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The Secret Reason Your Toddler is Struggling to Follow Directions

“Please put on your pajamas honey.”

Blank stare.

“I’m not going to ask you again!”

Another blank stare.

Have you ever asked your toddler to do something and in return you receive a blank stare? There have been many times where I’ve given our preschooler a direction and she doesn’t follow through. It’s so frustrating! I sometimes question why won’t my toddler follow directions.

Shortly after our daughter turned 3 we decided it was time to increase her independence. She was going to learn to put her pajamas on by herself. The only problem, our toddler didn’t seem to be listening to anything I said. Every time we told her to get dressed, she would stare at us or whine “But I can’t!”

I often believed she was being defiant. Shouldn’t a preschooler know how to put her pajamas on?

How do I get my toddler to listen without yelling at her?

I was at a crossroads. Was my daughter being defiant and strong willed? Or was I missing something?

Why Your Toddler Won’t Follow Directions

As parents, it can be difficult to tell if our kids are deliberately disobeying or if they really don’t understand what we are asking. 

What if they aren’t following through because of a misunderstanding instead of an attitude of defiance? 

We often forget that children need simple, explicit directions. 

For example, if we tell our toddlers “Please put on your pajamas.” They may not know where to start. Young kids do not always know how to break down “big” tasks into smaller parts. They aren’t sure of step 1.

Do you have a toddler who struggles to follow directions? Before you discipline their strong willed behavior read this! The reason for your child's behavior may not be what you think.

So the reason they aren’t listening to anything we say isn’t because they want to misbehave.

It’s because they don’t know specifically what we are asking them to do.

One way to determine if compliance is an issue is to break down the task into simple steps.

Start with the basics. “First find the arm hole. Great you found it! Now put one arm through the arm hole.” It may seem silly to an adult, but many young children need tasks broken down into clear and straightforward steps. 

We tried this technique with our daughter at bedtime and we were pleasantly surprised. She started following through and she was able to follow our simple commands! 

It turns out she wasn’t being disobedient about putting on her pajamas. We were asking her to do something new and she needed help with the process. Now she can do it all by herself!

Another factor to consider is personality. One of our children is very brave and has no problem trying a task “all by herself!” Another child is a bit more cautious and wants to get it perfectly right on the first try. The second child may need more encouragement to try the perceived “difficult” task and that’s okay. Learn what works for your kids!

What about you? Have you ever wondered why your child was disobeying you?

If you aren’t sure if it’s defiance, instead of disciplining right away, take a step back. Have you been using phrases like:

  • Be a better listener.
  • Go play.
  • Get ready for school.
  • Pay attention.

Although these phrases seem obvious or simple to adults, kids may need more explicit directions. What does paying attention look like? What does getting ready for school entail? 

Tired of yelling at your toddler to get them to follow directions? There may be a hidden reason why they are struggling to cooperate! Find out what it is here.

Think about what you are saying and break it down. Try giving thorough directions and breaking tasks into small manageable steps. You may be surprised to find out your child wasn’t understanding your initial commands!

If you have determined it is defiance then you need to decide how to discipline. I’ve found the more I talk when trying to discipline the more my kids tune me out. Here are some of my best tips when correcting misbehavior (they may surprise you!).

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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  1. I love this! My kids are grown, now, but we used the same principle of breaking things down and talking them through simple tasks. We take for granted the simple things and don’t always realize that it is ALL new to them! Sometimes what seems simple to us is overwhelming for them!

  2. I wish this worked for my 6 yr old. I’ll have to try ‘put one foot in front of the other and walk through the doorway pls.’
    Or “reach out your arm to hand me the balloon so it wont fly away. No? Oops well there it goes.’
    I am sympathetic to my kid when she seems overwhelmed but I feel my lo is defiant because she will purposely ignore me.

    She will look me in the eye while im asking her a question and not respond. “How was your day hun?” Blank stare. Repeat the question 5 times, she lets out a groan to show her displeasure and puts her hand over her mouth. This goes for almost any question. Shes 6, not 16. When she isnt ignoring me, she does the opposite of what i tell or ask her.
    Me: “My hands are full, and theres a speeding car, stay near me by this door.” Her: runs to other side of car.

    To make matters worse anytimei try to discipline her, her dad or my mom challenge my authority. So she doesn’t respect me.
    Me: “No you cant have a cookie before dinner.” Mom: oh a cookie wont hurt. Ill buy you some cookies later sweetie. ” Even though she knows the struggle of my picky eater.
    It’s unreal.

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