2 1/2 Year Old Not Listening

Updated on December 30, 2008
A.K. asks from Portland, OR
15 answers

I'm not sure if our problem is due to unreasonable expectations or if there's something we need to do differently. My 2 1/2 year old gets an idea in his head, and if we can't let him do it, the tantrums begin. We use distraction when we can, but sometimes it's because he can't watch a tv show that's not on right now, or because he won't let mommy finish brushing his teeth after he's had time to do it himself. Sometimes he listens at a level I'm impressed by ("go downstairs, get a banana, and put the peels in the trash") and sometimes he won't stop playing with the lightswitch when I'm trying to put his 14-month-old sister to sleep.

He's really intelligent and curious and energetic, to the point that he doesn't stop exploring, EVER - we have to put him in front of the TV to get him to sit quietly. He's delightful much of the time and adores his sister. Threatening to flick his hand works to stop him from touching, as does threatening him with a timeout.

But when he does something that we KNOW he knows not to do, it always turns into a fight. We get frustrated by his selective listening. While I know perfectly well that it's a lot to ask of a 2.5 year old to listen consistently, when we need him to hear and react immediately we really do need him to listen! His safety and good behavior depend on us teaching him right & wrong, and setting boundaries. We can't just let him misbehave, and we choose our battles, but the struggle is constant and by bedtime both my husband and I are on our last nerve.

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answers from Portland on

I think these are normal frustrations of raising a 2 year old. Different things work at different ages, but I noticed something that's worked for years for my son (now almost 7)--and that's counting. I don't know why it's worked (if maybe one of his preschool teachers did it...). But whenever I'm really frustrated I count loudly and he almost always drop everything to come/stop/whatever almost immediately. I don't use it often though, because I don't want this trick to wear out.

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answers from Seattle on

I could say "welcome to seeking independence"...but while true, that's not really helpful.

We ran into the same problem...especially in areas like getting dressed. Some days it's FUN to giggle and run around the house naked. Some days MOMMY HAS TO GET SOMEWHERE 10 MINUTES AGO! AAAAAAAAARRGH!!!!! Then, of course, there's the actual "that's dangerous, you have to have to have to listen and do as I say" type of event.

So we made our first ever "deal rule".

We started counting.

We count to five (personal preference, I remember my mother counting to 3 and it never seemed like quite enough time to me to swallow my pride and concede, so we added two seconds. It also means I never have to do the long, drawn out Oooooooooooooone, twoooooooooooooo,....which, kind of grates on my nerves. Again, personal preference.).

The Deal:
- Counting means I'm serious.
- Serious means I'm not playing & you HAVE to do it.
- You can ask why & debate AFTER you've done it.
- Mummy NEVER gets mad before 5, and you NEVER get into trouble.
- After 5, you no longer have any choice in what happens or how. Mummy will also probably, but not always, be angry.

It was a "deal", because we talked about this rule and agreed on it before implementing it...when my son was in his two's.

What I TOLD him was
- Counting means I'm serious, so you know it's not game time.
- Mummy NEVER gets mad before 5, and you NEVER get into trouble.

The others he learned in context.

We also do "deep breath & count", and timeouts. For him, AND for me. For our family timeouts are not punishments. They're a chance to calm down and catch up with a runaway temper. Then it's time to think about what happened, what the ACTUAL problem is...come up with a few solutions...and then meet up and talk about it. Again, no one gets in trouble for sending themselves on a time out, and no one gets in trouble if they GO on time out after being told they need to. Also everyone else has to respect that that person is gathering their thoughts and give them privacy until they're ready to talk. Until we pow wow afterwards, life comes to a standstill. This process developed gradually over time....and especially when my son was very young, the "privacy" thing did not exist. I would frequently ask him if he remembered WHY he was on timeout and the answer would be no. Then I'd remind him, and walk away. In the beginning it was simply why that was NOT a thing he was to be doing and why. That morphed into...what might have been better...what could be done next time...causal factors, etc. Until by age 4 he could do the whole pathway on his own and started requesting the same privacy I get when I'm on time out.

Anyhow, that's what we've found works for us. :)


A hopeful note on independence; You'll undoubtedly notice over time that as much as they push you away, and or throw "my way" tantrums... they cling on far tighter almost immediately after...if you don't freak out on them. My mum described it "as if they're afraid you'll go away for good now that they're sooooo Big". The being pushed away by your little loves is HARD. But it's almost like a test. "If I treat mummy like this, will she still love me? Will she respect me more? Yikes!!! Will she still be there?". Of course, children's minds don't QUITE work like that...but it's a natural reaction. Wanting to do it themselves, and then afraid you'll never do it for them again.

Ahem, by immediately I DO mean, one month of "x" behavior, followed by a week of never letting go of your leg. Or a whole day of tantrums followed by needing to be snuggled to sleep for two hours. Immediate meaning night and day, not a gradual shift. Both situations are frustrating. But they're just trying to figure out how they fit in this world they live in. I just keep telling myself that. That and "hate" or "screeeeeeeeeech!" are both much shorter and sound better shouted then "I'm hungry, and tired, and feeling a bit overwhelmed, and the color yellow is positively dreadful in this light, all I was trying to do was to be NICE and paint the wall a soothing pink with your lipstick, and your reaction leaves me feeling utterly unappreciated for everything I was trying to do for you, and I am dealing with feelings of being really disappointed that you are not excited like I hoped you would be."

Yep. Which would you shout?

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answers from Seattle on

Oh, A. - bless your heart- of COURSE you're on your last nerve!!! Your little one is still a baby ( yes, I'm talking about the 2 and half year old) and he knows exactly what you are saying ( his receptive language skills- the 3 step directions he follows- are GREAT -- dont forget to put money aside for college ) BUT his ability to self-control is still a baby. he KNOWS you said 'don't flick the light' but he can get all your attention if he is naughty - so there ya' go. Time out- putting him behind a baby-gate in another room ( so he can see you but can't do the naughty thing) - having an '''uh ohh box'' ( a box where some of his favorite toys might have to go for a time-out if he does not listen) - all might work--

You'll work it out-- you are so blessed

Take your vitamins and keep your marriage strong - and don't forget to laugh

Old Mom
aka --J.

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answers from Seattle on

A., this sounds a bit like my son, I hated feeling like I was yelling at him all day or putting him in time out all the time. One friend recommended to me giving him options and letting him decide, so that he feels in control.

Such as, when we go to the store, he can either hold my hand or ride in the grocery cart, but he can't walk by himself because that isn't safe because of the cars. This is how I explain things to him, and it has made a huge difference in our day.

My son is 3.5 now, and still has his bad days, and that is usually when he is tired and we have him lay down. When he is just not happy about anything and throwing a fit about not being able to watch a video - when he's already watched a video or two - I just make him lay down in our bed (his sister is usually napping in his room) and he has to lay down for awhile. He might not fall asleep, but he usually stays in there for 30 min. to an hour before coming out and tends to be a happier boy, or he does fall asleep and takes a nap for a couple hours.

A friend recommended a book to me titled "1-2-3 Magic" or something like that. I never got a chance to rent it from the library (because she explained the basic concept of the book to me) but it goes along the lines of giving the child two options and if they don't decide right away, then you count to 3 or 5 and if they haven't decided you will decide for them.

Good Luck with everything! Another thing I read is to teach your child safety words that are different than the words you use everyday. Such as if they do start running towards a parking lot yell "freeze" instead of "stop", because he probably hears "stop" all the time at home. The article went on to say practice "freezing" by playing some music and dancing to it with your kids and then suddenly say "freeze!" and have everybody freeze until you say "ok, dance!" That doing this will help teach them and their body what to do.

Ok, now I'm done :) Sounds like you and your husband are doing a great job!

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answers from Seattle on

A., I have 6 children for 18 yrs to 3 1/3 yr old boy/girl twins and I will tell you that his behavior is very normal especially for boys at that age. 5 of mine are boys and all went through that exact thing. He is trying to become independant and at the same time he needs you very much to make his decisions for him. He is frustrated that he can't make his own decisions so the tantrum begins. My three yr old boy twin still does this and what I do is offer him something different or redirect him. If that doesn't work he is put in his room and I tell him that mommy doesn't need to here him be mad. he can be mad in his room and when he is done and happy he may come out. It works very well and he comes out a sweet happy boy again in about 5 minutes and usually he has found something else to play with in his room. You'll get through it but it is very exhausting in the mean time especially at our age (i am 43). by the way they do this again at several different stages in their life as they are growing up.

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answers from Seattle on

Happy Boxing Day, A.! Expectations too high? Maybe, but not because he's 2-1/2. Maybe because of lack of structure or perceived attention, though. Some would say he needs more consistent discipline, but if it turns out when he's older that he is actually hyperactive, discipline is only part of a whole process of reigning him in. It's hard to grasp how fast kids this age can learn, and it's challenging at first to stay ahead of them. Montessori teachers are very good at this, as a general rule, and most preschool teachers understand how to reach these super-bright kids and keep them engaged. If you have any such people available to you, do take them for a cup of tea or coffee and listen to their ideas. (He is old enough for Bible Study Fellowship; if you're interested, you can join a nearby class and they will also really help you get a grasp on this. Write me if you'd like more information.)

When I taught preschool, we looked at covering a very broad range of activities, partially to exercise the whole child, partly to discover what each child's interests and talents may be. Prodigies often start showing their abilities at this age, so exposing him to a variety of materials and people may reveal some exciting things. Some general categories are: Academic (reading, colors, learning activities, games, languages--start now with sign language and French or Spanish), Memorization (nursery rhymes, storytelling, Bible verses), Sensory (smells, tastes, sounds, etc), Large muscle (sports, whole-body movements, building snowmen), Small muscle (puzzles, building small things like Legos, coloring), Daily chores (laundry, baking, organizing), Music (singing, instrumental--especially simple keyboards and drums; can use pots and pans or oatmeal boxes--you don't need to buy anything), Arts (painting, clay or playdough, dancing with scarves or stuffed animals), and of course, field trips every couple of weeks as rewards (Seattle Center, beach, swimming). Someone who is currently teaching can fill in lots of gaps for you here, but it's a start. If you stay ahead of him, he will be much better behaved and have some structure, as well as handle his unstructured time much better. Believe it or not, we built this into about 3 hours of structured time every morning, and a couple hours after lunch and naps in the afternoons, then about an hour-long bedtime routine in the evenings to cover all this for our kids. After all, as a teacher I had to walk the walk and put what I was learning into practice! Kids were in a jazz performance group a few years, have traveled quite a bit, and are in their 20's and married now, and we enjoy seeing all the new things they're still coming up with!

Suggested Resources: YMCA/YWCA; Community college ECE (Early Childhood Education) classes, each of you take one per year if you can; ECE textbooks, available second hand at college bookstores (the appendix is the best part of these books); Parenting with Love and Logic by Cline & Fay (raising kids with real-world consequences); Focus on the Family (Family.org); playgroups and teachers, Mamasource!! So many great responses from others here, we're here for you! Things will improve as you do more leading and observe him in different settings to see what motivates him and what you can use to encourage his cooperation. He will also develop better judgment soon as you teach him more, so enjoy! Congratulations on your wonderful family!

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answers from Portland on

Hello! This is a tough age. It really could be any number of things; he could just be a tough toddler, he could have some ADHD/ADD symptoms, he could be going through a power stage...many, many options and it's difficult to filter out the "why".

My best advice is to examine your reactions and make sure you are responding clearly and consistantly every time. Sit down with your husband and make a plan. Does he get one warning or two? Do you count? If so, backwards or forwards? Then pick one consequence that is always the same for not listening, regardless of what he is not listening about.

For example - he's playing with the light switch. He gets one request "Honey, please stop playing with the lights. I need you to hear my about this. No lights". Then he gets his warning; "Here's your warning. You will get a not listening consequence if you do not quit playing with the lights. One, two, three". Then you walk over, pick him up and take him to the consequence spot. No more conversation, and he goes wether he is throwing a fit or negotiating or crying or ignoring.

It's time consuming, but it will work, and really is about the only thing that will, other than waiting for him to grow out of it.

You will also probably get a number of responses from people who will tell you this behavior is because you work. For some reason I always seem to get the "if you would stay home with your kids, this wouldn't happen". Hopefully you won't, but know that if you do, there are lots of us working mamas out there that support your choices. Daddys are great caregivers, too!

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answers from Spokane on

My dd is almost 3 (March 2008) and sounds just like your son. There are days she drives me up one wall and around the corner. My dd use to listen and follow directions like a dream and now, it takes hours just to get her to finish 6 bites of dinner.

15 years as a private nanny and childcare provider reminds me that this is a phase. One designed to drive me insane, but still just a phase. Be consistent, firm and patient. Also remember to get away for a few minutes or an hour each week, take a walk, go buy groceries, have coffee with a friend, take a long bath with the door locked. Give yourself a break. Good luck.

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answers from Portland on

Congratulations! You are the proud mother of a totally and completely normal 2.5 year old!

One piece of advice I give all my parents-to-be friends is this: EVERYTHING'S a phase. Your son will eventually grow out of this, I promise.

I have a just-turned 3-year old, and I have to remind myself of this almost daily. The one thing I found that works sometimes is to turn everything into a choice, giving him the illusion of control. "Do you want to wash your hands first, or brush your teeth first?" "Do you want to read a book or watch a show while I get your sister to bed?" Stuff like that. It doesn't always work, but I'm sometimes surprised by just how effective it can be. Good luck!

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answers from Seattle on

First off, sounds very typical toddler aged challenges! I have turned to choices. At first you as the parent don't always think of the perfect combo but the more you do it the easier it will come. Like for us, sitting with us at dinner...choices: Sit at the table with us for dinner or sit in time out. He chose time out a couple times...then decided that it wasn't the best option and we don't have that problem, sometimes have to remind him of the choices. Find the combination that will work for you scenarios and you should have it made. So for the light, "you can stop playing with the light switch or you can go in time out" - takes a few times but they start figuring out the choices and which is better. I promise they don't all end with "time out" - you will identify obvious choices favored and unfavored to use for negotiating. My son doesn't like to shower, so for bath, it's "will you take a bath or a shower?"
Hope it helps, good luck!


answers from Seattle on

I am speaking as both a early childhood teacher (k-1) and parent of a now grown, highly strong willed child.

Once you have picked your battles, don't give in. Stay calm if you can. You are doing many things that are correct.

If you need him to listen, hold him by both arms (firmly but gently) and get him to look at you (not as easy as it sounds). At that point he will be pretty calm. If you can, lift his head. Tell him what you want to tell him. Have him repeat what you said.

Sometimes he will just need to be mad at times. This will be hard on you because you will feel responsible. Teach him to take it out on something else. I finally taught my daughter to go outside and yell at the trees.

I would image a boy could be taught some sort of sport activity to do with his father. Keep him moving. He can't be mad if he is learning and moving.



answers from Portland on

I think these are normal frustrations of raising a 2 year old. Different things work at different ages, but I noticed something that's worked for years for my son (now almost 7)--and that's counting. I don't know why it's worked (if maybe one of his preschool teachers did it...). But whenever I'm really frustrated I count loudly and he almost always drop everything to come/stop/whatever almost immediately. I don't use it often though, because I don't want this trick to wear out.



answers from Seattle on

Hi A.,

This is very typical behavior for a 2½ year old. He's at a stage of experimenting with his limits, which is very normal and natural.

I've found that when dealing with these kinds of toddler issues, the key factor for me is my state of mind. It's not always possible, though I find that if I'm able to keep a calm composer (even when I'm so frustrated that I want to just scream), I keep the tone in my voice FIRM, but CALM when talking to either of my boys. I've found that when I show my frustration, it feeds right into the issue making it even harder to deal with.

As an additional challenging task, which is ultimately helpful, I force myself to be as consistent as possible with discipline measures. Since limits are particularly what they're testing at this age (and continue to test until they move out), consistency is the best way to show them that if they do A, B will always be the consequence.

Clear expectations are really important for little ones too. At 2½ your son should be able to understand some simple rules as well. I suggest posting a short list of simple rules up somewhere where he can see them. He obviously can't read them, but if you go through them with him enough times, he'll know what it says. The visual part of it represents that these rules are always in effect.

You can also make up some simple steps for him to memorize in certain situations to help him know what the right thing to do is. For example, when my boys were younger (and even still sometimes), if my younger son (before he could really understand what he was doing) would take something away from my older son (who would usually freak out and fight for it back), I would stop him, get down to his eye level and get his eye-to-eye attention, then say, "That is not the right way to get your toy back." Then I would ask him "What are the right steps to take to get your toy back?" The three steps were 1. Ask for it back NICELY. 2. Try to take it back NICELY. 3. Ask mommy and daddy for help. He would have to repeat these every time until he learned to actually follow the steps. Once he stated the steps, he went into time-out (we do 1 minute per year old) to help him remember to follow the steps next time. It took some time, but eventually this has helped know the right way to handle these kinds of situations. (It doesn't always work, but usually.) ;o)

Finally, another "discipline" tactic that has been really helpful for us is positive reinforcements. Not only in trying not to say "no" to everything (saying it in different ways, like "let's try ______ instead" or something similar), but also to have a rewards chart. You can make your own or buy one premade. (If you do a search for "kid reward chart" on Amazon.com or wherever, you will find them.) Basically, you can pick daily goals (like "Share Toys" or "Good Behavior in Public" or whatever you want, where if he completes it successfully for the day, he gets a star. Then at the end of the week, if he accomplishes a predetermined number of stars, then he can have some sort of predetermined prize. (Having the prize known ahead of time helps wanting to meet the goals.) The prizes can be a special outing with just one of the parents (one of my sons favorites) or a small toy (hot wheels are another of my sons favorites). This has helped my older son a lot just by catching him before something happens and saying "if you do 'X', you won't get your star for the day." I really think that adding the understanding of earning rewards for good behavior rather than only punishing for bad behavior (which I think is necessary too), is a really great way to get your kids understand and make the determination between good and not good behaviors and helps them WANT to have good behavior.

This is all stuff that has been quite successful for us. Every parent is different and every kid is different, so I hope you something in here useful for you and your family.

I don't know if you ever have a moment to read, but the BEST parenting book I've found is "Becoming The Parent You Want To Be" by Laura Davis & Janis Keyser. I haven't read it cover to cover - I use it more as a reference book and have read chapters, but it always has really great information.

I wish you the best of luck!! :o)



answers from Anchorage on

Hi A.,

Yes, pick your battles..and maybe get a timer? My son is nine now and he has some of the same problems but when it comes to time, he's a whiz. So, when we need something done in a hurry we give him "two minutes, three minutes, half an hour, ...or whatever it takes. He's not good about brushing his teeth so he has to count to sixty when he does it..etc. In your case..a two your old needs minutes..not hours or anything. For instance..if he wants to watch his show NOW...set the oven timer..let him see you do it. Tell him "You have to be a good boy til you hear "Beep" or whatever the timer makes..make sure he knows what it sounds like. Bedtime..same thing. He's got til the timer goes off to get ready if he wants to watch his show..or whatever..consequences are he doesn't do the thing he's so stuck on doing and maybe he will understand. As far as NO goes..don't give in..please don't!

He's old enough to understand "enough is enough". When you get to that point..PUT him in his room..tell him you are done listening. Walk away and tell him when he can talk without screaming, when he can listen without stalling..whatever..he can come see you and appoligise. Teach him what you want to hear him say and perhaps that is a start. "Start with "are you sorry". He will pick up the word and do it himself in awhile I think. It might at least turn off the waterworks. Give him the words to use..and let him make a choice. He can scream in his room by himself or he can be amongst you acting right. At two years old..he will be going to preschool before too long and teachers don't wait..the kid just misses the activity if they can't control themselves. SO, I would start him on timers that he can deal with..three to five minutes..even do time out that way...time is not a punishment but time-out is. Time out should be long enough to not want to go there...even if it's more than two minutes. My kids were doing five minutes at his age..and it worked to keep them out of the thing they got put there for etc. Time out is not an option. It should not be a threat. He should have no choice but to go to time out for even trying to disobey for awhile. If you know he is about to do something..simply scoop him up and sit him in his time out chair. If it's a minor infarction than simply give him a minor time. If its a big one..make him sit there facing the wall. There are different levels of naughtiness for kids. He needs to learn of swift reactions and that you don't react well to any of his little bag of tricks. He may be cute "but he's not that cute"...needs to come across loud and clear. Yea, he's going to look at you funny..maybe even a smart remark or two will rear its ugly head..but all in all as a two yr olds go..if he is smart and picks up on things quickly he will see that he can go a whole day with no timeout..and maybe something good happens because of that! (You decide that..I'm not into the whole rewards for doing good things but some kids do need to know that good is good..and bad is bad...and this sounds like one of them :) Good luck..at least he's only two..wait til he's like 16..you'll think he was an angel at 2 years :)


answers from Seattle on

I know it's frustrating, but it's typical. Consistency, consistency, consistency!! Always do your best to stay calm and in control to show him that you're serious and the authority. You won't get angry and yell, this is just the way things are.



answers from Eugene on

I'd say they're unrealistic expectations for his age simply because having tantrums when they can't get their way IS the two year old phase! When they're two they will hear your words over and over, and then when they turn three they are able to "internalize" what you've said and actually start doing the things you've been telling them to do all along. That said, it won't do your son or your nerves any good to expect him to comply with the rules even a third of the time at this age.

Better to let it go most of the time. The longer you both dwell on a behavior, the more insistent he will be on continuing it. If you can, distract him right away before he even knows he's not supposed to do it. And if he has a tantrum over a show that's not on, it's okay to just walk away and ignore it.

It sounds to me like your work schedule might be preventing you from having the patience you really need at this stage. And sometimes a child just pushes on a parent's buttons because of personality differences. In this case it's better if the parent becomes aware of themself when the pressure starts to get too high. Take breaks when your temper rises, and just LET IT GO 90% of the time. I know this is hard to do especially if you've gotten into a pattern. Try focussing more on yourself and how you're feeling at the moment. Is it worth the headache?

Your son sounds exactly like my two year old son. My heart goes out to you. I mostly deal with parenting stress by lowering my expectations on *myself* as a parent, and just thinking that if we've kept him alive and reasonably healthy by three (four, five, etc.) I'll be happy.

Realize that "spoiling" and indulging him is actually going to create a more compassionate, optimistic, well-behaved, and easier-to- parent child later on. And you and your children will be better off in the long run if you let go of society's, friend's and family's expectations of you, and just listen to your own heart.

Read William Sears' books "The Successful Child" or "The Discipline Book". Maybe spend less time working and more with your kids because they can also act out when they are not seeing enough of one parent (especially the mother). A counselor is helpful for extra emotional support if you need it because they are non-judgmental and anonymous. Best wishes and good luck.

P.S. "Flicking" him will just teach him to inflict pain on others, and erode the bond of trust between you two. Anything punishing or angry is generally counterproductive to good parenting and relationships.

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