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 offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in
NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by Jason Lander on Flickr)

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

  1. avatar Priyanka Naib says:

    Hello Janet,

    Greetings from Priyanka. Thanks for very nice post and interesting subject. I live in India. My 2.9 month old daughter goes to playgroupsince 2 months- daily two hours. She is very active kid, and loves nature and outside things..

    She has around 12 kids in her class, and she is the only one who does not sit in the classroom, and remains in the lawn or on swings. It is not a problem to me at all. However, every month in parent meeting, I get a feedback from the teachers that my daughter was not set well yet!! Reason: she only roams outside, plays outside, does all activities other kids do – but not in the closed room. She hardly sits in the class for 10-15 minutes, and just jumps outside, where there is a lawn and open space. This is described as her ‘problem’..They even tried to threaten her for sitting inside, but she is not scared.

    I am not sure how to response them in the next meeting, and make them understand what she does is perfectly all right. Please let me know if her likings for outside is ok? Also, is it ok, if she plays outside then sitting in a closed room seeing the teacher doing some acts?

    Another ‘problem’ is bit real problem. At a moment, when she remembers me during playgroup, she starts crying hard, and none can lift her pin back from that point of record..It is difficult to turn her to some other act, once she has some strong urge. Even at home, if I’ve promised to take her out, and for some reason, I cannot fulfill, It become difficult to later on convince her. She has remained crying whole night missing to go out.

    Please guide me for both the points.

    Many thanks,
    Priyanka

  2. avatar ceci says:

    My 20month will not obey direction from me,but when others tell him to do any thing he obeys easily,and he will not stay in daycare or kids class in church all he does is cry all day,he whins alot.

  3. avatar Ruth Barker says:

    Hi Janet,

    I would also add to that list – we may have not prepared the environment enough for the developing brain. That is, it may not be ordered and may fee chaotic to the child. They may feel lost in an adult world.

  4. avatar Joel says:

    Your articles make me feel like a terrible parent.

    • avatar janet says:

      I’m very sorry to hear that, Joel. That is certainly not my intention. My only goal is to help.

    • avatar Melanie says:

      Joel,

      I think it’s normal to feel like a terrible parent when it seems like certain things don’t work for certain kids. I have a 3 year old and I feel like a terrible parent probably twice a day. Just the fact that you are trying and caring makes you a great parent!

      Melanie 🙂

  5. avatar Nancy says:

    I am having a hard time trying to get my 4 year old brush his teeth and get dressed in the morning. He just runs around, sneaks away from me and laughs. Sometimes it can take 40 minutes just to get him ready by which time I am late for work. I tried naughty chair. But when the time is over, he seems to be really hurt. He refuses me to hug him and pushes me away. The next morning it can be the same. I am a single parent. This gets me so exhausted.
    Just for this situation, what do you suggest I should do? I tried not ignore his behaviour but just grab him into the bathroom without talking to him and get him brushed, washed and dressed. I simply do not have the time. I have been late for work almost every morning.
    The rest of the time, he could behaviour really well, like stop playing in the playground and going home etc.
    Please help. Thanks,

    • avatar Pascale says:

      What I do is prepared my son the night before for the next day. When it is the end of bath time, I get him ready with clean underwear, pants and shirt. Thus the next morning, this step is already done…it save me lots of time and frustration. Hope it helps!

    • avatar Susanna says:

      I recommend figuring out why he’s avoiding that and then talking to him about his feelings about teeth brushing times there is no time pressure.

      With my son, in those conversations I acknowledge he dislikes teeth brushing and go over the reasons why (validating that it’s not a pleasant thing for him) and then talking about the reasons why we have to do it even though it’s not fun/pleasant (it cleans the germs that can eat holes in our teeth and helps keep our teeth and gums healthy).

      Then when he balks at teeth brushing time I tell him again, I know this is not pleasant for you for these reasons and go over the reason that it’s not optional then I try to offer choices so he gets caught up in choosing his toothbrush, kind of paste, where he wants to brush, if he wants to brush or if he just wants me to brush(since I always give a swipe at the end after he brushes).

      There are still hairy days, but those things have diffused a lot of his reluctance and I have to struggle less overall to get his teeth brushed.

    • avatar Jamie says:

      Could you try brushing his teeth at night instead of the morning? So all he would have to do is get dressed? And maybe let him pick out the shirt he wears or something to make it kind of fun for him?
      When my son does that, I usually take his hand and kneel down and tell him that mommy really needs him to help her this morning and ask him if he can do that. That way it takes away the power struggle and let’s him feel like he’s helping.

  6. avatar Susan says:

    Thanks for sharing.What a lot of good information.

  7. avatar Val says:

    Thanks for putting this out there!
    “Words are not enough”… How would this method work when your child is INSISTENT on having that cookie minutes before dinner?
    “N, we’re going to eat dinner soon. You can have a cookie after we eat. Can you wait for your dessert, please?”
    In addition to talking, re-direction only works so well if you’ve got dinner on the stove and you can’t be there 100%.

  8. avatar Jill says:

    Can you say more on what to do when your child runs away from you? If it’s a dangerous situation, go after them quickly, but when it’s just leaving the park and they run the other direction, what’s the best course of action? I don’t like pretending to leave because I feel it’s 1. An empty threat & 2. Terrifying for the child to think you’re leaving them. What do you do to get them to come or shut down the repetition anytime they are free to walk and not holding hands?

  9. avatar Anneka says:

    But what about when they actually won’t stop and listen? When you cannot get their attention even when I am bent down to their level holding hands speaking directly to them and they just carry on jumping about or yabbering a song or some made up word. Drives me up the wall.

  10. avatar Ann says:

    Thanks for the informative article. Can you provide a couple of examples in point #1. Ways to avoid disconnectedness? Thanks!

  11. avatar Joanne Bober says:

    My 2.5 yr old granddaughter is hitting other children for no apparent reason. She goes up to them and smacks them. She has been shown and told to be gentle. She has calmly but firmly been told that hitting hurts. She has had timeouts. It is getting to the point that she can’t be around strange children. Any advice?

    Thank you

  12. avatar Kristen Solberg says:

    As I read your articles, I recognize the mistakes I have made with our daughter who is now 6. For example, being afraid to set clear boundaries for fear of her intense reaction & also breaking down & crying & making her feel too responsible. Do you ever address how to turn things around with an older child. I believe your principles don’t change but could you offer some tips for mending a bond that has been broken at times? Would you suggest reading one of your books over the other when it comes to older children? I know that is not your focus. Wish I would have come across you before my child was born!!

    • avatar janet says:

      Kristen – you can change these dynamics at any time and your child will adapt readily. The challenging part is changing the patterns that are ingrained in us. I recommend reading my book, No Bad Kids, along with No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. I would practice visualizing these situations differently, believing in yourself as a capable leader, and perceiving your daughter’s emotional releases positively. Have you listened to my podcasts? Many have found them helpful for getting the tone and feel of this approach: http://www.janetlansbury.com/podcasts/ You can do this!

      • avatar Kristen Solberg says:

        Thank you so much! We will check out your podcasts! I DIDN”T know you had podcasts! And I’m happy to hear you think your books can still help us out. I really appreciate your response. 🙂

  13. avatar Karen says:

    My 18 month old son is so happy to see me when I pick him up from daycare but every single day he will not pur on his coat. He flails and screams..runs away from me. I have not found a good way to handle this and everyone stares at me. He screams all the way home. He has also started acting out in public places where I have had to leave. I have 3 older children and have never experienced this. How do I nip this in the bud?

  14. avatar Lyn says:

    Toddlerhood is a stage of testing limits and asserting independence. It is typical for 2 and 3 year old children to challenge when asked to do something they do not want to – such as using the bathroom before a long car ride, getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc., that we as adults feel are necessary and reasonable requests. Getting push back is not uncommon, nor does it make you a bad parent or indicate that you are doing anything wrong. No matter how kind you are and how much control and freedom you give them within a structured environment, some children will continue to challenge. In those situations, where it is something such as tooth brushing, some motivation may be required. Positively state, “We can read our story as soon as your teeth are brushed! Would you like to brush now, or in five minutes?” That little bit of control, combined with a reminder of the order of events, may do the trick.

  15. avatar Suzanne says:

    I try so hard to follow your advice but I find it so hard sometimes. I have a lively 3 year old who’s very strong willed and when I’m unwell (which is often), I’m not as confident or positive as a leader needs to be. So yes I feel like a failure when I do hit her out of frustration (never more than one hit but I know even that is one too many) or yell at her or handle her roughly. I always try to look at the reason behind her behaviour, is she tired, hungry, overwhelmed etc etc. When I’m well I’m much better able to handle it and adopt a ‘ho hum’ attitude. But when I’m ill, usually with a migraine, my mood is harder to control and my temper much shorter. And of course she is more likely to play up and less likely to go for a nap when it’s her naptime and when it’s my opportunity to rest and take my migraine tablets. They don’t work otherwise. My migraine gets worse and worse and I end up with a huge migraine. I am left feeling like a bad mother and that she would be better off adopted which breaks my heart. But in-care children don’t fare well either.

    I was hit with a wooden spoon or spanked when I was naughty as a child and regularly made to feel small, I wasn’t allowed to lose my temper or disobey my parents. Of course I want different for my child but it’s hard to break that. I moved 6 months ago because it was too expensive to rent where we lived before and there’s no-one to look after her if I need a break. My partner often just comes home after work and sleeps until he makes dinner for all of us. Sometimes I think it would have been better if I hadn’t had a child because she doesn’t deserve this.

  16. avatar Erin says:

    You mentioned above “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)…”

    My son has the same issue where he would rarely follow what teacher ask the kids to do during playgroup. Does your daughter participate playgroup or likes to do her own thing? I would love talk to you more about this because I see us having the similarities here.

    Let me know

  17. avatar Elly says:

    My daughter is 2 months away from 3. She is incredibly sweet, and also by far the worst child I’ve ever been around. She hits, she screams, she says “f*ck you” thanks to her dad’s potty mouth. She rips leaves off of all my plants, climbs on everything, will not get down no matter what. Breaks anything she can get her hands on. Loves to mess up anything clean and orderly. Thinks hitting is funny and is a joke or game. Thinks bad words are funny and it’s a game. No matter what I do or say she will not ever stop. She’s completely relentless, independent, and listens to anyone except her parents. Especially me. I’m at my end. I never want to be around her, the happiness to frustration level is a 1-9. Most of the time I just wish I had somewhere for her to go and be out of my hair. I know this is terrible and it makes me feel terrible, but I have had it with the yelling and screaming and reprimanding. She always runs from me too and I end up hurting my self trying to catch her, every time. She makes me cry and wish I had a better kid…I feel like worst mom of the year. She’s so unpleasant to be around I can’t help it.

    • avatar janet says:

      Elly – It sounds like your daughter needs more calm physical containment and prevention. Words are usually not enough to alter a young child’s behavior. Don’t allow her access to the plants — calmly stop her. She is showing you that she feels very out of control. She may laugh, but this is uncomfortable laughter. She sounds very, very uncomfortable. I think my podcasts might be helpful to you. Here’s one to start with: https://soundcloud.com/janet-lansbury/intense-difficulties-with-a-defiant-resistant-child

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