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Toddler Is Disobedient and Aggressive

Question:

My ​21-month-old hits and doesn't listen. If I ask him to pick up his toys, he ignores me. If I ask multiple times, he screams and hits me. We both get frustrated and upset when this happens. How can I get him to listen and follow my instructions without getting angry and raising my voice?

Answer:

Parenting kids ages 2 to 3 can be very challenging because children that age are beginning to challenge their parents’ authority and test their boundaries. Here are a few things to consider as well as some tips you can try:

Toddlers are at a stage where they don't want to be interrupted while they’re playing or watching TV – whether it's for dinner, going to the bathroom, or simply doing what a parent asks – because they don't want to miss something. They are only just beginning to understand they might be able to come back to their activity. It may this type of situation where you are seeing your son either ignore you or fail to follow your instructions.

The bottom line is that if your child knows he can get away with ignoring you until you ask a fourth or fifth time, that is precisely what he’ll do. It’s like when a parent counts to 10 when a child is not listening. If a child knows he won't be in trouble until Mom or Dad gets to 10, he’ll most likely keep ignoring until about “nine.”

To address this issue, you might try doing some "listening role-playing" with your son. Tell him you are going to practice with him. Start by teaching him how you want him to respond when you talk to him or give him an instruction. Have him practice the following steps of the skill of “Following Instructions”:

  • Stop what he is doing.
  • Look at your eyes.
  • Answer with "Okay" or "Yes, Mommy" (or something like that).
  • Complete the task you gave him.

If he does this, give him verbal praise, a hug, or some other encouragement. These things are known as positive consequences. If he refuses to practice, give a negative consequence immediately. At his young age, immediate feedback is necessary because if you give it later, he will not remember hours (or even minutes) later why he is getting a consequence. Before practicing, let your son know what negative consequence you will give if he doesn’t do what you ask. For example, “If you don’t practice how to listen with Mommy, you will sit in Time-Out with no toys.”  (Two minutes in Time-Out is appropriate for a 2-year-old; start timing only after your son is calm and compliant.)

Another thing you can try with your son is using games such as “Simon Says” or “Operator,” where he has to listen in order to play.

Whether you’re practicing or are in a real-life situation, be sure to make giving a consequence a teachable moment afterwards. For example, after giving your son a negative consequence, you can say, "You didn’t listen to Mommy when I asked you to turn off the TV. Next time I ask you, I want you to look at me, say 'Okay Mommy,' and turn off the TV.” Then practice the steps of “Following Instructions” with him right away.

Be as matter-of-fact as possible in all your interactions with your son. There is no need to raise your voice. If you remain calm and focus on responding to his behavior, whether it is with a positive or negative consequence, there’s a better chance that he will remain calm, too. That being said, remember that if you practice appropriately 20 times in a row but explode in anger during practice 21, it will probably set you back to the beginning. So over the next two weeks, try to teach and practice your son without getting upset. Another key to success is being very consistent in your teaching and practices. Believe it or not, kids actually like to know what is expected of them so there are no surprises.

For more on this and other parenting strategies, check out the Boys Town book, Common Sense Parenting of Toddlers and Preschoolers, 2nd edition, available at boystownpress.org.

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