Ask Adrienne: Why Won’t My Toddler Look Me in the Eye?

Why Won't My Toddler Look Me in the Eye ~ Parenting Tips

Since Adrienne is my go-to girl for parenting advice (she doesn’t claim to be an expert, but she’s got experience and she’s a straight shooter), I thought I’d open up the floor to my readers to see if they have any topics they’d like her to address in a new. aptly-titled, feature: “Ask Adrienne.”

The first brave soul to pose a question was Bianca from The Pierogie Mama:

Is it beyond a 2 1/2 year old’s (girl, but shouldn’t matter) developmental ability to look you in the eye when you’re giving direction?

She’s normally obedient and a good listener. If I tell her to do something, she does it. I very rarely have to use “the mama voice” with her. But lately if I’m teaching or gently disciplining (explaining why a certain behavior isn’t ok and how it makes me feel) she purposefully looks everywhere else.

I tell her “look in mama’s eyes” and turn her chin to me. She won’t do it. But it doesn’t seem defiant. I tell her “if you don’t look in my eyes, I don’t know if you can hear me.

Adrienne Answers: Why Won’t My Toddler Look Me in the Eye?

It’s been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. So it makes sense that as parents, we put a lot of emphasis on eye contact when we’re speaking to our children.  Oftentimes, it’s the only way we know that our busy toddlers are even listening to us. Add to that the fact that one of the most well-known signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lack of eye contact, and it makes it even more of a focal point in our daily interactions with our little ones.  But are we asking too much of them?

I like to keep it to the basics when dealing with difficult toddler behaviour, and often revert to this philosophy: toddlers are like wild animals. Laugh or frown if you like, but there’s more science to this idea than you might think. Without the benefit of years of social interactions, and with a brain still lacking in development, young children rely on similar parts of their brains as animals do when it comes to conflict resolution. I grew up riding horses, and learned pretty quickly that you are not to look an unbroken horse directly in the eyes. Pet owners will also tell you the same thing – direct eye contact with animals is a sign of aggression, and makes them immediately uncomfortable. It would stand to reason that for a toddler, using a more primitive part of their brain, looking you in the eyes as you give directions in a firm voice would be interpreted in a similar way.

So how do you know if your toddler or child has heard what you’ve said? Here are some great tips from the people at Bonbon Break:

  • Face them out: I like to have my child sit in my lap facing out while we talk. Not only do I have his attention this way, but we are also connecting in a loving way. It is less intimidating then standing face-to-face, and he is more likely to have his guard down and therefore more likely to listen to me and engage in a meaningful conversation.
  • Get down on their level: When you speak to a child, try to get down where you can be on their level. It’s less intimidating and makes it easier to connect. Here’s a great example of how and why we need to get down on our child’s level, as demonstratedby A Mom with a Lesson Plan. The trick with this is to not demand eye contact. I like to gently hold onto their hands to help them stay focused on me. If your child has trouble with this and you find yourself getting agitated, spin the child around, hug them, and have them face out.
  • Repeat back: I always, always have my child repeat back to me. I’ll ask him a question about what we just talked about to make sure that he gets it and was paying attention. This is key to making sure that they understand.

Another interesting article on the science behind children and eye contact can be found at The Cortex Parent.

So worry not, Bianca! Lack of eye contact is perfectly normal for a two and a half year old, and will only get better with time.





3 responses to “Ask Adrienne: Why Won’t My Toddler Look Me in the Eye?”

  1. Brandi

    Great tips! I never would have thought to sit them on my lap facing out. I’m going to try that next time, thanks!

  2. Janna Law

    This makes me feel a little better. I have always gotten down on my knees and asked my child to hold my hand and look at me when I try to explain why a certain behavior isn’t good or is dangerous. He just turned 4 and purposefully looks away and it always frustrates me so much because I feel as if he is being defiant. I will try sitting him down on my lap and talking to him and see if that helps a little.

  3. moses

    Hello Adrienne My little one is 11 months now and she is a quick learner. Sometimes it’s frightening how quick she problems solves and goes through hurdles. We live in Kenya And here, children tend to acquire social skills slowly. Lived in the UK for a while and I learned to adopt social skills to my children early. So I guess that’s the reason. But am concerned she is late when it comes to walking. She is standing well by her self and using walls for support but she gets afraid to walk. What’s up with her? Or am I expecting too much? Thank you and love your page to death.


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My name is Lindsay and I am a 40-year-old mama of four trying to live an eco-friendly, budget-friendly life! I am a substitute teacher and Child Passenger Safety technician in Calgary, Alberta. Join me on my adventures!

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