How To Get Toddlers To Listen Without Yelling, Bribing, or Threats
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How To Get Toddlers To Listen Without Yelling, Bribing, or Threats

Discover the negative effects of yelling, bribes, and threats on kids and 5 things you can do instead to get your child to listen.

Updated June 28, 2024

by Tasha Mayberry

Medically reviewed by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist

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As a big believer in positive living, I naturally gravitated toward positive parenting once I became a mom. However, even with the best intentions, we noticed that we started to yell at times to get our rambunctious toddler boy to listen. We even began using bribes (“If you get dressed and be good, I’ll give you a treat!”) and threats (“If you don’t listen right now, you’re going into timeout!”). These seem to work in the moment, but the behavior never improves. It was like a cycle continuing over and over, and the more our son didn’t listen, the more frustrated we got. It turns out that trying to get our toddlers to listen by yelling, bribing, or using threats has more negative effects on their behavior, which is counterproductive. I thought there had to be a better way. And there is!

Negative Effects of Yelling, Bribes, and Threats

Before we share alternatives, let’s discuss why we shouldn’t use yelling, bribes, or threats to get our toddlers to listen:

They Create Fear and Take Away Learning Opportunities

Yelling, bribes, and threats may be the easy choice to get toddlers to listen, but they’re listening out of fear instead of learning to obey and respect you as a parent. According to the author of “Connection Parenting,” Pam Leo, “Threats create disconnection and undermine the parent-child bond.”1 If you only use threats and bribes to get your children to cooperate, all they get to practice is compliance. And compliance merely chips away at your child’s self-esteem and feelings of capability. Research tells us that positive reinforcement is more effective in getting children to change their behavior in the long term because they associate feeling good with the behavior/action you want them to repeat.7 Threats, yelling, or shaming our children can influence their mental health, well-being, confidence, and self-esteem long-term.3,9

It’s also essential to understand the difference between positive reinforcement and bribery. We use positive reinforcements or incentives to encourage our children by motivating them and celebrating the behavior we want to see repeated. Meanwhile, bribes are a type of persuasion that we offer in advance to stop challenging or negative behaviors.8

They Lead to a Negative Parent-Child Relationship

Yelling, bribes, and threats also create a negative relationship between the child and parent, which can cause resentment, more arguments, and ongoing conflicts.3 These impact your relationship negatively because your child fears you (fear drives compliance) and these tactics may erode their trust in you.10 Yelling, bribes, and threats don’t teach children to respect their parents, and their bad behavior will continue or usually worsen. When this happens, parents get more frustrated. Again, it’s that vicious, unproductive cycle that must be broken! So, instead of talking AT our kids, we should talk WITH our kids.

They Build a Habit of Kids Expecting Rewards for Behaving

Trying to get toddlers to listen by offering a reward isn’t necessarily bad, but what’s important is WHEN you offer it. An article in “Psychology Today” makes a great point about offering a reward at the right time.2 Instead of offering the reward in the middle of a child misbehaving in exchange for them listening, offer the reward upfront before bad behavior begins. For instance, “Let’s go get ice cream if we all behave at the restaurant. Sound good?” Don’t be afraid NOT to give the reward if your kids don’t follow through on their end of the bargain.2

5 Ways To Get Kids To Listen (Without Yelling, Bribes, or Threats)

Instead of yelling, bribes, or threats, try out these five ways to get toddlers to listen:

1. Get Down on Their Level and Use Eye Contact

Personally, these two actions have helped us avoid and stop bad behavior. Parents and kids can relate better to each other when they’re at the same eye level. Just imagine how giant everything is for little kids, including parents looking down on them. When we get down on their level and make eye contact, we can make sure that they’re paying attention and see if they understand what we’re saying.4 For me, it’s like evening the playing field. Instead of looking down on my son, I get down on his level, say his name, and make eye contact. Then, I whisper — and because I’m whispering, it’s like I’m telling my son a secret, so he listens intently.

Real-Life Example

My son was being very rowdy and wanted to wrestle. (Papa “wrestles” with him before naptime and bedtime every day.) So, I came down to his level, said his name, made eye contact, and whispered, “Papa is eating right now. Once he is done, I am sure he will wrestle with you. Let’s go ask Papa if he will wrestle after he is done eating.” It worked! I couldn’t believe I was able to get my toddler to listen by whispering. But I did! He stopped trying to wrestle with me, and we walked over to Papa just as I suggested. Miraculous!

2. Stop Saying “No” and Talk More Instead

I caught myself constantly saying “no” to my son. Kids who hear “no” frequently end up not listening (well, maybe after they’ve heard “no” 100 times). Research tells us that when we use the same words over and over, they stop having meaning!5 Instead, we started to explain why we were saying no.

For example, when we get home from preschool, my son must take off his shoes and wash his hands, but he started running into the kitchen and living room with his shoes on and his hands unwashed. Saying, “Please come here to take your shoes off and wash your hands,” didn’t work. He kept giggling in the living room while I went to pick him up and bring him back to the foyer. After this continued, I yelled at him one day when it happened. Then, I thought there had to be a better way because yelling wasn’t working either.

Here’s What I Did

I explained why taking our shoes off and washing our hands is important after coming home from school. “Remember when you felt sick? There are many germs on the bottom of our shoes and hands (even though we cannot see any with our eyes). If we don’t take our shoes off at the door and wash our hands, we can spread germs and get sick. So, that’s why Mommy asks you to take your shoes off and wash your hands right when we come home. It only takes a quick minute, and then you can run freely around the house, okay?”

Also, we can say “no” in different ways that are much more effective. Instead of saying, “No shouting,” you can say, “Talk softly, please.” Or instead of saying, “Don’t run,” you might say, “Make sure we walk to the sidewalk. Then, you and your friends can run on the playground.”

3. Use Acknowledgment

This active listening technique works wonders to get toddlers to listen, and it’s so simple! It’s called “summarising,” and all it takes is repeating back what the toddler wants or is trying to say and/or acknowledging their feelings.4 Here are a couple of examples of this from my own life:

Breakfast Example

Before school, we have a short window to eat breakfast. Sometimes, my son will push his breakfast aside and say he doesn’t want it. I used to say, “We only have five minutes to eat. Please eat your breakfast.” This didn’t work. Now I say, “Oh, you don’t want your breakfast right now? Okay. I will put it here to the side, and when you are ready, you can take a few bites. We only have five minutes before we leave for school, so I will remind you in a minute.” Usually, before I remind him, he’s already reaching for his breakfast to eat after a minute. Sometimes I just need to say, “Reminder: breakfast.” Then he starts eating.

Toy Example

When our son asks for a toy in the store, saying “no” usually triggers him to ask for it 100 more times. He eventually cries when he knows I won’t give in. Instead, we now say, “I know you really want that toy. You have so many toys at home, so we will wait until your birthday. Do you know what month your birthday is in?” He answers, and we redirect the conversation to something different.

It works most of the time, but sometimes, he’s persistent in asking for the toy. So, I say this: “Oh, you want a toy. I understand you feel frustrated because we cannot get that toy right now. Some little boys do not have one toy. You have many toys at home, so we have to be grateful for this. Do you want to help Mama pick out a yummy snack?” The key is acknowledging and repeating what they want or are frustrated about — then redirecting. After doing this for about five trips to the grocery store, something magical happened: my son stopped asking for toys at the store!

4. Stop Saying “Bad Boy” or “Bad Girl”

I learned this tip from my son’s preschool teacher. Out of the blue, he had a tough time for about a month. He started not listening, banging his fork during lunch, and doing other things he didn’t usually do. After a few instances, the teacher shared with us what was happening. We started to have a conversation with our son at home about how to act in school and how important it is to be a good listener.

One day, when I picked my 3-year-old up from school, he immediately said he was a bad boy that day. His teacher said, “You’re not a bad boy. You just have to work on a few things and good listening. Tomorrow is a new day.” It got me thinking about calling my son a bad boy, and we’ve since stopped this. Calling kids “bad” hurts their self-esteem. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; children who are told they’re bad start to believe they are bad. In turn, they’re more likely to engage in behaviors they consider bad. Essentially, they start to live up to the label.6 We can say certain words and behaviors are bad, but refrain from calling your kid “bad.”

5. Set Expectations

This has helped tremendously in getting our toddler to listen and understand what we expect from him. And it makes a lot of sense. Even as adults, we don’t know how to act if we don’t know what to expect. The same is true of our kids. If you set an expectation of behavior before you embark on a task or an outing, your child will already know how they’re supposed to act.8 For instance, before eating out at a restaurant, we always set expectations on how to behave, and our toddler has always been well-behaved in these situations.

You can set expectations many times throughout the day. Let’s go back to my example above — when we get home from school, we must take our shoes off and wash our hands. So, I started setting the expectation as a reminder in the car as we pulled into the garage. “I know you are excited when you get home and want to run in the house. But remember, you must take your shoes off and wash your hands. It only takes a minute, and then you can run and play. Remember, there are tons of germs, and we want to stay healthy and strong. You were such a good listener yesterday when you came in, took your shoes off, and washed your hands. Mommy is so proud of you.” Lo and behold, it worked! No more bolting through the house with shoes on and unwashed hands giggling.

Getting Our Toddlers To Listen To Us

Parenting is hard (it’s like a fitted sheet — no one really knows how to do it despite our best intentions, and this is OKAY!!). Getting our toddlers to listen without yelling, bribing, or threats is even harder! However, kids just want to be heard and understood while having their basic needs met (hungry, tired, need attention, etc.). This is a very reasonable request — one that even adults share.

We have a great responsibility to shape and mold our children to be happy, positive, well-mannered kids, and the tactics above can help you better achieve this. Our little ones are learning about the world around them, and it’s especially difficult for toddlers to express themselves completely. They need our help and patience to grow, develop, and thrive.

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Tasha is a mom to a rambunctious and bright boy named Vasya - and is currently pregnant with her second (another boy!). Tasha loves sharing parenting tips to help fellow… Read more

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