Motherhood can be such a trip. I have plenty of moments when I feel like a magnet for little hands, chubby cheeks, and all manner of requests and demands. But there are other times still, when I have to wonder if I’m suddenly invisible. Is it possible that I have vanished into thin air and no one can see me standing in the toy wreckage begging for their helping hands?
Honestly, there seems to be no in-between: either my toddler, especially, is on top of me, or she is off in her own world. The latter would be all fine and good except for the fact that it comes with an uncanny ability to repel nearly all of my instructions. And that, as you might imagine, absolutely maddens me.
So, in the hopes of soothing this particular pain point and adding more peace to my day-to-day, I called in two developmental therapists to share their toddler expertise—Kayla O’Neill and Emily Patillo. Below, they offer professional advice for convincing toddlers to stop and pay attention.
Toddlers, especially 2-year-olds, are some of my favorite people. But no matter how adorable or funny I find them to be, I cannot abide by their penchant for flouting rules and directions. It’s just so aggravating. But when I posed the question of how to improve my toddler’s listening skills to Patillo, her first note was to reframe how I’m thinking.
“So much of a baby’s world is controlled by adults,” she said. “So, when they go through the big cognitive jump into toddlerhood, they are hungry to flex their independence. They begin to realize they can have thoughts and ideas that differ from those of the adults in their world.” This, she explained, is why we often see our toddlers pushing boundaries and buttons, and firmly saying “no.” Patillo was quick to add that, although challenging, this is just the sort of behavior we want to see from our toddlers, as it is a piece of healthy, typical development.
Don’t take it personally. I find keeping this at top of mind helps take the edge off the roughest moments.
She explained that it’s likely my toddler doesn’t mean to ignore me, per se, but that she is so involved in a particular task that she simply can’t split her attention. I can’t help but distill Patillo’s explanations into a single dictum we can apply across all parenting experiences: don’t take it personally. I find keeping this at top of mind helps take the edge off the roughest moments.
Now that we have an understanding of what’s going on from a developmental perspective, it’s time to dive into a plan. Here’s what the experts had to say:
1. Get down on their level: O’Neill encouraged parents to start with the most basic step: making certain you have your child’s full attention before giving them any instructions. “[Toddlers] have very short attention spans,” she said. “Making eye contact and getting down to their level allows them to not only pay attention to what you are saying but also [see] your facial expressions.”
2. Keep it concise: When it comes to giving directions to a young child, less is more. O’Neill reminded parents to keep their instructions short and simple. She suggested that, instead of speaking in full sentences to ask your toddler to clean up their blocks, you choose a short phrase like “blocks in.”
3. Gesture: Pair your simple requests with a gesture to drive home your intent. When you say “blocks in” to your toddler, also point to where the blocks belong. “Pointing adds a visual prompt which can be helpful as well,” O’Neill said.
4. Break it down: Have you ever eyed a mountain of dirty dishes only to wonder where on Earth you’re supposed to start? Patillo encouraged parents to remember this feeling when asking our little ones to clean up. “Give young children small tasks one at a time so that digging into a big cleaning project feels manageable,” she said. “If you task them with tidying up a whole room without much direction, they’ll soon feel just as overwhelmed as you would.” The difference is that their overwhelm will likely result in a big, stormy tantrum.
When It Doesn’t Go Your Way
Despite all of your planning, there’s a fair chance your toddler still won’t listen to you. When that happens, what can you do? Both O’Neill and Patillo cautioned parents against resorting to discipline. Instead, Patillo suggested partnering up with your child to get the job done.
“At that point, it’s time to gently and calmly take your child’s hands and help them complete the task,” Patillo said. “You can also say something like, ‘You’re having a hard time putting these blocks away. I’ll help you do it.’” By employing this hand-over-hand technique, you show your toddler just what you’d like them to do the next time around.
O’Neill recommended that parents take a moment and consider what went wrong in the first place. As a way of troubleshooting, she suggested posing the following questions:
- Does your child have basic needs that need to be met before they can pay attention (e.g. they are hungry, need a diaper change, are tired, etc)?
- Are your expectations too high? How can you simplify the task for your child?
- Is there a different way to give instructions, such as turning cleanup into a game in which your child has to beat the timer?
As with everything in motherhood, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to our struggles. But each time we meet our toddlers where they are developmentally, we set ourselves up for a better chance of success.