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Toddler Won't Listen

by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

See Aletha Solter's books, The Aware Baby and Attachment Play, for more information about setting limits with toddlers.

Question:

My sixteen-month-old son does not listen when we try to stop him from touching things. There are things that we cannot move and we are afraid he will hurt himself. When we try to get him to stop he just looks at us and laughs. Sometimes, out of desperation, we tell him "No," and he just laughs and says, "No, no, no!" What can we do?

Answer:

Your son's behavior is quite typical and normal for his age (although that doesn't necessarily make it any easier). At sixteen months of age, children simply don't have the mental ability to understand the concept of rules. They lack the notion of "always" and "never," so a limit you have set one day doesn't generalize to other days or similar situations. Combined with this is the fact that language processing is still very immature. A verbal "no" does not have the same meaning for a toddler as it does for an older child. This is a frustrating stage for both parents and toddlers. However, sometime between 18 and 24 months of age, the ability to understand rules begins, although the number of rules two-year-olds can understand and remember is still fairly limited.

It sounds as if you are resisting punishment, and I applaud your efforts. Here are some suggestions that might make this stage go more smoothly for you, while taking into account your child's need to explore and learn:

  1. Rather than giving commands or prohibitions, try to give information. This will help your child to understand. For example, if he is reaching for the hot stove, say, "Hot!" (rather than simply, "No!").

  2. Child proof your home as much as possible. If something is really dangerous for him, keep it off limits for his safety and your own peace of mind. The level of your and your child's frustrations at this stage will be related to how effectively you have baby proofed your home. Use childproof latches, gates, doorknobs, and plugs. Install hanging lamps instead of floor lamps, if possible. Keep all medicines and cleaning materials out of reach and locked up. Never leave knives, scissors, razor blades, or other dangerous tools lying around. If you have a fire place, install a childproof gate around it. Remove all precious or breakable objects from his reach, and place all electronic equipment (TV, CD, VCR, etc.) in closed cabinets.

  3. Provide areas in each room that contain objects your son can play with, so you can immediately offer a substitute when he reaches for something you don't want him to have. For example, you can fill a low cupboard or drawer in the kitchen with plastic cups and plates, or put some of your child's books and toys on a low shelf in the living room. It is also helpful to place child-sized furniture in the living room or dining room, such as a low table and chair. Don't forget to put some pictures on the wall at your child's eye level. This way your toddler will feel that there are places of interest for him in the common areas of your home (not only in his own room), and he will be less likely to look for stimulation by reaching for objects that you don't want him to play with.

  4. If he touches things that you cannot move and that might be dangerous for him, let him investigate them under your careful supervision to satisfy his curiosity. Sometimes children need to touch things only once to learn what they feel like and what they do. Then they are content. Perhaps he can even learn to touch some things responsibly, by imitating you after you have demonstrated.

  5. If he persists in reaching for things that are dangerous, offer substitutes that are similar in function. For example, if he persists in reaching for the telephone or a wastebasket, give him a toy telephone and a small wastebasket of his own. It is helpful to look beyond your child's immediate desire to the underlying need, which is often a skill being practiced: Does he need to practice climbing or dumping objects out of containers? It is sometimes possible to fill those needs in ways that are safe for your child. For example, if he seems interested in manipulating knobs, switches, or locks, you can buy various kinds of these at a hardware store and mount them onto a small wooden board to create a homemade activity board for him to play with.

  6. As a last resort, if he persists in reaching for things that are dangerous, and does not accept substitutes, hold him lovingly but firmly in your lap, explain that he might get hurt, and that you have to protect him. Let him protest by crying, if he needs to, in the safety of your arms. Your child will probably be frustrated and angry, and you can allow him to express those feelings openly. After he has cried, direct him again to a substitute activity. Holding sets a physical boundary without harming your child. It is a loving alternative to punishment, and it says "no" in a way that a toddler can understand.

Good luck, and remember that setting limits will be easier when your son begins to understand the concept of rules.

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Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.

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This page was last updated on March 3, 2013. Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When babies display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek competent medical advice and treatment. Some of the suggestions in this article may be inappropriate for babies suffering from certain emotional, behavioral, or physical problems. Aletha Solter, The Aware Parenting Institute, and Shining Star Press shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.