Parenting: How To Parent Active, Inattentive Toddlers


Can Toddlers Have ADHD?


Toddlerhood is a challenging time for parents and toddlers. Toddlers learn many new skills between the ages of 1 and 4 but for parents, sitting still and listening are two skills toddlers can’t learn quickly enough. But does not listening and energetic behaviour necessarily mean your toddler has ADHD?

If only listening skills developed a little more quickly

Not all active toddlers have ADHD

Toddlerhood is a stage of rapid development. It’s normal for kids at this age to be occasionally impulsive and hyperactive and to not always listen to everything you say because the skills they need to be attentive and to self-regulate are still developing. Toddlers who are constantly full of beans regardless of who they’re with and where they are may be at risk for ADHD but these kids may also develop self-regulatory skills later in toddlerhood and be calm and attentive 5 year olds.

Toddlers who tick the boxes for ADHD might also have other difficulties that account for their challenging behaviour. For example, their hyperactivity and inattention might be a result of dietary problems, sensory integration issues, or lagging emotion regulation skills. Hearing problems and receptive language difficulties (difficulties understanding language) can also cause problems with listening.

While inattention and energetic behaviour is developmentally appropriate in toddlerhood, it’s extremely frustrating for parents. The good news is that in most cases, toddlers can be helped to build stronger listening skills. Too many instructions, too few instructions, complicated instructions, poorly timed instructions, non-specific instructions, and instructions phrased as questions all reduce the likelihood of your toddler following your instructions. Change how you deliver information to your toddler and you might be surprised at the results. Here’s some tips to get you started.

Make Sure You Have Your Child’s Attention

Before you give an instruction, say your child’s name and make sure they’re looking at you and listening. If your child is in the middle of an activity wait until they’ve finished what they’re doing or until there is a natural break in the activity.

Make Sure Your Demands Are Reasonable

Only ask you child to do what they’re capable of – make sure your instructions are age-appropriate and avoid giving instructions if your child is highly distressed or in the middle of another task.

Use Repetition

Your toddler’s language and comprehension skills are still developing so they may need you to give an instruction more than once. As a general rule, if after 5-seconds your child hasn’t responded to your instruction, get their attention and repeat the instruction again.

Give Instructions Instead of Making Requests

Next time you’re asking your toddler to do something listen to see whether you’ve given an instruction or made a request (e.g. “it’s time to pick up your books now” versus “can you please pick up your books now?”). Instructions help toddlers to clearly understand what’s expected.

Simplify Instructions

Give brief instructions and only one instruction at a time.

Make Sure You Follow Through

Stay in the room so you can monitor whether or not your toddler is complying with your request. If you’ve given an instruction twice and your toddler hasn’t responded, remain calm and physically prompt (help) your toddler to complete the task. If you’re not able to follow through avoid giving instructions – when you don’t follow through with instructions, your child learns that they don’t need to listen to what you say.

Praise Good Listening

If your child complies with a request and demonstrates good listening, praise their efforts.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.


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