Why your toddler ignores what you say – and what to do about it

The reasons behind your toddler's tendency to ignore everything you ask him to do, and what you can do to help him listen and respond.

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When it seems your toddler’s unable to listen to, or follow, your instructions, it can be very frustrating and it may feel like he’s deliberately ignoring you. Yet there are good psychological reasons why a toddler might take time to learn how to do what is asked of him.

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Reasons why your toddler seems to ignore you

First of all there’s his ego to consider. A toddler sees the world from his perspective, in terms of what he wants and needs and he assumes he should be allowed to do what he wants. He’s also easily distracted, so doesn’t naturally concentrate when you ask him to do something.

Then there’s his memory. A toddler’s ability to retain an instruction takes time to develop – he often genuinely forgets something that he was thinking only a few minutes earlier.

Plus, his hearing might be a touch selective, too. He’ll hear you ask what kind of ice cream he wants but seems deaf to requests that he leave the swings. If he’s engaged in an enjoyable activity, don’t be surprised if he tunes out instructions to stop playing. You hazard a guess that he’s ignoring you, but he actually might not have heard, or might not have understood.

How to get your toddler to listen

Before you ask your toddler to do something for you, have a look around the room in order to identify potential distractions, and then eliminate them. Background noise not only drowns out the sound of your voice, it also draws his limited attention in many different directions at once. Mute the sound on the TV set, CD player or radio, or better still, switch these gadgets off so that your toddler realises that you are about to say something important. And remember, you must lead by example. So when you’re asked to do something by someone, you need to get into the habit of responding in the way you’d like your toddler to act towards you.

Use your toddler’s name to grab his attention in the first place before you issue an instruction. He has an instinctive reaction to turn around when he hears his name; this is a reflex action. When you want him to listen to you, start off by saying his name clearly and loudly, and then pause for a moment until you’re confident that you have his full attention. When you’re sure you have it, give him the instruction.

Your toddler will hear you better when you’re closer to him. This seems obvious, but busy parents often end up shouting from another room!

5 steps to stop your toddler ignoring you

  1. Use a calm but firm voice when giving instructions. Raising it will startle your toddler.
  2. Give your toddler time to digest instructions before he reacts; he might need longer than you think to take them in.
  3. Ask him if he can tell you what you’ve just asked him to do.
  4. Limit the instructions – give your toddler individual tasks, rather than bombarding him with orders.
  5. It might help your toddler’s motivation to follow commands if you specifically tell him you’ll check up on his progress in a few minutes.
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