate clear and consistent limits quite quickly, but I’ve found that walking, rather than running in the apartment is taking some time to sink in. We set the limit maybe 2 months ago out of respect for our downstairs neighbors and have been consistent in our requests. I think at the beginning there was more excitement from us about it, but we’ve since toned that down and become more nonchalant in our reactions. I noticed in the first couple of weeks that she would talk about it to herself while she played. She’d say “no running” in the two languages we speak with her. She would ‘remind’ herself in the mirror. Observing that allowed me to relax about it and see that it was being processed and for some reason she needed some time to work it out. That said, there are times when she says “No running! ” just as she takes off down the hall, usually wearing a huge mischievous grin and clearly ready to play. I will say, “I see you ran, I’ll remind you to walk in the house, please.” There are times of day that its more likely to happen and I’ve come to feel when she’s about to run based on her energy and mood, so can often head it off by physically putting myself in front of her and/or verbally reminding her with, “please walk with me to the kitchen”. Or I will put up a gate to limit her space and let her play in a smaller area and that seems to calm her and help her re-focus. I should say, too that despite it being winter in the northeast, normally she does have time outside daily to run and jump and play as loudly and freely as she desires. She also has regular opportunities to run and play freely indoors, outside of our apartment. I have noticed improvements. She will slow herself now, as she is reminded and there is less running overall, and when I see that I always tell her that I appreciate it, that I noticed. She seems pleased with herself, even proud when I do. but I guess my question is: does it sometimes take longer for some limits to be assimilated than others? Does seeing improvement over time mean she is on her way to her managing her body and learning self-control in a healthy way? Or is there something about how we are setting this limit that maybe needs tweakingto be more effective?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Julie! Wow, your daughter is truly amazing for being able to adjust this behavior at all. Running is as natural as breathing for children this age. Kudos to you for your hard work and consideration of your neighbor, but I’m also sorry that you are in this challenging situation. It sounds like you are handling everything as well as you possibly could…and I agree that nonchalant is best. All I would say is that this isn’t about you needing to tweak anything — it’s about an almost impossible expectation of your daughter, in my opinion. So, I hope you won’t be too hard on her or yourselves!

      • avatar Julie says:

        Thanks so much for your response, Janet. I appreciate your perspective and will take it as a reality check for our expectations on this. I love that through applying the ideas of RIE, we have allowed our daughter’s capabilities and self-confidence to flourish, but I can appreciate the need to balance faith in her abilities with respect for what is reasonable developmentally. All of that of course being far more important to me than my neighbors occasional discomfort. Nonchalant will come even easier now. Thank you.

  12. Another heaping offering of wisdom. I can’t help but thinking, once again, how much your insights apply not only to the smallest humans but to schools, workplaces, and communities. Sharing!

  13. avatar Sara says:

    Can you clarify how I can calmly get my 2 year old to come back when he is running away? I know he wants to be chased but he can go pretty far or near a street so it’s hard not to run after him. I can’t even think of the words to calmly say in that situation.

    On another note… When I give him the choice to walk to the car or be carried and he doesn’t respond I then tell him I will pick him up. The second I touch him he screams “walk, walk!” So I let him go and sometimes he walks other times I have to start over again with the choices. Should I just pick him up regardless of him making a last minute decision?

    • avatar Julie says:

      I am having the exact same issue with my almost 2 yo, and I’d love to hear what you have to say about this.

    • avatar Paulina says:

      Me too! I hope you can answer the question about the running away. My daughter is 20 months and I’m 8+ months pregnant so I am much slower than her and really worry about her going too far and not being able to catch her.

    • avatar Brandi says:

      Same boat. Please help us!!!!! :)

      • avatar Jenn says:

        Yes, same here. Would love to know how to get my 2.5 year old son to stop running away when I ask him too. It becomes a game for him, but I have to go after him b/c he his heading towards traffic (when we go to the park or splash pad etc). We talk about it after and he will say he knows to hold hands or stop when mommy says stop, but in the moment he keeps on going. It’s not safe and it scares me every time.

    • avatar Deb says:

      Can you be preventative in situations where safety is concerned? For example, if you know your child is prone to run, hold his hand as you leave the house/store and walk him to the car/put him in the seat. Or, if he fights that, carry him. What I have found is that if I provide lots of opportunities for running where it is safe, I then explain to him places where it’s not safe, and why, and that we hold hands in those areas. I tell him, If he doesn’t want me to hold his hand, I will carry him. It’s his choice. Most of the time he prefers me holding his hand! If he screams “walk, walk” once I am carrying him, I validate to him that I understand he wants to walk, and maybe next time he can hold my hand so we can safely walk together. The other option with multiple children or if carrying your child is difficult, is to put your child in a stroller in situations where safety is a challenge.

  14. avatar Annie says:

    I’ve been reading your website for awhile and this is the first time I’m actually commenting. Thank you for your articles. Please know, there are many silent readers out there!

    You mentioned above, as does Magda, that it is not good to distract children, even infants, with other activities. I have a 16 month old who usually does not like to have his diaper changed. Lately, I’ve been distracting him with tv when it’s particularly challenging. However, this isn’t even working well anymore. I explain to him in a ho hum manner that we need to change his diaper and what we’re going to do. Yesterday was the worst when he fought me the whole entire time and I ended up physically holding him down with one hand while getting the diaper on. It had been almost 10 mins since I had taken his diaper off for a change. I was worried he might pee on the rug which he has done several times. I got the job done but physically holding him down like that does not seem right to me and I was quite frustrated by the end of it (and there was a lot of crying involved). However, I don’t know what else I should have done.

    And since I’m finally writing in, I have another question as well. Lately, my son has been asking for the tv. For the first 14 months we barely had the tv on. My husband and I don’t watch our shows when the baby is awake (though DH will sometimes check the score to a game). On occasion, we used to let him watch Curious George (he’s obsessed with monkeys) and Thomas the Tank and such. However, now he asks for it all the time since he knows we have it recorded. My son is only 16 months so he can’t really talk but he will grab the remote and point to the tv or say “monk” for monkey and point to the tv. In the last couple of days he’s started to whine for it A LOT. He wants to watch it all the time. I decided today that I should just establish set tv times. Maybe 30 mins in the morning and 30 minutes after dinner. I explained this to him today but he will cry with tears and get very upset because I won’t turn the tv on. Do you have any advice on how to move forward with this?

  15. avatar subha says:

    Hi Janet

    I just found your website through a friend on facebook, and and am hooked. I have really been struggling with my 4 yr old daughter lately. She seems like she never wants to listen, she always asks me over and over and over again to do or have the thing I already said she couldnt etc. The thing I am struggling most with is MY frustration and losing my temper. I just get so frustrated with her behavior! i think part of the problem is that I have rarely been around kids so I think I do not have a good understanding of what to expect from her and what is “ok.” I get very worked up about setting limits and not letting her “get away” with bad behavior. But as a result I get mad, frustrated, angry and I reaction all the ways that you say not to (and that I know I shouldn’t!). do you have any advice for how to calm myself down and how to make myself not get frustrated. you talk several times about understanding our toddlers and empathizing with them…i think that is what i’m having a hard time understanding how to do…

    thanks so much!
    subha

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Subha! It would help me to hear a specific example, but generally, children ask us “over and over” because they haven’t received a calm, assertive and definitive answer… Often they are compelled to persist because they know they can push our buttons and make us react in a manner that is disconcerting to them (with frustration, anger, etc). They secretly wish we could take their actions in stride, calmly correct them, be the confident, unruffled leaders they need. The key to “calming down” is setting the limit early and with confidence rather than engaging in a power struggle. But again, an example would be helpful!

  16. avatar Malissa says:

    I am currently living in another country , I find it important to get out and meet others, especially for my son. So that it doesnt only become ‘me and him’ on an isolated island (home). So we are attending this toddler gym. He really loves when he can just run free and play on the gym equipment. That I find great, letting him do his thing. However in the beginning of the class for about 20 mins the teacher does the group thing and my son would rather run off. For me it doesnt matter that he would rather play the whole gym time on the equipment. Yet now the teacher is making it known to us in an obvious non-chalant way that we have to (I need to make my son) participate. After reading this article, the last point, I’m wondering if I am doing something wrong to keep going, making him do the group thing. My heart only wants to let him run around……. Anyone with some words of advice for me? Greatly appreciated.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Malissa! I would not ask your boy to follow the group, especially if is less than 3 years old. Do they ever have free play groups at this gym? Perhaps you could suggest it. Then the instructor could just be a safety guard rather than asking the children to follow his “play” agenda.

  17. avatar Malissa says:

    Hi Janet. Thanks for your opinion. It’s about a 45 minute play group session, divided into 2 parts: Group time and individual gym time. In the beginning I was letting N (I’ll call my son ‘N’) run around freely the whole time. The other parents are keeping their toddlers tame, redirecting them to play in the group. So N and I are the only ones running freely. And the instructor would rather have us also playing with the group as we seem to be a distraction to the rest of the children. There is basically no way around this. And I am disliking the fact that I have to make him participate. While trying to get N to participate he is standing still looking at me telling me bluntly, ‘No’. Though my little tricks (which I feel so uncomfortable doing) keep him participating. Sometimes we just sit and watch the others as he is not always very easily redirected (which is a good thing and shows me that what I am doing is not best- hence this realization about group activities). And I get the feeling he’s like, “what are you doing mom? You know we don’t have to force ourselves here”. My two concerns are that I let my son be himself and that we get some socializing in during the week. Though I can also stop the group and trust that in a natural way we will meet people on our path. For instance during our little outings to the park, beach… etc.. I suppose sometimes I feel like I have to create this well-rounded scheduled week to make sure my son gets all of what he needs, while I could let things naturally run their course- listening more to my heart.

    I also had another question: Here in the Netherlands (where I currently live) many toddlers around 2,3 months old start ‘toddler school’. That means I would drop N off at the school twice a week for 3 hours. At the school he would be on his own with a teacher and other toddlers. I was sort of feeling that it could be too young for N. I also read a book called “Raising Babies- Why your love is best” by Steve Biddulph . And he finds its best for the child to be with his parent or guardian at least the first 3 years. Part of the reason I was thinking of doing this was to create a bit of space for myself. That I would get a “break”. Yet a voice inside of me tells me to hold on- there is more for N and I to learn together. I feel that somehow it is possible to feel at ease, that inner calmness (that you have written about), while raising our children. And that our thoughts can make our lives/situations seem heavier then they actually are, making us feel like we need to ‘get away’. Having said that I also find it healthy to let dad takeover for an hour so that I can feel who I am separate from N. Anyway. I would love to hear your opinion about the “toddler school”. Or maybe there is already a post I an read about this??

    • avatar Kat says:

      Here’s a possibility for you – just don’t show up for the group time. Wait to arrive at the gym about when the free play time is going to start. That will also send the message to the teacher that you do not value group time for kids this young.

  18. Great points. I believe another big reason toddlers don’t always “listen” is because we are lazy about logically and consistently following through with our requests. You do mention that in one of your linked articles, though. :)

    I enjoy reading through your comments, too. I appreciate all the time you take to respond to your readers (and I’m sure I’m not alone in that!).

  19. avatar Kristen says:

    Hi, I am wondering at what age it is reasonable to expect toddlers to follow our directions. My 18 month old will follow some directions, like if she is going too far away from me at a park or in our yard, I say “sit down” and she will which gives me time to catch up. But if I ask her to “come over here”, she runs further laughing. It seems that if she can sit when asked, she should be able to stop running away when asked too.

    • avatar janet says:

      Kristen, I think the confusion comes when we see this as being about what the child can do rather than indicative of what the child wants to do. I can’t really explain why your daughter will sit down, but not come back. Toddlers have a great need to test their will and power, which is why offering autonomy often helps… For example, you might say with confidence, “I’ll wait right here until you come back.”

  20. avatar Paola says:

    Hi, I am struggling with my 4 year old, this morning the daycare provider told me that she is sure that he will have a diagnoses. We have been through many testings and they have not been able to find anything wrong with him in fact everyone thinks he is a lovely boy. He has a hard time adjusting, and he doesn’t follow group direction very well. I recently enrolled him in a soccer class (outdoors) all the kids seem to enjoy it and follow the games but my son does not show any interest instead he wonders off and it seems like the directions given he is unable to understand. I desperately need help!

  21. avatar Jo says:

    For the running away, one think that kind of worked for me was to tell my son that if he runs away we will go back home. Of course he runs in the park and freely, but not to the street and usually comes back. He did run away and I followed through -home we went. Now he knows and I need to follow through.

    Janet, thank you for your great advices!

  22. avatar Michaela says:

    Hi, I’ve been following your posts for several months and they’ve just been invaluable. I’m currently struggling with a specific behavior with my 2.5 year old son and I just can’t figure out the best approach. He’ll open our back sliding door to go outside. I’ll tell him, “before we go outside, we need to put sunscreen on”. He’s our little fair-skinned red head, so this is a requirement. He will continue to go outside and not listen. I’ve tried talking to him, “I understand you want to go outside, but we need to put sunscreen on to protect our skin”. I’ve even resorted to carrying him back inside the house. It doesn’t seem to matter what I do, it ends up with him not following directions and continuing outside. We could get a special lock placed at the top of the sliding door so he can’t get out on his own or I could just automatically put sunscreen on him when he wakes up, but I feel like I want to address this behavior rather than avoid it, if that makes sense. Thanks so much.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Michaela! Sounds like he needs a little more than a verbal direction, which is very common for toddlers his age. I like the idea of putting sunscreen on first thing in the morning. If you make this a habit — a matter of course — it will be easier for your boy to accept. You might ask him to help you put on the sunscreen, so you can do it together. But if you do need to stop him before he goes out, I wouldn’t hesitate to kindly pick him up and carry him inside, sit him on your lap and put the sunscreen on together. Children this age need a helping hand, and often enjoy it when we nurture them with our calm insistence.

  23. avatar Jen says:

    This is a great post. My questions sounds a lot like the last point. My 3 year old doesn’t seem to follow direction very well. He’s always seemed very advanced for his age (I know most parents say that) but I’ve taken him to 2 birthday parties in the past month and something is bothering me. When they do group activities, he always seems to do his own thing. Also if the instructor has the kids running in one direction, he goes the opposite way. I’m really bothered by this because I don’t want something to be wrong with him neurologically. He does follow direction well at home, example: putting plate in sink after eating, cleaning up toys, going to potty, ect. He seems to be having lots of fun at the parties none the less. What are your thoughts?

  24. avatar vicky says:

    hi, i have a four year old daughter and off late i see that she is getting stubborn. Things like when we call her she does not respond the first time, would want to say hi or greet when she meets someone, would not want to say bye as well this in in spite of reminding her to do that, makes faces at us and try to show that she is irritated, or by biting her teeth to show she is upset, just would not want to listen to anything we say. When we lose our cool and shout at her she will do what we want her to do. A lot of times as parent we feel not bringing her up the right way. We have had a lot of ways to try and make her understand but she just doesn’t listen. What is the best way to work around this ?

  25. avatar Scarlet says:

    Hi Janet,

    I just wanted to leave you a comment to commend you on your fantastic approach to child discipline. Especially your emphasis on respect and a calm, firm, but loving approach to behaviour redirection.

    My background is in child psychology, nutrition, and I’m now a mother to a vivacious and intelligent 18 month old who has blossomed under this kind of scaffolding.

    I think your ideas are beneficial to all parents, particularly those who take a parent-centred approach (I.e. Avoid behaviours by taking children away from situations before they occur – thereby missing out on important learning opportunities. E.g. Parents who place babies in play pens instead of making their homes baby-friendly); but also those who choose natural or attachment parenting but need help when their child needs help with negative behaviours.

    Consistency, confidence, forward planning, and respect are key. Thank you for sharing your ideas. They are a pleasure to read.

    Warmest regards,
    Scarlet

  26. avatar Chelsea says:

    I just came across this article while googling “what to do when a 2 year old doesn’t listen” so thank you for the helpful information. I’m kind of at a loss right now with my cute little guy. Just at the park today, I planned a nice big picnic with our favorite foods and toys and planned for a fun afternoon. 3 minutes after setting up I see him trying to take another child’s toy away, and when the child approached him he started throwing sand at some him. So I walked him over to me and told him no, told him to say sorry, and let him know he was on a timeout. We talked about not throwing sand and he said he wanted to go play. When I said not yet, he smacked me and gave me a stare down. So I packed up and headed home and told him no more park. We get home and he’s jumping around the house like he doesn’t care about a thing and I’m wondering, what just happened? How do I fix this? The hitting, the throwing sand? Timeouts aren’t doing it, scolding is definitely not doing it, and I’m so worried I’m going to become the frustrated, angry mom that I trying so hard NOT to become. Help. :(

    • avatar janet says:

      Chelsea – you are wise to recognize that “Timeouts aren’t doing it, scolding is definitely not doing it”. What “does it” is mentoring your child. When you see him engaging with another child, be close, because he is in learning mode and needs your support. NEUTRALLY acknowledge the feelings and desires you see: “You want that toy that the other child has. I see. I won’t let you pick up the sand. That’s not safe.” Be on HIS side. Be his calm leader. Protect him and his peers from hurting each other while acknowledging the feelings behind these actions. “You want to hit the boy because you want his toy. I won’t let you hit. That isn’t safe.” Be neutral, matter-of-fact, confident that you handle these tiny people. Here’s a post that might help: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/04/no-bad-kids-toddler-discipline-without-shame-9-guidelines/

  27. avatar Kelly says:

    Hi Janet
    My 2.5 year old has just started SCREAMING ‘NOOOO’ every time we give him an instruction. Usually it is when it is time to get dressed, go and have a bath or brush his teeth, leave the house or go to bed. Usually he is involved in play and we try to prepare him by telling him that soon it will be bed time and he can do one more of whatever it is he is doing and then it’s time to get dressed, but he still just screams ‘NO’ in our faces. We take his favourite toys away but this has no immediate impact. When he decides he wants them back he will come and say “Sorry Mummy, no more shouting” but that is only to get them back and doesn’t prevent it from happening the very next time he gets an instruction. We’ve tried time out, but each time we go in to get him out of time out he just screams ‘NO’ again, until eventually I sit calmly in front of him and let him scream and scream at me until he starts crying and falls into my arms for a hug until he calms down. I must admit we have also smacked him on the hand, which makes him cry and stop the behaviour so we can complete what we need to do but it still happens again and again. It is particularly difficult in the morning when my husband is getting ready for work and is late as he goes to day care a few days a week and my husband drops him off. He does not have a lot of time in the morning and is becoming increasingly frustrated even though he does all he can to remain calm. He ends up having to hold him down to dress him and it feels very aggressive to have to hold down a fighting screaming toddler. We are at a loss as to what approach to take and feel like we are failing at every turn. I would be most grateful for your direction.

  28. avatar Sue says:

    My 2.5 year old has similar behaviours when I tell him he needs to use the toilet (prior to leaving the house/nap/bedtime, etc.)….except in addition to yelling and whining “nooo!”, he also throws him self on the floor or runs away and screams at me!! He has been toilet trained for at least 6 months now and knows what to do and has always gotten good, positive reinforcement when he goes on the toilet….I don’t know why he freaks out like this. I have tried asking him, and he always just says “because!” It doesn’t make any sense to me and I feel like I’m going to lose my mind!! I always try to stay calm (admittedly, sometimes I don’t if it’s been a particularily bad day)….what else can I do?

  29. avatar Sonya says:

    Hi Janet, my almost 6 year old daughter seems so angry lately. I have been trying to get the bottom of her anger for months. I thought it was because I had returned to work after being at home with her for so long. Tonight she finally opens up and tells me it is a very long story and it all started when her first friend left Hong Kong, she felt upset, then her best friend left in December and her other good friend is leaving in February. So she is feeling angry . Could she really had the cognitive ability at 6 to recognize all this? Secondly how do I show support- Hong Kong is a very transient community. How do I give her strength to be resilient to these changes she will have to face. I really want my sweet little girl back. Thank you

  30. avatar Dennise says:

    Hey Janet, I have a 3.5 year old daughter, and lately I would tell her to do or to stop something and she would just stare and not listen, or she know that by the count of 3 it’s time out or something is taken away, I show her love I play with her sometimes I feel I give her too much attention that when I give another child attention she goes from happy to a negative 10. I don’t know what else to do she’ll cry for hours and I would let her cry n she can go on but it gets frustrating when she doesn’t listen what can I do I’ve tried everything

  31. avatar Mal says:

    My son will be 3 years old in two weeks. I feel he is very negative and I don’t know how to change it. For instance, if I’m going to give him and his sister, who is 16 months old, a snack (or anything) he will tell me he wants one and his sister doesn’t when really she does. He will do this with other children that are around as well. He also will make sure to do something 1 or 2 more times when I’m telling him not to, like jumping off the sofa. Or if I tell him please don’t touch something he will touch it. He knows not to hit but he will swing his hand or kick his fit out acting like he’s going to but he never does. And now the new one is Spitting! I don’t know what’s going on and I feel like I’m always asking him in a firm but polite way not to do something. I spend a lot if time with both of my children together. I’m a sahm and I spend time with the children between getting normal household duties accomplished. We play, read, sing songs and dance, play outside. My children are also very jealous of who has mommy’s attention. When one fusses the other will come running and fuss too. Any advice??

  32. avatar Cori says:

    Hi Janet,
    Thank you for writing these gems. I read them and feel revitalized to take on each new day. One thing we are struggling with is the lack of enthusiasm to do certain tasks from our almost 4 year old daughter, specifically around bathroom use. She began using the toilet in February and still asks for our help wiping, pulling up her pants, moving stepping stool to the sink, and pushing down the soap pump even though I know she is very capable of doing these things on her own. She also takes excessive amounts of time on the toilet, sitting there long past when she’s finished- looking at books, playing with the drawstring on her pants, etc. I find myself often asking if she is done yet. I have a 9 month old baby too, so making the trip to the bathroom, helping with all these things every time she needs to go frustrates me (as much as I try not to be). If I ask her to do these things herself, she says that she can’t and sometimes says it’s because her back hurts or she’s too tired. I know that this need for me is more deep-seeded. Im struggling with staying ho hum and with how to go about this in general.

  33. avatar Amanda Kenney says:

    Hi Janet. I refer to this post often. I have a question for you. I no longer have a toddler, I have a preschooler. I often feel uncertain about how much my expectations need to change (he’s almost 4). When looking through the bulleted areas above, do you see where there would be any changes needed to the above mentioned responses (you provided) or does it all seem applicable for a 4 year old as well as a toddler? I am seeing a shift in my son’s ability to understand things, but am confused about how that should inform my limit-setting.

    Thank you,
    Amanda

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Amanda! Can you be specific about your issue? I believe these general points would all continue to apply.

  34. avatar Ellen says:

    My 2.5yr old daughter doesn’t always take direction well either. Her daycare have requested that she has a hearing test to rule anything out but they and we suspect it’s selective hearing on her part.
    Also she is reluctant to join in with group activities either because she doesn’t want to follow direction or wants to do her own thing. Even in the photos from daycare she’s the one always in the background doing something else rather than with the group. Does anyone have any feedback/suggestions?

  35. avatar evangeline says:

    hi janet, my daughter is 5 years old.she was born very weak and has been a slow learner in everything like walking and talking.at five most people misunderstand her words exept me though she converses in a very intelligent way.she remembers everything except anything relation to studying.she just likes to draw lines on paper and no matter how much i push her to read,she would simply refuse.i put her in pre school and she was happily going there but did not learn anything at all.she just likes to play with her toys the whole day every day and i m reduced to tears when she totally refuses to read or write or follow directions.whats going on with her ?please help me with this

  36. avatar Heidi says:

    My daughter is exactly like the girl in the example for number 5, i do encourage her to try the group activities and will attempt to redirect her a few times but then I just let it go. She is having fun and she is actually listening to the group as is evidenced through her singing the song later on, or being able to follow the directions of the activity even thought she wasn’t ‘actively’ listening (which I think is funny because that’s exactly what she was doing). This is my second child who has had these tendencies and my now 18 yr old is a very intelligent, problem solving, responsible person who can listen and work at the same time. His employers love him.

    What worries me about this behaviour is how it can be seen as bad in school, and she can then be labeled as a distracting child or a problem child, which also happened with my son. But I make sure to give her lots of free play time around the house to make up for all that sitting time at school.

  37. avatar Vee says:

    Hi Janet,
    Thanks for your great articles. I have a question in regards to children attending classes under three years of age. My little one is 12 months and we are thinking of attending a Montessori session once a week for 0-3 year olds. The first part of the morning is a music session that the children participate in, however there is no expectation to participate if the child doesn’t want to. Then there is child-directed play. Do you think that 12 months is still too young for this Montessori style session/program?

  38. avatar Kara says:

    Janet, re this “These responses are not only ineffective, they can also make children feel guilty and cause an unhealthy sense of responsibility for (and therefore discomfort with) the vulnerable feelings of others.” …

    I’ve wondered about the above with the P.E.T. (obviously, not appropriate for small children regardless) but it is also taught in DIR/Floortime, a therapy my son receives.

    My question: Are there appropriate times to talk about our emotions particularly when they are in response to something the child did? I use the phrase “hurt my heart”, and I’ve used it before, I think probably after my son hit me (I can’t remember, and when I see that he’s had his feeling hurt after a peer rejections (he’s 4) when he cries like it hurt him deeply, not just over a disappoint, I’ll ask him “that hurt your heart?” and he seems to understand this. Certainly at *some* age it becomes a good idea to acquaint children with the idea that others have emotions, and that they can influence them (though, I’ve heard conflicting information as to the age they are capable of this, and of course to what extent they understand this). Your thought? TIA.

Leave a Reply

©2014 Janet Lansbury  site design by Zaudhaus, Inc. | Riviera 4 Media
Pinterest