One of the things I hear parents lamenting more than anything as their sweet bundle of joy turns into a talking and walking toddler is that suddenly they have yet another person in the house who doesn’t listen to them. For some strange reason, parents often expect a toddler to listen to them and it is infuriating when they don’t. Now, I’m not saying we should all expect our children to never listen to us or that we shouldn’t aim to get them to at least pay attention to us, but before we talk about the ways in which we may sabotage that process (yes, I’ll get there), we have to talk about the reality we can expect from our kids.
The Toddler Brain
By the end of the first three years a bulk of the brain has developed, but even at this stage, one of the last areas that requires extensive development is the prefrontal cortex which isn’t finished development until into our 20s. In fact, myelination (the process by which the myelin sheath covers the neurons to speed up processing in the brain) begins at birth but isn’t complete until the late teen years. The importance of myelination to human functioning can be understood by looking at diseases that result in demyelination, such as Multiple Sclerosis. The next part of neural development that allows us to function as we do is called “pruning”. At birth and continuing for the first year, there is immense synaptic growth, resulting in a peak of synapses at around 18 months of age (when synaptic production ends). Starting around 12 months of age, pruning begins and continues until around 25. This pruning process is the reason why people speak of brain development not being complete until then. Pruning is the process by which our brains map the paths our brain will make in response to our environment and situations, and it is this pruning that happens last in the prefrontal cortex area.
The role of the prefrontal cortex is to help us regulate our behaviours, end impulsivity, and all that jazz. Now, this doesn’t mean toddlers have no inhibitory control, but that their control is limited (especially in the early years) and not nearly as advanced as that of a grown adult (i.e., you). It grows as your child grows, but we must always be aware of their limited development when looking at their behaviour. As a reminder, here are some of the functions that are the prefrontal cortex is involved with:
- Decision making
- Emotional responses to situations (i.e., emotion regulation)
- Attention and concentration
- Working memory
If you think of your toddler and how they sometimes respond when you ask them to do something or stop something, can you see why you may have a hard time getting your child to look at you, much less cooperate with you?
What Can A Parent Do?
Even though there are neurological reasons a child may not immediately respond to you, know that many children are capable of listening and responding if we work with them where they are at. (If your child really seems as if s/he cannot follow what you are saying or doesn’t ever look at you when you talk, you may want to consider visiting your doctor to get hearing checked or look for other possible causes.) There are also many things parents do that reduce the likelihood that a child will listen to them and some things they should consider doing if they want their child to listen.
Look At Your Child. I realize in our society we are used to being able to talk to people without looking at them and they know we are trying to communicate with them, but early on, children don’t have this sense. Eye gaze is one of the biggest cues children use to understand both what people are talking about and who they are talking to and it’s essential we use it with them. This is particularly essential if we are talking about something important that we want to tell our children as eye contact tells us that our child is focused on us and not something else (and equally important tells them that we are focused on them and nothing else). Remember: You’re getting your child to listen, but that doens’t necessarily mean obey so make sure you are also willing to discuss the situation with your child once you know they are listening.
Don’t Just Say No or Stop. Often I hear myself and other parents just use “Stop!” when we don’t like what our children are doing, but this is one of the things that’s difficult for a brain that doesn’t have a developed prefrontal cortex. One way we assess the development of inhibitory control is using a card switching task with preschoolers (and adults) and when looking at results with children, a clear developmental trajectory emerges which suggests that children can inhibit or switch behaviours when it’s clear what to do, but the more complex the behaviour or the task, the more difficult it is.
This is why just saying stop won’t necessarily help when a child is engaged in a complex behaviour (and being involved means they also are less likely to even be listening at all). If you need the behaviour to stop, kids will require your help and one of the best ways to help is to redirect the action. For example, imagine a child is painting on the walls. He is likely absorbed in the task and just hearing “Stop that!” won’t elicit stopping because it’s like he’s on a loop where he just has to keep going. Instead, going over and acknowledging the work (“Wow – I can see you like to paint!”) then redirecting somewhere else (“Why don’t you paint on this easel instead as we’re not allowed to paint on the walls”) will often do the trick. Not only does it change the behaviour, but it teaches another appropriate behaviour that the child can go to the next time there’s a desire to be creative.
Save Your “No”s and “Stop”s. If you spent a day counting the amount of time you said “no” or “stop” you might be surprised. Parents find themselves saying it in response to almost everything, and especially in response to little things that really aren’t all that important. The problem is that if you use these words too much, they lose their power. (Note it may not be the specific words you use, but the tone of voice as well as that can convey the importance of your words regardless of the words chosen; and again, you want to avoid overusing it.) Figuring out the words or tone you want to use when you really need your kids to listen is important and then focus on only using it when you really have to. After all, if our children as so used to hearing these words multiple times a day, is it a wonder they stop listening and just tune us out?
Don’t Yell. I kind of lied above. There is one time at which children will stop when you say “Stop!” and that’s when they feel fear and there are three ways in which this can happen: (1) The child hears the fear in her parent’s voice; (2) the child hears the words from the parent and knows their seriousness because they aren’t used often; or (3) The child hears the anger in the parent’s voice and feels fear from that. Case 1 is a legitimate use of fear and is what we are biologically primed for. Case 2 is what I spoke about above with respect to saving your words for when absolutely necessary. Case 3 is the case of yelling/punishment. You might think that it’s just as good as 1 or 2 if it gets the same ends, but you would be wrong.
When children respond out of fear, they don’t learn how to manage their own emotions or behaviour, which should be what we are aiming for (in the long-run) when we are trying to get them to listen to us. As such, yelling is kind of a crappy tool. It may instill some short-term changes, but as your children adapt to your yelling, it becomes like the words “no” or “stop” and you may end up escalating. As Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff said with respect to physical punishment, “[It] doesn’t work to get kids to comply, so parents think they have to keep escalating it. That is why it’s so dangerous.”
Listen to Your Kids. If there is only one thing you take from this, it’s that you need to listen to your children. I’m not talking just about in the moment when you’re trying to get them to stop something or work with you (because clearly if they are trying to explain why they are doing something and why it is important to them, you ought to listen and have a full discussion about it), but generally speaking too. Research shows that parents who listen to their children and follow their lead at times when it’s possible have children who are more likely to listen to their parents when the parents make a request. In short, in the larger scheme of things, if you create an environment where your child feels heard and respected, she is likely to reciprocate that respect and when you need cooperation, they are going to be more likely to listen to what you have to say and talk it out with you. (Hopefully this isn’t surprising to anyone here, even if we don’t put it into practice as much as we should.)
Parenting toddlers isn’t easy but we can make the most of out how we engage with them in hopes of ensuring we build a relationship that makes everyone’s lives easier because the degree of respect needed is there. Does it mean it will always be perfect? Absolutely not. Not even close. But hopefully the good times can help get you through those stubborn periods where either your child or yourself struggles to listen and really hear the other.
 Zero to Three Foundation (http://www.zerotothree.org/)
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