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.

If you’re struggling to understand your child’s behavior, you’re certainly not alone! AND help is on the way! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at nobadkidscourse.com. ♥

(Photo by Umesh Behari Mathur on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. 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,

    1. Hi Priyanka,

      I am currently having similar issue with my 2.8yr daughter, she is extremely active and will not to most things and loves to climb up on everything no matter how high it gets. She goes to childcare 2 days a week and loves it because she can play non stop especially outside because I don’t have a yard at home, she dislikes being at home.

  2. 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.

    1. Priyanka jagtap Badwar says:

      Hi. My name is priyanka, my baby boy is 3 years old. I want suggestions that what can I do for my child, as he doesn’t listen to me, doesn’t follow my commands. Kindly help me

  3. 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. Your articles make me feel like a terrible parent.

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

      1. What a load of bollocks your article! Children don’t disobey because we don’t give them enough love, they disobey because they are children and they are testing boundaries. It is our job to show them what boundaries are!

        1. David , that is contained in the article. It says child are testing boundaries at least 3 times and also says parents need to show boundaries (firm but gentle limits).

    2. 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. 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,

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

  6. Thanks for sharing.What a lot of good information.

    1. My doughter also 2.5 year old, she is still not sayibg any word.. She is enjoying play with balls, blocks watching tv, rhyems,, but she is not understand what we saying to her, not follow any instructions, if she want something she hold my hand and showing what she want but not say a word. I’m play with her, proper talk with her but still she is not talking and understand what I’m saying to her.. I’m too worried,what is going wrong with her.. What should I do..

      1. kelly winkel says:

        Talk to her doctor and see if you can get her in speech and possibly autism testing.

      2. Hi Vini,
        My daughter is 2.8yrs and also doesn’t speak words she only pulls my hand and takes me to where she wants like the fridge she will pull my hand to the fridge but will not say words and I’m very worried, we all talk to her she only doesn’t baby sounds and laughs giggles baby language but not proper words. I’m so so worried.

  7. 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%.

    1. The recommended way to feed sweets to kids is to just give it to them on their plate with their meal. That way you’re not putting it on a pedestal and it actually increases likelihood of eating the other foods. The instagram kidseatincolor has a lot of other great info from a dietitian about feeding kids.

  8. 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?

    1. I think she would say basically prevent it before it happens. So before you tell them it’s time to leave, give them time to process and expect it with a warning and then be near them ready to guide them by the shoulders or hold their hand when you tell them now it’s time to go. That way you’re not running after them.

    2. I second what Cheryl says about the gentle warnings.. I’ll warn my son 10 or 15 minutes before we have to leave, then another warning at 5 minutes. Then if he gets upset when it’s time to go I’ll say something like “It’s so hard to leave when you’re having fun. I know you’re having a hard time with leaving right now so I’ll help you.” And then I’ll pick him up or take his hand. Sometimes I’ll give him a choice between walking by himself or me helping him, all depending on the situation and his mood. I find that paying close attention to his cues is also important.. if he’s rubbing his eyes or starting to get clumsy then I know he’s getting tired and it’s time to go, even if it seems earlier than planned.

  9. 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.

    1. Sheena Badger-James says:

      Would love an answer to this!

    2. This drives me crazy too!

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

  11. 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. Karen Campbell says:

    I just came across your website and I’m so glad I did! I have a very busy outspoken 4 year old son. He has a hard time with impulsive behavior and when he gets tired his behavior is extremely challenging. I was so overwhelmed trying to figure out if he has something really wrong with him or is this just normal 4 year old behaviour? Thanks for your article it really opened me up to new ideas I hadn’t even considered.

  13. Hi Janet,

    Great article and so true! It will sure help to take this behaviour less personally.
    I do believe you left out a very common reason: the fact that children up to the age of 3 have not yet fully developed their “impulse control”. Theres an area in the brain that is responsible for this. Basically they act before they can stop themselves.
    I actually wonder to what extend many of us adults do have developed our impulse control, as we also very often act/react first and then think, but for sure with toddlers the action often comes first, and then the memory “oh right, mommy just told me not to run/ hit/ talk/ pull the cats tail etc”.

  14. Hi Janet,
    I bought your book and read it in one night! Loved it, however I see a section from your book in this article that has also been left unfinished. You give an example of a mom with her toddler in a playgroup, the toddler won’t follow activities and just plays about while other kids sit with their moms. You only give a rather sarcastic response but don’t actually address this issue and help guide us parents as to what to do this in this situations. I have the same issue, we go to a music group once a week but each time my toddler only sits for maybe 5 minutes to listen to the music and bang on a drum but as soon as we transition activities she’s off doing whatever she wants. The instructor and other moms give me nasty looks as I sit alone on the mat singing along to kids music while my kid does something else. So, please don’t tell me to get the book, I did and the same example appeared with the same response but no valuable solutions or suggestions offered… I am confused then how to handle this situation. Surely my 20 month old has a short attention span and if a free spirit but isn’t it healthy to learn discipline and to follow the group? (to a degree of course).

    1. Hi Liv – Thank you for reading! I’m sorry my response was unhelpful! It was meant to acknowledge that, developmentally, we should not expect a child this age to sit and follow directions in an adult directed class. Children learn and develop focus and attention span by being encouraged to be self-directed in their play activities. Here’s a post that explains further: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/04/toddler-learning-focus-or-freedom/
      Also, the book, The Hurried Child is an excellent resource for understanding developmental appropriateness

      So, in your situation, I would consider if my child was succeeding in this situation and, if not, I would discontinue the class and letting my child play free form at home or in a park setting, etc.
      I realize that classes are all the rage for parents these days, but the majority are not developmentally appropriate. Hope that helps!

      1. I’m glad you say that about classes, Janet. We have a 1.5yr old and he’s mostly at home with me. We have a playdate now and then and he goes to church nursery on Sunday, but he’s well behaved and an “easy” kid. I believe much of that is because we’ve implemented an environment of respect for his whole (albeit little, haha) personage.
        But, I am starting to feel “pressured” from other parents — even some with grown children who have moved out! — to put our son in some kind of structured social group (pre-school, kiddie classes, etc); my gut tells me this is not right!
        Thank you for the encouragement in this area. I want my son to enjoy being little, and not feel like he’s being pushed to act like an adult too soon. (We believe children can still behave properly without acting “grown up”!)

        1. My 2.8yr old daughter also does this in childcare she will just go play with whatever toys she wants while the other kids in her group and sitting around the educator listening

  15. Valkyrie Evans says:

    My 3-year-old daughter has always had and still has tantrum episodes every single day. It’s humiliating. Bedtime is so stressful EVERY DAY! And this is not the only time she is out of control. I have tried it all; routine, stories, positive reinforcement, games, etc., still, nothing works. We can’t figure it out…we would appreciate your input… I’m all ears!!! Thanks!!!

  16. JANET PLEASE CONTACT The woman in the example with the child 2.5 rolling around and dancing when other kids are sitting quietly…please suggest she take her child to an OT. My child (4) used to do the same thing and was later diagnosed with sensory integration issues and praxis issues. That behaviour sounds like she is craving sensory input in an effort to calm her body hence why she isn’t able to sit quietly or pay attention to the animator. Wish I had have seen the early warning signs. Please get it checked out and avoid later issues that my child now has to struggle with.

  17. Harpreet Kaur says:

    My son is 22 months, he doesn’t follow the instructions and doesn’t recognize his name. Please suggest.

  18. Reem Ghannam says:

    Responding to Karen Campbell: My 4yo boy is the same. Very outspoken, strong willed and won’t listen either. I do a lot of connection work with him. Its exhausting but satisfying when you see the result.

  19. Do we need to draw a distinction between hearing and listening? Babies are born able to hear but listening is an acquired skill which requires attention, working memory etc as well as other aspects of executive function. Listening systems don’t mature until a child is 15/16. Check out Carol Flexer’s work in deaf children. It’s all really interesting

  20. My 2.5year old he pokes at everything even his seepy cup holes. Once I noticed He was trying to shove stuff down the tiny holes.
    I know young children like to fit containers into containers to see if they fit BUT this is getting not only ridiculously but dangerous. What to do. Also he managed the clamp to open the bag of potatoes and ate , ate and too full for the Macncheese . Am concerned mainly with this obsession of opening and closing and fitting things and pocking at everything.
    HELP !!!

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