Getting your toddler to listen without having to yell it

Dec 19, 2018

If you’re here, I think you’re amazing.

No, I might not know you from adam, but one thing I do know about you with 100% sureness: you are looking to be as good a mother as you can. 

Why am I so sure about that? Well, if you didn’t give a hoot, then you wouldn’t be here. So first things first: I want you to remind yourself that you are trying and that alone is superhuman sometimes.

Especially - but especially - when your toddler is acting out.

I hear again and again from mothers that they don’t want to yell, don’t want to lose it - but don’t know what to say or how to say it in a way that they’ll ACTUALLY listen.

And the trick to getting your kid to listen is not just in what you say, but in HOW you say it.


Let’s talk about toddler brains

Toddler brains are rapidly growing little things. They’re learning and intaking, categorizing and filing, experimenting, poking and prodding.

And, despite the fact it’s technically grey matter, toddler brains are black and white.

In your toddler’s little universe, everything is very linear and straightforward. Things are all or nothing, and, for things to make sense, they need to be orderly.

They’re really good at hearing, but their comprehension level are, well… at a toddler level.

On top of that, they’ve got a little bit of squirrel syndrome: every time they think of something, see something, notice something, they feel like they need to do it - now!

And remember that prefrontal cortex? That’s your brain’s rational decision making center — which won’t be fully developed for a couple more decades.

So all of that together… makes the perfect storm.


No More Negatives Only Positives, Please!

When we’re stressed, under pressure, sleep deprived, whatever it is, we tend to move into default. And, for most of us, default is whatever we grew up hearing, or whatever makes the most sense to us in the moment (… and often that’s without consulting our prefrontal cortex! 🤦‍♀️)

“Stop jumping on the couch!”

“I don’t want to see you hitting the baby!”

“No banging doors shut!”

So you and I and your toddlers all know that there’s a “stop” a “don’t” and a “no” in there - but that’s not what your toddler hears. 

What your toddler hears is:

“Jumping on the couch”

“Hitting the baby”

“Banging doors shut”

And of course, with his squirrel syndrome, that’ll have him happily prancing on the couch to slam that door shut while hitting the baby.

It’s not that he’s TRYING to misbehave, it’s simply that, at the level that his brain is functioning, it’s just too hard for him to understand a negative statement.

The first thing to eliminate is the “don’t”s “can’t”s “stop”s and “shouldn’t”s, and restructure the sentence so that you’re telling him what you DO want him to do:

Uh-oh! Come, let’s sit nicely on the couch.”

The baby loves you so much - let’s make nice to him — he’s going to be so happy.”

“Please close the door gently.”

I’ve used these examples to employ a couple other techniques, too - since they are all integrated - and you can click those links to check those posts out.

But the basic goal is: say what you DO want him to do. Focusing on the desired action will help your toddler “hear” that, and eliminate his natural reaction of moving into squirrel syndrome.


Keep things simple

As adults — especially as adults used to communicating with other adults — we tend to default to being complicated. We think in these long, complex sentences with variations and nuances and cause-and-effect… and our kids are just not there yet.

Here are some examples of what we default to:

“If you’re not laying down, you can’t have your book.”

“If you don’t put on your coat, then I’m not waiting for you.”

“If you eat supper nicely, you can have a treat.”

“If you do that again, then you’re going to get a punishment!”

The first two statements here are double negatives - if you don’t x then you can’t y - and if negatives are confusing for our children, double negatives are doubly confusing! 

But even once we cut those double negatives out, like in the second two examples, the if-then phraseology is confusing.

On top of that, while rewards and consequences have their place in parenting, it’s best to keep them small and strategic in places that they can really make an impact — such as when building new habits.

In day-to-day occurrences, I like to err to the side of natural consequences rather than rewards or punishments.

So let’s take each of the above examples and restructure them with natural consequences in mind.


Natural Consequences

“If you’re not laying down, you can’t have your book.”

If reading a book is part of your bedtime routine and your “family rule” or expectation is that the children have to be laying down to read a book, then an easy re-structure can give this “threat” a whole different flavor:

“Children who are laying down can have books”

You’ve simply stated the rule, and included only positive actions, as well as the desired behavior. Check, check, check.

“If you don’t put on your coat, then I’m not waiting for you.”

Getting out the door with kids can definitely be tough - especially when you have a coat-hating toddler in the lot. With something like this, I’d use some brainstorming to figure out what the best approach would be for your specific child. In general, for this kind of thing, I like to give a choice based on what will work best for your child.

For my Miss S, we use: “You can either put your coat on, or you’ll be cold.”

But you might want to say, “Would you like to put your coat on, or do you want me to?”

Or perhaps an observation: “Hm. Looks like you’re having trouble putting your coat on. It’s too cold outside to go out without a coat, so I’m going to have to put it on you today. You can try again tomorrow.”

Again, with this kind of thing, something different will work well for different children, so know your child and give her what she needs.  

“If you eat supper nicely, you can have a treat.”

This one is a tricky one — because, just as we can’t force our children to sleep, we can’t force them to eat either. In general, I wouldn’t comment on a child’s eating habits ever, as that’s more likely to backfire.

If you’re concerned about them not eating their fill, ask them to tune into their bodies — “Is your tummy telling you that you’re full?” — and then make it clear that mealtime is done, “Ok, please bring your plate to the sink.” 

“If you do that again, then you’re going to get a punishment!”

This one is a bit more generic, so harder to be specific about it, but I would rephrase by saying what the desired behavior and what the natural consequence is of the desired behavior.

So if this was a case of a food-throwing toddler, I’d turn this around and say, “Children who eat nicely can sit at the table with us.”


In summation

Remember that your toddler, smart though she is, doesn’t chap everything that you do, and that complex instructions can be hard for her to understand.

Staying calm and in control is hard with toddlers — but knowing what to say in a way that they’ll be able to best follow is the best way to get them to listen without yelling. (And, if we’re all being totally honest, yelling usually doesn’t work so well…)

So what statements will you be restructuring for your toddlers?

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