Toddlers are often talked about as if they are a species unto themselves. And when we’re in the thick of it — the testing, mood swings and meltdowns (ours and theirs) — we may indeed feel in alien territory. Fear not! Toddlers are just small humans in turmoil, easily thrown off-balance due to rapid growth, thrilled by new abilities and accomplishments, but often frustrated by all they still can’t do or say.
Here are some simple communication adjustments we can make to help ease frustration and foster trust.
Talk normally. Children want to learn our language. Avoid baby talk and speak in full sentences, so that you are modeling the language you want your child to adopt right from the beginning. This feels more respectful and natural to us, too. We can maximize comprehension by making our sentences shorter, slowing down our speech and pausing after each sentence to give our infant or toddler the time he needs to absorb our words.
Ignore the advice of an expert who tells you to imitate your toddler with neanderthal ‘ape talk’, as if talking down to a toddler like he is mentally deficient is the only way he can understand us. Imagine going to a foreign country, courageously attempting to speak the language, and then being mocked with an imitation of your awkward wording. Would you get in a foreigner’s face and ape his pidgin English? Toddlers have been immersed in our language for many, many months and comprehend volumes more than they can speak.
Turn ‘no’ into ‘yes’. In a recent parent/toddler class, Kendra asked me what she should do when her vibrant 19 month-old daughter interrupted discussions with her husband. She said that telling Audrey not to interrupt wasn’t working at all. I suggested she say, “Audrey, I hear you asking for our attention. When daddy and I are finished talking I am going to listen only to you. Please give us five minutes” (And then follow through.)
Will this response work miracles? Probably not. Children never seem to outgrow the need for our attention when we’re busy. But making a toddler feel heard, rather than telling her “no” and “don’t” all the time respects her need to ‘save face’ and makes her more likely to respond with compliance.
Similarly, telling a child, “I want you to sit still on my lap”, instead of “Don’t bounce on me!” seems to lessen a toddler’s urge to test. Children appreciate positive instruction and tend to tune out or resist the words ‘no’ and ‘don’t’. Better to save those words for emergencies.
Real choices. Offering a toddler an option like, “Are you going to put the toy away on the shelf or in the box?” is another variation of turning a toddler’s perceived negative (the child must put the toy away) into a positive (she gets to choose where to place it). Or we might say, “I see you’re still playing. Would you like to change your diaper now, or in five minutes?”
Deciding between two options is usually all a toddler needs. Big decisions like, “What should we have for dinner?”, or “What are you going to wear today?” can be overwhelming. Be careful of giving false choices like, “Do you want to go to Aunt Mary’s house?” We’re left with egg on our faces when our toddler answers, “No!”
First, acknowledge. Acknowledging an infant or toddler’s point-of-view can be magically calming, because it provides something he desperately needs – the feeling of being understood. A simple affirmation of our child’s struggles, “You are having a hard time getting those shoes on. You’re really working hard,” can give him the encouragement he needs to persevere through his frustration.
Be careful not to assume a child’s feeling, “You’re afraid of the dog”, or to invalidate the child’s response because we view it as overreaction, “It’s just a doggie. He won’t hurt you.” It is safest to state only what we know for certain, “You seem upset by the dog. Do you want me to pick you up?”
Acknowledging first can take the bite out of not getting one’s way. “You want to play longer outside, but now it’s time to come in. I know it’s hard to come in when you’re not ready.” And no matter how wrong or ridiculous our child’s point-of-view might seem to us, he needs the validation of our understanding.
Acknowledging our child’s desires means expressing truths we might rather ignore like, “You wanted to run across the street. I won’t let you.” Or, “You want to leave Grandma’s house, but it isn’t time yet. “
It’s always hardest to remember to acknowledge a child in the heat of a difficult moment, but if a child can hear anything during a temper tantrum, it reassures him to hear our recognition of his point-of-view. “You wanted an ice cream cone and I said, ‘No’. It’s upsetting not to get what you want.”
When a toddler feels understood, he senses the empathy behind our limits and corrections. He still resists, cries and complains, but at the end of the day, he knows we are with him, always in his corner. These first years will define our relationship for many years to come.
I share much more about connecting with toddlers in my new book: