Last Updated on April 29, 2021 by Creative Parenting
Discipline, a delightful yet devilishly difficult destination. Looking for ideas on how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen? We’ve got you covered in this post with 24 ideas to try!
Take a minute and reflect on the incredible transformation your kiddo made from a sweet, smiling baby… to a surly toddler.
Almost overnight your baby transformed into a young child with wild ideas of her own.
As a baby she would sit and lounge, but now she is running around opening cabinets and getting into everything.
Managing that new dynamic is no easy task.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 67% of parents reported yelling frequently at children between the ages 19 and 35 months!
Now, don’t get us wrong…
Managing a strong willed toddler is a challenge that can befuddle even the most experienced parent.
And that’s why we wrote this post:
To help you demystify how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen.
The first time our son challenged our authority began around the 1.5-year mark. We started having conversations like this:
Him: Climbing on something dangerous.
Us: “Sweetie, step down from there.”
Him: Smiles back. Doesn’t move.
Us: “Ok buddy, can you step over in the living room and away from the fireplace mantel?”
Him: Keeps smiling. Doesn’t move.
Us: “Ok Mr., time to step away”…
And so on.
This would continue until we’d finally convince him to move.
Sometimes we’d have to get up and physically guide him to where we wanted him to go.
Maybe you’ve experienced something similar?
If so, then you know it’s easier to move a mountain than get a stubborn toddler to listen.
That makes discipline all the more difficult…
As your kiddo gets older, you might wonder:
How Do I Discipline A Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen?
When you think about it…
Looking back it feels like you went from a smiley baby to a fussy toddler in the blink of an eye. One minute they’re an adorable baby. The next? A toddler having meltdowns.
If you’ve ever caught yourself feeling surprised that it all happened too fast…
…and yet bewildered about what to do exactly about these fits…
You’re not alone.
We say that as the parents of two little ones.
Because we’ve asked ourselves that SAME question.
And it’s got us wondering, researching, and dreaming up new ideas regularly for how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen (without being too harsh).
All so we can constantly uphold safe boundaries while letting them play, explore, and be a kid to their heart’s content.
Because we all want our kids to be happy.
we’ve gathered a few ideas, techniques, and tricks.
Some we’ve used successfully, and some are a work in progress.
We were inspired by this article in USA Today on the topic, so I’ve distilled down some of my best ideas below.
Without further ado, here’s 24 ideas on:
How To Discipline A Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen
1. First Remember How Much They Do Understand
When you’re figuring out how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen…
…it’s easy to forget how much your child comprehend.
Toddlers understand so much more than they can say.
You can usually tell if they understand what you’re asking, even if they don’t respond right away.
This is important not to forget for several reasons.
One is that besides keeping them safe and healthy, your job as parents is to help them understand the world around them.
Part of that is NOT forgetting how much they DO understand.
And what they do understand is the words you are saying. But what they don’t understand is what lies behind what you’re saying.
In other words, context is important. You don’t want to be an arbitrary enforcer of rules. So when trying to get them to do (or not do) something, remember to provide some explanation along with your instructions.
If you make an effort to do this, it’ll help you understand what they’re thinking.
And that brings us to the next idea for how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen:
2. Encourage Communication
When your toddler starts talking, it’s easy to forget they aren’t just saying words, they’re learning a language.
When our son first started talking, we’d forget to nudge him to connect new words together.
In time, we remembered the basics of language learning we picked up from years spent studying foreign languages in college.
And one of those lessons was consistently repeating new words, and building to that vocabulary base.
So we started doing this with our son. And it’s helped put things in context, faster than he might have otherwise.
So, what does this have to do with how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen?
The faster your kiddo communicates, the less frustrated both YOU and HE will be.
The result? Less of a chance he’ll act out.
Now, if you’re communicating but not getting anywhere, consider:
3. Why You Should Be Consistently Firm
You may have heard it before: Consistency, consistency, consistency.
And in our experience, that’s sooo key. Especially when it comes to setting boundaries and enforcing rules as you figure out how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen.
You don’t want to change your rules every day.
Now there’s a good chance you are already trying to do this.
If you are re-iterating something you’ve told him a million times, then it’s time to try this next technique:
4. The Secret To Hearing “No” Less
Are you in the habit of asking your toddler a lot of yes or no questions?
If so, then you know that it’s easier to negotiate with the most aggressive car salesman than a determined toddler…
At a young age, kids don’t think logically. Their brains aren’t developed. So if you try to reason with them you’re not going to get anywhere.
The best you’ll do over time is to get less persistent excuses in the form of “No” when you ask your toddler to do something.
So that means you’re gonna have to try a different approach.
So instead of asking yes or no questions…
Give your toddler options:
“Do you want to do A, or B” for example.
In other words: Stop giving your toddler the option to say no.
As soon as we started doing this? We heard fewer nos.
The next time you want to ask a yes or no question, think about what you want your toddler to do.
Then give that as an option with something else. And if you try this a few times and are still getting resistance? Try our next tip:
5. Give Them The Context And The WHY
If you’ve seen some success with giving ’em options then you can add this strategy in.
You know when you learn a new word and to fully understand its meaning you use it in a sentence?
Kids are the same way.
So whenever you’re asking them to do something you want to make sure of course that they understand what you’re asking them to do.
So get comfortable with explaining what words mean and using them in a context (that they understand already).
Giving them a reason for why you’re telling them no, or asking them not to do something.
“I want you to step away from there because it can be hot and you could get hurt.”
Contrast this with:
“Please step down from there”
In the first, you get some context and explanation. In the second you are just more words to say no.
The second is more productive than the first, shifting the conversation in a positive direction.
And that leads us to our next tip.
6. How To Discipline A Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen? Learn To Say YES!
This is a counter-intuitive tip for when you feel exhausted.
Instead of making your default answer to a question “No”…
Flip it around and start saying yes.
Now, we’re not advocating you should do anything dangerous.
Simply consider saying yes to the things that you normally would say “no” to!
And in a way, this is a mental exercise.
You can ask yourself:
Is there a real reason I’m saying no to this? Or is it my personal preference?
If you’re saying no because it’s a personal preference, saying yes instead might not be the end of the world.
So try it out sometime, and see what sorts of fun might happen as a result.
You might find that your kids have some fun ideas! And if you listen more to their ideas, maybe they’ll start to listen to you more often!
7. Tell Them What You Want Them TO Do
Learning to say “yes” instead of “no” to your toddler isn’t the only shift in perspective that’s worth trying as you figure out how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen.
Another strategy you can try is telling them what you want them TO do instead of what not to do.
Now you might be thinking, “this is obvious.”
But here’s the thing…
Think about the last time you asked your toddler to do or not do something. Did you frame it as a positive or negative request?
If you don’t remember, keep this in mind the next time you’re telling them to do something. There’s a good chance you’re telling them what not to do.
Shifting that to positive instructions instead is simple but powerful. By doing so, you’ll frame your instructions in a positive light.
8. Revisit Your Mental Checklist
Do you remember what it was like to have a newborn baby?
Once you have a toddler it can be easy to look back on those early months with nostalgia.
With hindsight taking care of a newborn seems easier (even with the lack of sleep).
Once you’re trying to figure out how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen, life gets complicated.
So remember not to over-complicate things.
While in your eyes your toddler might seem like a grown-up, that doesn’t mean they can communicate their needs.
Return to the trusty old mental checklist you used when they were babies.
Are they tired? Are they hungry? Do they need a diaper change? And so on.
Running through this checklist when you’re having a tough moment can help you identify things to address that otherwise you might think were simply behavioral problems!
You might save yourself more than a few meltdowns by not forgetting it.
Ok, next tip!
9. Adjust Your Patience Timeline
As your child grows up you’ll have to adjust your patience levels with both them and yourself.
Once they’re older, it’s easy to see them still as babies. But this plays tricks on your brain.
For example, let’s say your kiddo is talking more than the average kid his age. So, you might start to think of them as older than they are.
If this happens to you, remind yourself that even though your baby now seems like a big kid, he’s still a young child. Keep your expectations in check.
After all, one thing that can make navigating how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen more challenging than need be is by having your expectations unrealistically exceed their developmental level.
Don’t be fooled into having out-sized expectations! This can lead you to become impatient with them if, for example, you’re wanting them to do something that exceeds their ability for that age.
10. Distract ‘Em With This Classic Strategy
This tip is old-fashioned, yet simple:
Distract them with a new or shiny object.
It almost sounds too simple, But it’s worth remembering. It could be a game, activity, or song. When you’re on the brink of a toddler meltdown, a distraction might save the day.
Since kids have short attention spans, you don’t have to distract them with anything fancy but you DO have to distract them with something that’ll get their attention.
So when you feel stuck with how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen, try distracting them with something interesting before you punish them.
After all, their growing brains might be bored. Something interesting might re-engage their minds.
You’d be surprised how quickly and that can shift their behavior.
11. Be More Stoic Than A Rock
Cultivating a sense of patience is important. But it also pays dividends to learn how to be stoic.
In other words:
Learning how to stay calm, and not overreacting when your little one has a complete meltdown.
Whether it’s in a store, grocery store, or some other public setting, It will happen eventually…
Your little one will have a complete meltdown. And there won’t be anything that you can do about it other than not freak out yourself.
When this happens…
Imagine that you are rock. A literal, lifeless stone.
Once you’re in that headspace, you’ll be able to handle your own emotions. That way you can refocus your attention on your toddler and avoid letting your emotions derail the situation!
12. When Figuring Out How To Discipline A Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen: Remember They Don’t Know ANYTHING
At the seven-month mark, our son started standing up in his crib.
He was more excited about it than a bluebird on the first day of Spring. And we were excited too until we all realized a new problem…
He didn’t know how to sit down.
It sounds so simple. Comically so.
But he literally did not know what to do after he stood up.
He’d stand up and then after a while, we could tell he wanted to sit down, but he didn’t know how to get there. So he’d stand for what felt like hours.
And after a couple of nights of losing sleep because of this, we realized we had to teach him how to sit down.
With this experience we earned an important lesson: Our babies and toddlers don’t know anything, so it’s up to us to teach them.
Remember this the next time your little one is acting out. It might be the case that they don’t understand what’s expected of them.
Maybe there’s something they don’t know about what’s going on, and that lack of knowledge leads to anxiety — and acting out.
13. Tell Them You LOVE Them Every Day
Remember: Life is short.
Even if the challenges of disciplining a toddler feel overwhelming now…
… those feelings won’t last forever.
Make it a habit to tell your little ones you love them EVERY day.
Because the truth is, none of us know how long we have with our kids.
We know, that sounds drastic.
But it serves as a reminder: Let them know you love them and tell them often.
Reminding them often that you love them establishes a loving baseline for when you do need to discipline.
14. Teach Them New Words & Context
A lot of challenges with discipline boil down to communication.
One way to interpret your toddler getting upset or acting out is that they want to communicate something – but can’t!
They literally might not know the words – yet.
But you can teach your toddler new words regularly.
Pay attention to the new words he’s learning, and when you use new words, use words he knows.
Build from there. Then, explain the context of what you’re saying.
It’s similar to what foreign language teachers do with their students.
It’s laying the groundwork for long-term learning.
And the faster and better your toddler learns, the smoother this next topic will be:
15. Hold On For The Roller Coaster Ride!
If you haven’t realized yet that managing a toddler is like strapping yourself into a roller coaster that goes on for years, so you’ve got to:
So hold on for the ride!
Learn to live in the moment. Learn to be present.
And try to live in the moment and be more present.
Because in my experience:
When I made a concerted effort to be a more mindful parent, it pays off in many ways.
16. Talk to Them Like A BIG Kid
If you’re the parent of a toddler, you know how fast their mood can change!
Sometimes the change happens in 5 minutes or LESS.
One minute they’re talking to you sweetly…
And the next?
They’re screaming at you.
Kicking their legs on the floor.
And for parents? It’s exhausting!
One strategy we’ve found that helps mitigate this is to talk to them like they’re adults.
Have regular conversations with the kids, even if you have a baby.
Try this and you’ll start to think of them as a whole person…
…as opposed to a walking emotional wreck.
You see, to keep your own emotions in check you can’t get too angry or too upset. You’ve gotta keep an even keel.
In other words?
Talk to them like a regular person!
17. Do This Tip Spontaneously And You’ll Surprise Them
The other day our son did something that had me first laughing and then pulling the phone out to take a video:
It was an exchange with a piece of new technology in our kitchen that we’re still adapting to.
Maybe you have this type of device in your house too?
They’re pretty new (at least to us).
So it’s something families are figuring out how to integrate into their lives.
And while it could just be another screen and source of distraction…
It doesn’t have to be.
In fact, you can use it as a “discipline” tool. Anyway, that’s what I realized in this one exchange.
And I was surprised at how well it worked.
And if you already have this kind of device in your house, you could see a similar result if you use it a similar way…
You see, he figured out how to ask Alexa to play his favorite song….
It’s You’ve Got A Friend from toy story…
And even though his speaking skills are still developing and he doesn’t quite say it correctly…
He still managed to say “Alexa, play you’ve got a friend in me.”
And sure enough, she started playing the song.
I laughed while watching this play out. And I began to wonder if I could somehow use this as a “discipline tool.”
You see, “disciplining” a toddler can be as simple as distracting him or her.
And sometimes, it can be tricky if you run out of ideas of things to try…
So it’s helpful to keep a “distraction toolkit,” a repertoire of things that you can rotate through. You can use a handful of ideas to either distract or redirect their attention.
One idea way to do that is by having them ask Alexa (or whatever smart home device you use) to play their favorite song.
Try it sometime.
If you don’t have a smart home device like Alexa, it might be worth the investment.
And if you try that, and it doesn’t work, then this next tip is for you.
18. Fall Back on A Regular Activity
Having a handful of regular activities as your go-to is a key part of your discipline toolkit.”
With these at hand, you don’t have to expend any extra energy to be creative in moments of frustration.
And in the moments that your toddler is melting down, you can buy some time by simply mentioning them aloud.
The possibility of doing their favorite activity can dissipate the negative energy of a meltdown…
You’ve only gotta plant the seed of this possibility in their heads.
So stop what you’re doing.
Figure out if you can get them to a different location.
And then put the idea out there.
It won’t always work.
But it’s a good chance to get ‘em distracted, and then out to the park or wherever they love to go.
Our next tip is in case you can’t take them to the park, what you can do instead:
19. Think of Something That Excites Them…And Do THAT
When you’re dealing with how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen, this tip can help you with all sorts of situations.
Do you get distracted when you get excited?
One minute you’re ruminating on something at work…
And then you get the news that has you jumping up and down. Or rushing to tell your spouse about the news.
You can use distraction for a similar effect with your toddler.
Redirect their attention. You’ll shift their emotional state from negative to POSITIVE.
They’ll be jumping for joy with excitement, and so will you…
Cause that’s what this tip is all about:
Think of something that excites them and then do that.
Whether it’s listening to their favorite song or going downstairs to run around and kick around an indoor soccer ball…
…the excitement of doing a favorite activity will FLOOD your kids’ brains with good vibes. That alone can overpower any negative energy.
So, instead of wallowing in a ball of negative energy…
… you’ll LEAP forward into a positive headspace.
Once you’re there, it’ll give you the perfect chance to do the next thing…
20. Put Your Screen DOWN
We’re going to talk about something that’s the opposite of what you’ll often hear with screens.
Have you ever had a moment of reflection when looking at your phone and realize your kid is talking to you?
We have to.
It’s common nowadays for parents.
First, we’re all distracted. From social media to news to weather, there’s an endless stream of things we want to keep track of on our phones.
Second, we use our phones for EVERYTHING.
And this makes it exponentially harder to put them down.
If they were only for entertainment that’d be one thing.
But since we do everything from watch movies to pay the bills on them, it always seems like as soon as you put it down, you’re gonna need to pick it up again.
And yet, even then putting it down for a bit can be magical.
The key is to do it in small chunks of time.
Don’t imagine that you’re going to start off going a whole day without your smartphone or something.
Keep it to short breaks.
Like the few minutes, you need to deal with a toddler meltdown…
So the next time you feel a tantrum erupting…
Put. The. Phone Down.
The future you will thank you.
Imagine 30 years from now how you want to look back and remember your days with your little ones:
Chances are it won’t be that you spent your time surfing your phone.
if you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness there’ll be some resources at the end.
And once you’ve put the phone down and start paying attention, you might have to do the next thing…
21. Change Your Tactics Faster Than Jason Bourne
Ever see those Jason Bourne movies?
In the movie the Bourne Identity, Jason wakes up with amnesia in Europe and makes it to Germany and the U.S. Embassy.
Once there, he realizes that his attempt to seek help has alerted the authorities and they are suspicious of him.
Sensing danger, he quickly shifts gears and makes a daring escape from the Marines, climbing out a window and down the wall and fleeing by car.
You see, he went into the Embassy with one plan but switched when the circumstances change.
If you’re the parent of a toddler, that’s practical life every single day.
You go into a situation with one plan, things change, and you’ve gotta switch gears to a new plan.
And while it might seem like a fast-paced action movie doesn’t have anything to do with toddler advice…
When you think about it, that’s a pretty good lesson.
If something’s not working, it’s not working.
While you might feel obligated to keep doing something just because you read it in a book or learned it from an expert…
…at the end of the day, we’re dealing with humans here.
So the tl;dr is:
Nothing is set in stone.
If you try something and it ain’t working…
22. Let ‘Em Discover Natural Consequences
There’s a trick you can use to manage your internal surge of fear…
…like when you’re out and about and your toddler and takes off running.
While it might cause you some heartburn in the short run…
In the long run…
…this approach is a VERY good thing.
Now, you have to be selective when you use it…
But a selective approach will help you in several ways.
Let me explain.
The idea is to quit sweating the small stuff.
If you see your kid about to make a choice that, with natural consequences, will result in a foreseeable outcome that could be negative, just let them go for it!
There’s a 50/50 chance that with most things if you keep to everyday situations that are small and fairly inconsequential…
If something goes awry, it’s not gonna be a big deal.
The other day our three-year-old was climbing on the armrest of the sofa, balancing precariously…
As soon as he was there, I started to feel frustrated.
When I realized the emotion welling up, I caught myself.
Now normally in the past, we’d sternly ask him to get down.
But this was an opportunity for a different approach:
So I decided to be patient, let him be up there, and kept re-iterating that he needed to get down.
After a few rounds of this, I gave him a choice:
Either you can get down, or I will come pick you up and put you down.
He got down.
Problem solved, without a meltdown!
I combined two strategies here.
The idea of giving toddlers a choice in decision-making. And the idea of not fretting small consequences.
It gives them a choice.
23. Model Positive Social Behavior
Now, this insight isn’t what you’d traditionally call ‘discipline”…
But if you get this right, it’ll help in the discipline arena.
We realized the value of the strategy we’re about to talk about recently…
And so one-day last week we were out for a walk at the park and ran into a neighbor our son has chatted up.
She’s a friendly retired lady. She goes for a walk around the same time each day that they do at the same park.
We’d heard all about her from our son…
…because as it turns out, he’s a social butterfly.
And we were reminded of this when we were out on a walk at the local park…
Our son said “hi” to everyone we passed.
It’s like he was running for mayor or something!
And talking with our au pair later at home, we learned that this sort of social outgoing was something she always does…
She says “Hello!” to people when out and about.
As introverted parents, it’s not our default style…
Our son picked it up from our au pair.
You see, there’s an important reminder here:
Model positive social behavior.
Your kids are watching how you behave. And they’re taking notes.
Once you hit the toddler phase with them, they’re a sponge…
Especially as their language skills develop.
So take it as an opportunity to model appropriate social behavior.
It’ll help them, in the long run, to learn how to regulate their emotions and respond appropriately.
Whether it’s saying hello out at the park or managing frustration when you don’t get what you want!
Model the behavior you want them to have.
Ok, let’s dive into the next tip.
24. What To Do When Your Toddler Ignores You
It’s so common you don’t even have to explain it: Toddlers are notoriously bad listeners.
We often say that it’s not that our words go in one ear and out the other…
… they go over our son’s head entirely.
And it’s true.
But it’s frustrating it can be when you NEED them to LISTEN.
It’s tough to keep your frustrations in check! You talk and talk and talk…
And it blows to the wind. Right over their heads. Meanwhile, they’re running around the dinner table playing whatever game they’re into…
…and ignoring you completely.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting frustrated when this happens.
After all, we are only human.
It’s going to happen.
What you gotta remember is:
There’s nothing wrong with getting frustrated. What’s important is how you handle that frustration.
And that means redirecting your feelings of frustrations away from a negative reaction to a positive. This is suggested as a strategy by recent research.
If you don’t make this a priority, you can lose yourself to negative emotions.
So remember this:
A small change in how you react to your toddler’s meltdowns can have long-term benefits.
New research has indicated this as something that strengthens the ability of your child to regulate emotion.
So next time your toddler’s having a meltdown over something you don’t want them to do…
Take action to establish a physical connection.
And then talk to them about what you want them to do.
This can help their young brains develop and make connections that’ll help them regulate their emotions better.
Try it next time you’re dealing with a meltdown, and drop us a comment below to let us know how it worked.
Learning how to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen is a journey, not a destination.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to experiment, try a bunch of different strategies, and figure out what works best for you and your family.
Through trial and error, you’ll get there!
As always, thanks for reading and stopping by.
For more ideas, insights, and tips from Creative Parenting check out our home page here.