Q&A: My 2 Year Old Does Not Listen Unless I Punish Him

CME WebsitesBehavior, Challenging Behavior, Discipline

blockquote_bgMy son is 2 and a half. He won’t listen to me unless I threaten to punish him. I have tried everything from time-outs to taking away his toys. He makes me lose my patience and sometimes I don’t know what to do. He’s extremely energetic and very fidgety. Is there something wrong with him or am I doing something wrong?

Thank you for your question. Developmentally, children at age two and a half are not typically billed as “good listeners”. Children this age have very short attention spans (around 3-5 minutes per toy/activity) and often need directions or questions repeated several times before they are able to follow through. Some children may need physical guidance and verbal and gestural cues to be able to follow through with requests. It is developmentally appropriate for children of this age to be very self-involved, and to have what I like to call “selective hearing”. This means, for example, if you tell a 2 year old to “pick up your toys” or “it’s time to come inside” or “share with your sister”, they may indeed understand the command, but will simply choose not to obey it or will even pretend they didn’t hear it. They typically aren’t doing this on purpose to annoy you, it’s just developmentally what 2 year olds do.

Most children by age 2 1/2 can follow simple one and two step commands such as “Go get your shoes” or “Get your cup and put it on the table”. Two year olds are typically active and busy as well, so this is not unusual. It helps to give young children directions/commands or to ask questions by first gaining their attention. Many active two year olds are so involved in play that sometimes they just are not attending to what you are asking them. When you want your son to do something, get down on your son’s level so he sees you, encourage him to make eye contact with you so he sees and hears what your saying, and keep directions or questions simple and to the point.

For example, if he is running around in the yard or driving trucks on the floor, slow him down so he’s facing you or get down on the floor with him and say “It is time to eat dinner, you can play for a few more minutes and then I will help you clean up your trucks”. You can even set an egg timer to signal the “end” of playtime to ease the transition into dinner, bath, bedtime, etc. For example “When the timer bell rings, it will be time to take your bath”.

I would not advise getting into a pattern of threatening and punishment to make your son listen to you. Time out should generally only be used for “hurting behaviors” such as hitting, kicking, biting, etc and should be no more than two minutes long (one minute per a child’s age). Use natural and logical consequences for behavior when possible, more information on behavior can be found here: Behavioral Tips for Parents

Many two year olds are rebellious by nature, so it is best for you to remain calm, say your directive in a calm, firm voice using simple words “Tommy, you need to put your pajamas on”…wait a few minutes and then repeat your same request. If he does not respond, then you may need to physically get your son (kicking and screaming or not) and restate what you asked him to do, but then guide him into doing the task telling him you gave him a chance to do it on his own and now Mommy will need to help him do it. Most two year olds are in a struggle for independence and are only asserting themselves by refusing to do certain tasks. Ignore temper tantrums.

Choices are also very helpful with 2 year olds. Try to offer them when possible, although there will be times when choices are not appropriate. At lunch time, ask “Do you want a sandwich or macaroni and cheese?”. But when it is time to leave the playground, it is indeed time to leave whether he likes it or not. Pick your battles at this age, ask yourself, “is this something worth the struggle?”. For example, if he wants to wear one red sock and one blue sock and he will have a meltdown if you make him wear both socks the same color, the battle may not be worth it-yes, he’ll have 2 different socks, but so what? But, if it is time to go pick up a friend and he does not want to get into the car, you will have to put up with the tantrum and tears in order to get him in the car, it’s not a choice at that point.

It may help you and your son to make a picture chart of your daily routine that you can hang on your frig, as having a consistent daily schedule is very important for toddlers. You can cut pictures out of magazines or use a real camera to take photos of his daily routine. For example 7am-wake up & get dressed, 7:30am eat breakfast, 8am playtime, etc through his whole day. This will help him learn what is coming up next, as advance warning for transitions to new activities are particularly helpful for toddlers.

Aside from the above suggestions, if you son has had a lot of ear infections, I would recommend scheduling a hearing evaluation by your doctor or local hospital to rule out any hearing concerns contributing to your son not listening. We want to make sure first and foremost that he is hearing you clearly and children with chronic ear infections sometimes are not. Secondly, if your son is not consistently following one step commands (get the ball) and two step commands (get your shoes and give them to Dad), you want to make sure he is not having a problem processing or understanding language. This can be determined by having him evaluated by a speech and language pathologist through your local Early Intervention Program (birth-3 program). A full team early intervention evaluation would also look at your son’s overall development such as his behavior, attention and play skills to make sure that he is on target for his age.

Also be sure to look over our page on Speech Skills for 24-36 months and note the red flags to the right side of the page which would mean a need for evaluation: Speech Skills for 24-36 Months