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10 Phrases To Use When Your Toddler Doesn’t Listen

Many parents complain that their toddler doesn’t listen. Well, first off toddlers are beginning to assert for themselves which is a good thing developmentally. But they may not always have a complete understanding of situations around them, including risk assessment or social etiquette. Besides, the toddler’s brain is still developing impulse control, which makes it really hard for them to wait for things or resist temptation.

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Does that mean we resort to traditional disciplinarian methods of parenting and use scare tactics, yelling, and punishments to make the toddler listen? No!

Scaring or punishing a child to discipline is not going to teach the child about why his/her actions are wrong or what the consequences are.

Related reading: What is Gentle parenting?

I found the book, How to talk so little kids will listen instrumental in creating a calmer transition to the twos and threes. This book gives insight into the toddler’s mindset and how parents can effectively communicate with their toddlers and help them follow along.

Here are 10 phrases I use regularly that work like magic in situations when my toddler doesn’t listen.

Phrases to use when your toddler doesn't listen
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PHRASES TO USE WHEN YOUR TODDLER DOESN’T LISTEN

  1. We are going to leave in 15 minutes. Instead of we have to leave now. Hurry up!

Prepare your child for what is coming next. Most times knowing about the next plan in the day, helps the child wrap up whatever it is they are doing. It gives the child a timeframe to work with. No one likes to be interrupted when they are immersed in deep focussed work. The same goes for your toddler. He may be busy playing in deep focus. Giving him a heads up prepares him to finish up his game. This way you avoid tantrums at the last minute.

The same phrase works when we are about to get into unfamiliar social settings. For example; “We are going to meet my cousin from the US. He does…(give more information)” This way when the new person enters or introduces himself the child already has some information and doesn’t panic and go into stranger anxiety mode. A simple heads up works in most situations.

Setting a strong family routine keeps most of the tantrums away. Children thrive on routines as they know what is expected of them at each point of the day. If setting strong routines is challenging for you, check the Family Routine’s e-course by Pulling Curls. What I liked about the program is how it teaches you to set solid routines while giving you a framework to leave more “margins” in your day. This allows you to tackle the unexpected easily, and we all know a happy mommy equals happy kids. Check this life-changing course here.

2. Do you want pizza or pasta for dinner?

Offer a choice.

Do you want to join the party or do you want some time outside before you join in? Do you want the red pants or the blue ones?

Offering a choice allows the child to be in control of the situation. And once again the child is more receptive to participate along once he feels ready to take on the next task. Make sure to keep the options limited between two, so that its easier for the child to make up his mind.

3. I see you are finding it difficult to open the lid, do you need help?

If we jump in and help without asking, the toddler will resist and a tantrum ensues. A toddler needs his independence so giving up on something he is trying out has to be his own decision. By simply asking if he needs help, you are allowing the toddler to take charge of the situation and decide for himself if he does, in fact, need help.

4. Can you use your words, please? Instead of stop whining

This simple question encourages the toddler to express. Remember to use a very calm tone as you request the child to use his words, you don’t want to come off asking this question in a stern tone. The parent’s tone of voice is key to holding communications in the right manner.

5. Let’s use gentle hands with the baby. Instead of saying, “Stop doing this” or  ” Stop grabbing the baby”

When around a baby, for example, you want your child to be careful, you can ask him to use a gentle touch. Show how a gentle touch looks like.

If the rough play goes on after repeated reminders it is best to move the child away to another play station.

For more in-depth help with disciplining your child and getting him to listen without yelling, shaming, blaming, or reminding you must check out this online positive parenting course. This course offers you practical advice and gives you the tools to gain a deeper understanding of yourself, your triggers, how to connect with your child in playful ways, and create a more peaceful home.

6. I am not okay with you getting wet in the rain, because I am afraid you will fall sick. Instead of, stop, don’t walk in the rain.

When you are not comfortable with what your toddler is doing, be it getting wet in the rain, or some sort of risky play use this phrase it works like magic.

The moment I tell my son about my feelings/concerns and why I don’t want him to play a certain way, he is more understanding.

I will say, I am not okay with you running on the side of the road, I am afraid you will hurt yourself or,

I am not okay with you getting wet in the rain, because I am afraid you will fall sick.

7. Let us add this to our wish list

Every parent has faced the tantrum in a store. When the child wants something and wants it right now.

We can’t always give in and buy what they want.

There are two ways I tackle this situation. One is by saying, “Let us add this to our wishlist”. Then I pull out a piece of paper and write it down. I discuss with our son about why we aren’t going to buy now, but I would be happy to include it on the running wishlist. We have designated times of the year we buy toys, like birthdays and festivals. I pull out the list then and we go through the list together. Sometimes he is no longer interested in some of the toys on the list, at other times I give him a choice to buy 1-2 from his list.

This way he learns to wait in order to buy something and he gets to reconsider a decision. Is it something I really want? You will be surprised how many times it’s the child who will say to you, no, I don’t want that toy anymore.

At other times, I simply, get down to his level and explain to him why we cannot buy that certain toy and how I wish could buy him many many toys, but we can’t, we need to use what we already own first. You may feel that a little child will not agree to reason, but once you start to hold a mature conversation, they are very understanding.

8. It is okay to be sad/cry 

Sometimes when faced with big emotions instead of saying “stop crying/ you are a big girl/boy now” accept the emotion for them. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to cry.

Acknowledging the feelings helps the child calm down, understand the emotions he is feeling, and make it okay for him to be able to express to you. We want our children to know that it is important to express all feelings, good and bad. That expressing emotion is a healthy exercise.

9. I am going to wait for you to calm down

When no amount of talking and calming down help, it is best to take a step back and allow the child a moment to calm down and self reflect.

You can stay close and say I am going to wait for you to calm down. This phrase works so well for us, both of us end up in a hug moments later and move on to resolving the problem at hand. Sometimes all your child needs is a little space and time to do the self-work.

10. Let us start over- 1, 2, 3…

Some situations demand a do-over. There can be days when everything is just going wrong and you are facing tantrum after tantrum. You may resort to yelling and screaming. But you can change the situation.

Start over

Get down to the child’s level, acknowledge that the day has been rough for both of you, that you don’t want it to continue this way. And then hold hands, take a deep breath count to three and start over.

Calming Phrases to get toddler to listen
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Most importantly,

Remember, there will be times when nothing will work. Your toddler understands that he has expressed his emotions in an unpalatable way. He may not know how to change the situation and go back to calm. But he needs the reassurance that things are still okay, between the two of you.

Here it is important for the parent to say, I Love You. It helps the child feel reassured that your love for them is not dependent on his actions.

Yes, certain actions are unacceptable, but that does not mean you stop loving them.

It is quite possible that the child feels his actions may cause you to stop loving him. And we need him to understand that a parent’s love is unconditional. That you are his safe place to vent and be. That you will guide him and help him through challenging situations.

It can get very difficult as parents to remain calm when we are in the midst of a tantrum but remember you are helping your child learn how to channel his emotions. I feel handling tantrums is one of the most challenging tasks parents have to deal with and at the same time the base to how the relationship will turn out in the future.

That is why I give a lot of importance to helping with emotions because somewhere hidden behind those emotions lie, my sons, true thoughts and feelings about me and our relationship.

Each challenging moment is a moment for us to practice how to trust each other, and how to get creative at solving the problem. They are learning moments and help our relationship grow stronger.

Related reading : Words of encouragement for kids that can lift spirits

Do you face any of the challenging situations I mentioned here with your toddler? How do you manage the situation?

I hope this post inspires you to try a more creative approach to handle toddler tantrums.

16 thoughts on “10 Phrases To Use When Your Toddler Doesn’t Listen”

    • Giving toddlers as young as 2 choices between two options always works. So do some of the other phrases mentioned here. When they are little, a lot of attention needs to be given to helping children follow along and validating their feelings. It takes a while for them to follow along, but once this style of communication is set in the household they get used to listening rather than reacting. Ultimately it us parents who are modeling the way for communication right? So if we can stay calm but consistent in our approach the child will also stay calm and more willing to follow along. When a big tantrum ensues, it is best to wait it out and help the child rationalize once they are calmer. Do read my post on how to get a toddler to listen without yelling to know more strategies or 2-3-year-olds. Hope this helps

      Reply
  1. Awesome post! Thanks so much!

    Everything changed for us when we started changing the way we address our high-functioning autistic son. His behaviour became more manageable, his feelings were validated, and we encouraged him to understand them.

    One funny thing, though, we started saying “use your words”, and then we realized he was inventing his own little language (lol!), he’s growing up in a bilingual household and he speaks a third language at school, so we didn’t want to confuse him further here, so we started saying “use words mommy can understand”. that did the trick!

    Reply
    • That’s great! Yes, the more clear we are with our phrases the better it is for the child to understand and respond back. That is a great example of responding to your child with quick thinking I must say.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for the tips! I have also found that instead of saying, “It’s time for bed,” when our dinger goes off to say, “It’s time to go upstairs, play in the bathtub, put on our pajamas, and read a book.” It’s helpful to say where we are going and what we are going to do before bed.
    LaurenBarrettWrites

    Reply
  3. This was a good read… I find that I do these steps with my 4 year old however I’m finding it difficult to navigate through his outburst now. We never had the terrible twos he was a very co-operative boy…without going into it I pretty much did what you have listed and still do.
    His latest is screaming or running off if he doesn’t get what he wants or if you say something he doesn’t like. If he’s screaming and carrying on I try and walk away and come back once he’s able to ‘hear’ me but he follows me and sometimes he’s angry and hits or throws things. I’m not sure what to do, being sleep deprived and with a 10 month old who is very needy it’s difficult to think clearly.
    Please if you have any advice or any suggestions as to what’s going on I would appreciate it.

    Reply
    • First of all let me accept for you that this is a hard situation to be in.

      With a tiny little one taking most of mom’s attention and a global pandemic in the background, the current scenario may not be easy on your 4 year old too.

      Especially with the pandemic, it’s obvious that our children’s current anger and outbursts are in part due this feeling of grief over a life that has been turned upside down.
      I have been in the exact situation as you with regards to a child that has been mostly co-operative to suddenly having angry outbursts about everything.

      So the first thing I would say is, to simply accept that your child’s life has changed and to give him and you both some grace.

      This is a tough time for parents with limited support. But, it’s important to realize that all anger usually points to some unmet needs in the child’s life. Maybe a feeling of not getting undivided attention from you like before or not feeling heard.

      That being said, we need to make sure, the child knows that he cannot express through anger and show him how he can make his uncomfortable feelings known.

      I had covered this briefly with steps in the post, aggression in 3 year olds.

      It should give you an idea of how to manage an angry outburst.

      What I found helped my son feel comforted in such uncertain times was lots of sensory play- a sand pit, water play, art and drawing, and listening to audio books on Spotify. I started focusing heavily on these in our routine to help him cope with the new routine that no longer included long outdoor time. It did help regulate his moods.
      We also bought and read lots of books on emotions handling like the Molly Potter book “how are you feeling today?” this book specifies strategies that the child can use when he goes through different emotions.
      A combination of changing our routine to focus more on sensory play, supporting him during a tantrum and reading books about emotions have helped us through these uncertain times.

      It’s not going to be quick, but hopefully you see him settle and cope.

      Wishing you the best. You are already doing a great job.

      Reply
    • We need to first understand what it is the child wants in the moment. It can be very tricky, but crying is a form of communication. the child is trying to communicate certain unmet needs.
      Leaving some posts here for more clarity and help with communicating with toddlers
      Toddler needs
      What to say to a toddler instead of no. (since most tantrums start when we try to establish boundaries)

      Reply

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