Google+ Authentic Parenting: 3 Ways to Respond to a Toddler Who Won’t Listen

Sunday, June 9, 2013

3 Ways to Respond to a Toddler Who Won’t Listen

Written by Michelle Carchae

We’ve all been there. The toddler grabs something she shouldn’t. You step in and say, “No, the sharp knife/Aunt Maud’s crystal/the cat’s tail isn’t for playing with. Come play with the blocks over here!” Your toddler half-heartedly plays blocks for three seconds until you look away, then is right back there pulling at the knife/crystal/cat’s tail again. Why won’t she listen? And what do you do next?

Toddlers are a curious bunch. One minute they want to cuddle, nurse or sweetly stroke your cheek. The next they’re blatantly charging ahead with their own agenda, regardless of your rules. Toddlers are naturally growing into a stage of increasing independence, and part of that experience is learning where their new independence can take them, and where it can’t. A toddler’s refusal to listen is normal, not a reflection of her lack of respect for you or a sign of your lack of parenting skill.

What’s the best way to deal with a toddler who won’t listen? Empathize, Distract and Remove.

1. Empathize. First, empathize with your toddler. Tell him that you understand how fascinating the forbidden object is. Tell him you understand how much he wants it. Really try to feel what it would be like to be your toddler, and keep that empathy in mind when you’re setting boundaries. Of course, just because he really wants to pull the cat’s tail and you can fully empathize with how tempting it must be doesn’t mean it’s ok for him to pull the cat’s tail. Empathy usually needs to be paired with either distraction or removal to be effective with toddlers.

2. Distract. Toddlers can be amazingly single-minded, but this can actually work to your advantage if you succeed in shifting their attention elsewhere. After you empathize and reflect their feelings back, shift immediately to something else. Pull out a bag of pom poms and a plastic cup. Bring out the kitchen pots and pans. Play “This Little Piggy” or have a silly face competition. Go for a little walk. Read a story. Toddlers will almost always be attracted to an activity that lets them spend time with their important adult, so be prepared to get down on the floor and play for a bit until they forget about the forbidden object.

3. Remove. If empathy followed by distraction doesn’t work, you’ll need to remove either the forbidden object or your child from the situation. This doesn’t have to be a big production, and it’s better if you can keep it as kind and matter-of-fact as possible. “Time to put the crystal away!” is all you need to say to your child, then ask Aunt Maud if there’s somewhere safe for her breakables to go while you and your toddler are visiting. If your toddler repeatedly hits or takes a toy from another child at a party or playdate, it’s time to either leave the party or take some time to calm down together in another room. Chances are he’s either overtired, hungry or overwhelmed.

When my eldest was a toddler, I found it so hard to deal with her independence and refusal to listen. I felt very frustrated, tried so hard to make her listen and I took it personally when she didn’t. Now I know that most toddlers don’t listen at times, and that’s ok. It’s normal. After I understood this, it became much easier to deal with the inevitable toddler challenges.


About the author
Michelle Carchrae is often asking those important life questions: “who moved the scissors?”, “how would you do that differently next time?” and “are you finished with the glitter glue?” Homeschooling two girls, ages 6 and 3, is her full time job. The rest of the time Michelle can be found blogging at The Parent Vortex, hiking in the forest or knitting and reading simultaneously.


The Parenting Primer
I’ve gathered up many of the other things I’ve learned about parenting with gentle discipline in the first six years and published them in an e-book called The Parenting Primer . The Parenting Primer starts out by looking at how love and limits influence our parenting, then explores other topics that affect our relationship with our child, such as information on brain development or personality, communication skills, lifestyle choices, creativity and self-discipline.

I've included references to a lot of the parenting resources and other parenting books that I found helpful, and each section ends with some questions to inspire reflection and something to actually try in your real life. Stories and tidbits from my own personal experience struggling to improve my parenting skills are woven throughout the book.

Find "The Parenting Primer" and similar books on Amazon:


Image source: Stacey Lynn Photography



  1. Ahhh these are great great tips! Empathy is probably the one I lack but am actively trying to remember.

  2. That looks like a great book. i love the tips you mentioned. they are positive, helpful and gets your point across without yelling!


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