Back to Home Skip Navigation LinksHome Knowledge Center How To Get Your Toddler to Listen
Back to Knowledge Center Results

How To Get Your Toddler to Listen


​Poor listening, or “noncompliance,” is one of the most common concerns expressed by parents of toddlers and school-aged children. Children love having fun; they want to keep doing it. Once a parent makes a request that ends or prevents fun, children may respond with behaviors ranging from whining to complaining to hurricane-force tantrums. Parents often say that they need to repeat requests, raise their voice, or threaten to get their child to do what they have asked. Behold, a few simple changes in the way you teach your child to listen can make a big difference.

  • Getting Your Toddler to Listen

    ​​It's actually very common for toddlers not to listen. Unfortunately they're not born knowing how to listen and they learn through experience. They might experience some positive outcomes for listening or some negative outcomes for listening and that's really what helps them learn.

    How do I give effective instructions to my toddler?

    On the front end they can be very aware of how they're giving instructions. The way they tell their child to do something can have a big impact on whether or not their toddler will follow that instruction or not.

    Giving direct commands, simple commands, stating commands positively, all of those will increase the likelihood that a child will do what they've been told to do.

    How do I improve my toddler's listening?

    To help kids learn we want to be telling them what they're doing well. As soon as they follow that instruction, nice job listening, I like it when you follow instructions, great job getting your pajamas on. It's a really easy thing for a parent to get in to the habit of doing.

    When should I seek help for my toddler?

    It's not unusual for children to test the limits. That's how they learn but if you're having difficulty where your toddler isn't listening and it's making it difficult for you to get to work; to get your child to eat, get your child to go to bed or if you're working on potty training and you can't get your child to sit on the toilet and stay on the toilet, if it's causing any sort of disruption in your life that's a good time to seek some additional help.​​

Sending Signals

You are the message-sender; the traffic light for your child. Real traffic lights go predictably from green to yellow to red. Imagine if traffic lights changed at random. You wouldn’t know whether you needed to go or not! As a parent, the more predictable your signals are, the more predictable your child’s behavior will be. When you make a request, your light is green and children are given the signal to “GO” and complete a task. If they listen, then make their efforts pay off! Provide them with praise, attention, smiles, etc. This will get them GO-ing, and they will eventually learn that the sooner they follow your request, the sooner they are back to playing and having fun.

If your child doesn’t listen ​(or comply), then your light goes to yellow, warning of an upcoming consequence: “If you don’t do this, then – this will happen.” By predictably showing your children that not listening the first time brings a warning and not simply a repeated instruction or nagging, the more compliant and predictable your child’s behavior will eventually become. If you have given one request followed by one warning and your child still doesn’t listen, then your light goes to red, meaning you give a negative consequence like timeout or a privilege loss. Once the consequence is given, go back to green and repeat the instruction (it still needs to get done!).

Too Much Green or Flashing Yellow…

Some parents make numerous requests followed by numerous warnings, with consequences occurring unpredictably, late, or never. Once a child knows that a parent’s light stays green or yellow for a long period of time and may never turn red, there is little reason to “GO” on green. When signals aren’t predictable, it encourages children to ignore their parents, become defiant, or escalate misbehaviors with the hope of changing their parents’ minds.


Sometimes a parent can carry predictability and authority too far. Jumping right from a request that was not followed to a harsh punishment may result in better listening – at least temporarily. However, when this happens, a child is often responding out of fear and may resent the parents because the punishment feels so unfair. Giving a warning allows children the chance to think about their choices, knowing that a specific consequence will happen with whatever choice they make.

Teaching Your Child To Listen

Teaching your child to listen is a process that relies heavily on communication and consistency. Boys Town Behavioral Health Care offers parents the following tips to help you successfully teach your child the importance of listening, the first time:

  1. Stay calm

    Be calm and firm at the same time. Use a neutral tone of voice instead of yelling.

  2. Be direct

    A direct command leaves no question in the child’s mind what he/she is being told to do. The choices are clear. For example, “Sit in the chair, please” and “Pick up your toys” instead of “Could you please sit down now?” and “Mommy likes it when you pick up your toys.”

  3. State commands positively

    Tell your child what to “GO” do instead of what not to do. Whenever possible, avoid the use of “no,” “don’t,” “stop,” “quit it,” etc. For example, “Keep your feet on the ground” instead of “Stop climbing on the furniture.”

  4. Give one command at a time

    Children have a hard time remembering more than one thing at a time. Avoid stringing commands together. For example, “Put your toys in the bin” instead of “Put your toys away, wash your hands, and come to dinner.”

  5. Give age-appropriate commands

    Commands should be things that the child is developmentally/physically capable of doing. Remember that many tasks actually have multiple steps. Children may need you to help them break down the command into a small chunk. For example, “Put the clothes on the floor in the hamper” instead of “Clean your room.”

  6. Give brief rationales

    For example, “We are going to the store, so put on your coat.” A longer rationale is not needed and only creates confusion.

  7. Be physically present

    Instead of yelling across the room or house, get directly in front of your child, make good eye contact, and give the command with gestures (i.e., show them what you want).

  8. Ask the child to repeat the command

    This will ensure that there is no question as to whether your child heard the command.

  9. Reward compliance

    Immediately acknowledge that your child has completed a command by using praise, attention, and affection.

  10. Make sure you mean it

    Never give a command that you do not intend to see followed through to its completion. Use timeout or guided compliance (gently guide them through the task) as necessary.

Listening;Family and Parenting Behavioral Health