10 Things to Say When Your Toddler Doesn’t Listen

Here are some ideas of how to get your toddler to listen! These 10 simple phrases can help ease the stress around communicating with your little one.

Published October 12, 2023
mother sitting on sofa holding hands and talking with son

When your toddler doesn't listen, it's beyond frustrating. Let's be honest — there is a reason that the toddler years are accompanied by labels like "terrible twos," "threenagers," and "ferocious fours." Toddlers are a lot to handle!

As your child becomes more independent, it can be difficult to not become frustrated when they seem to be ignoring you. Thankfully, there are some positive and helpful phrases to try when your toddler doesn't listen that can make a big difference. 

Why Your Toddler Doesn't Listen

We all want to feel seen and heard. That's all our toddlers really want. When you discount their feelings or continuously tell them "don't do that" or "no," they can become frustrated and tend to stop listening, just like anyone would. Not only that, but toddlers have small attention spans and become overstimulated easily. This puts listening at the bottom of their list.

Of course, their outbursts seem to almost always come at the worst possible times — like when you are checking out at the grocery store, trying to rush out the door to get to school, or attempting to get them to bed. This never helps the situation, but by making simple changes to your parenting techniques, you can help to avoid these tantrums and lower the stress.

10 Phrases to Use When Your Toddler Doesn't Listen

Mom and toddler talking at the beach

When your toddler doesn't listen, there are a few key phrases to use to redirect their attention while simultaneously validating their feelings. Here are a few things that you can say to help reduce the frustration. 

That Was Frustrating...

Before getting angry or upset at their actions, take the time to ask them what is wrong and what you can do to fix it. This resets the focus on them and lets them see that you recognize their emotions, in turn, making them more willing to listen to what you need.

Examples: "I understand that you are frustrated, and that makes Mommy sad. What do we need to do to fix the problem?" OR "That was very upsetting. It is okay to be sad. Is there anything Mommy can do to help?" 

Mommy Needs...

Your toddler has a limited attention span. In moments of distraction or frustration, describe your needs quickly and plainly. Giving your child too much information can confuse them or make what you need unclear to them. 

Examples: "Mommy needs you to sit, please. It is not safe to stand in the cart." OR "I need you to clean up our toys. We have to leave in 15 minutes."

Let's DO This....

This is a hard one, but it can be very effective. By eliminating "don't," "no," "stop," and other negative action words from your vocabulary, and instead suggesting a new activity or action, you can better communicate what you need without starting a fight. 

Examples: Instead of saying, "Don't dump out all your toys again," a more effective phrase in the mind of a toddler is "Let's keep our room clean! We can find a new activity to do in the kitchen!" Similarly, instead of saying, "STOP! Don't hit your brother," a better phrase would be, "Let's be nice! Brother doesn't like it when you hit him."

Helpful Hack

"Yes" is a great word to emphasize in moments when your toddler is frustrated. If they ask for something, but the answer is no, find a way to turn it into a yes. For instance, when your toddler wants you to buy them cookies at the store, instead of saying no, rephrase it as "Yes, we can have cookies this weekend. I will put them on my shopping list for our next grocery visit."

Show Me Gentle & Kind

This goes hand in hand with the "let's..." phrasing. Instead of saying "stop" or suggesting that they simply be nice, have them show you what that phrase actually means. This can be in the form of a hug, sharing a toy, or giving a high five. One of the best ways to implement this is to show them first and then have them copy you.

Examples: "Mommy wants to be gentle and kind, so I am going to give brother a hug." Once you complete the action, ask them to show you how to do the same. "Can you show me a way to be kind to brother?"

This, Then That

If your toddler wants to play, but you need to change their diaper first, use clear phrasing that explains that you will do their desired activity after another one is completed. This lets them know that they were heard and makes them more willing to go along with the first activity. 

Examples: "First we change your diaper, then we can play." OR "First we wash our hands, then we can have a snack."

Do You Want...

Kids love getting to make decisions. It makes them feel important. By giving a "this or that" choice, you give them a little of the power they crave, which makes them more compliant later.

Example: Instead of saying, "You need to get dressed," ask, "Do you want to wear the red or blue pants today?"

"Can I Help?" or "Do You Want to Do It Yourself?"

Toddler and parent washing hands together

As mentioned, toddlers like to be in control, so simply taking over an activity can escalate things. However, if you offer your help or let them continue by themself, you not only acknowledge their frustration, but you introduce problem-solving skills. Learning that help means that you come and join them can help greatly with their overall communication. 

Examples: "I see you are having trouble putting your blocks away. Can I help you clean up, or do you want to do it yourself?" OR "We need to wash our hands for lunch. Can we wash them together, or do you want to wash them on your own?"

Use Quiet Voices...

Positivity is key to toddler interactions. Thus, when your toddler doesn't listen and starts screaming or yelling in frustration, redirect their actions with a positive alternative. 

Examples: "Let's use our quiet voices. That way Mommy can hear what you need." OR "Can we talk softly? I want to make sure everyone can hear their friends."

I'll Give You a Minute

When your toddler is having a meltdown, they are not going to listen. In these scenarios, there are three easy ways to calm them down and redirect their focus:

  1. Give Them a Minute: By simply saying, "I see that you are upset. I will give you a minute to calm down because I really want to talk to you," you validate their feelings and allow them the time and space to regroup.
  2. Take a Breath: Another option is to ask your toddler if they want to take some big breaths with you. When doing this, raise your arms in the air like you are forming a rainbow over your head. After a few rounds, your toddler will likely join in and begin to settle. 
  3. Ask for a Hug: Sometimes this simple gesture of kindness can serve as a big reset for their attitude.

In all these instances, you give your child the ability to regain their emotions. This can play a big role in their motivation to listen to what you have to say. 

3, 2, 1, Let's Listen!

Kids love counting. Another simple way to get your child to focus on you is to count down and then shout: "Let's listen!" When you say these words, point at your ears, smile, and get excited. You want to get them intrigued by what you have to say next! 

How to Get Your Toddler to Actually Listen to These Phrases

Dad talking to toddler

Now that you know what to say, how do you get your toddler to actually listen to these phrases? The answer is simple — you practice active listening. This is a key tactic for talking to anyone, whether you're talking to two-year-olds or talking to teenagers. Why?

Think about it! If you are not on the person's level, then they are not engaged with what you are saying. When your toddler doesn't listen, you can kneel down, make eye contact, and talk to them, not at them. During this exchange, you can also hold their hands or touch their shoulders to keep them focused on the interaction.

Need to Know

Active listening is most effective in a quiet space. If you can move to one, that is going to help your toddler listen better.

Your Toddler Will Not Always Listen

Even with changes in our behavior and phrasing, you are still talking to a toddler. Expecting your child to do everything you say and not have moments where they veer off just won't happen. Expect some pushback, but know that these 10 phrases to use when your toddler doesn't listen have proven very effective at changing behavior for the better when they are used regularly.

Most importantly, when your toddler does choose to listen or redirect their focus towards you, praise them for it! Positive reinforcement is a great tool for building good habits and fostering a loving and respectful relationship with your kids.

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10 Things to Say When Your Toddler Doesn’t Listen