Your Toddler Probably Doesn't Listen To You, And That's Normal

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
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It is so hard to deal with a kid who won’t listen. You know they can hear you, but they’re choosing to not acknowledge you. The fact that they’ve decided to ignore you is the most frustrating part. While not normally stubborn kids can be a pain in the ass, it’s a totally normal phase in kids’ lives to push the boundaries and tune parents out.

“[R]ecognize that your child isn’t purposely trying to undermine you — he’s just acting his age,” says Joseph Shrand, MD, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School. Our kids aren’t trying to be assholes; they’re just hitting a developmental milestone and working their way through it. It’s frustrating, but we need to acknowledge that it’s a part of them growing up and becoming their own people.

My kid is 4. I can stand there and call his name 10 times before he looks up and acknowledges that I’m talking to him. Or if I give him a simple command, like “Please put your cup in the sink,” I have to repeat myself a million goddamn times before he actually picks up the cup and takes it into the kitchen. He will go back to his game, or stare straight ahead at the TV, or find something else to do before he just takes the damn cup to the sink.

While this is something all parents have to go through, there are a few things that seem to help sometimes:

1. Be clear with your requests.

If there is something specific you want done, be clear about it. If you’re always reminding your kid to take their shoes off when they get inside, try giving a one-word command. “Shoes,” for example is straight to the point. Also, keep the number of requests to a minimum. It’s easy to shut down when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

2. Take a step back.

If you’re not getting through to them, screaming isn’t going to make it any better. So take a step back and take a few deep breaths or leave the room to calm down. When you’re more clear-headed, you can try again.

3. Acknowledge their feelings.

Sometimes their reluctance to listen has little to do with the task or command you’ve given. Maybe they’re feeling frustrated or upset. Try to get to the root of their feelings. For example, if you can’t get them to put their shirt on, stop and see if there’s something wrong. I use this one with my son a lot: “Is there a reason you don’t want to put your shirt on?” Maybe it itches, or they simply want to wear something else that day. Maybe they’re feeling like you don’t listen to their wishes, so tuning you out is the best way to get your attention.

4. No threats and no bribes.

This is one can be hard, especially if you’re the queen of bribes like me. But Supernanny warns against threats and bribes for a reason, because if you bribe them once, they’re going to expect a bribe every time. And they are going to hold out until there’s something there to motivate them.

And most of the time your threats are just that — threats. If you’re going to offer some sort of discipline for not performing the task, that’s one thing. You should absolutely follow through on that. “If you don’t clear your plate after dinner, you will not get dessert” is fine, but “If you clear your plate, I’ll give you an extra popsicle” is not a great idea.

Having your kid ignore you can drive even the most patient, gentle parent to the brink. But getting yourself all worked up isn’t going to make anything better for anyone. Believe me, I know. These are just some of the most basic tools to try to help you get through, because like most things, this too shall pass. I hope.