In the age where children are inconsolable, dealing with big emotions, and many times lack the words to effectively communicate, it is important for parents to be there to help fill in the gaps rather than create more distance.
When a toddler is throwing a tantrum or is on the verge of getting upset, it’s easy to create distance between parent and child by telling them we can’t understand them or to demand they stop whining.
But looking back on my own childhood, I remember very vividly that in those moments, I felt even smaller, even less understood, and even more frustrated.
So to encourage toddlers and lift them up, it’s just a few simple tools for communicating with toddlers that help bridge the gap of misunderstanding.
Ask direct questions.
Sitting at breakfast in the hotel lobby, my two and a half year old sat eating her eggs. I got up to get something to drink and asked her if she wanted anything. It was a seemingly harmless question, but with an entire breakfast bar of food and drinks, it was far from simple or harmless for my toddler.
She could not survey her surroundings and come to a conclusion of exactly what she wanted, nor could she seem to formulate the words of what she did want… because of course there were a hundred options! And like many toddlers, she says something to the effect of “nayeah” when I ask if she wants a muffin. So was that “yeah” or “nah”?
So instead, over the next days when I would get up I would ask her “Do you want yogurt; yes or no?” And instantly and emphatically she would say “YES!” Then I might ask “Do you want granola with it? Yes or No? And typically she would say “No”. Adding “yes or no” to questions cut down on the frustration of communicating with toddlers, and just became clear-cut communication between the two of us with no melt-downs for getting her the wrong thing because I misunderstood.
Choose Eye-Level and Eye Contact.
Maybe you have heard of this or done it before, or maybe you haven’t. But let’s give some perspective to the world of a toddler.
The bed you so casually sit down on with ease? To you it’s a seat and no big deal at all. But to a toddler it’s like climbing a tiny mountain to be able to get up on top of it. And those are big emotions and big obstacles to overcome!
So when we are communicating with toddlers, we need to lower ourselves to their level. It means as parents we don’t seem like giants in their eyes, but that we are relatable and approachable. It means that you can hold them, hear them, and see them and vice versa.
We also like using the phrases “Show me your eyes” and “Look into my eyes and speak into my ear”. Both of these are tools that encourage positive communication between adult and child and diminish confusion and misunderstandings.
Rephrase what you’re already saying.
I have found with both toddlers and adults, it’s very easy to be speaking with one another and be saying the same thing in different ways, but be in an argument. This is because we all see and experience the world differently.
When my toddler is struggling to dress herself, sometimes I will say “Come to me so we can get your arms in”. In my mind, I am telling her that I am going to help her, but that’s not what she heard. So instead I have learned to say “How can a help you get your shirt on?” or “Do you need me to help you find the sleeves?”
Or instead of just saying no, rephrasing to provide more context can help a toddler understand what they can do vs. what they cannot do. I once had a reader tell me that she told her daughter not to touch something in the bathroom only to have her daughter lick it. So in this scenario, maybe asking a child to move away from the bathroom wall could have prevented the “but can I…” mentality.
Be clear, but concise.
Like in the previous point, it’s important to be clear and intentional with our words as parents and caregivers. However, many times in an effort to set boundaries for our children and not simply say “no” we lose their attention and therefore our words continue to lose their effectiveness.
This is especially important in danger situations. So for instance “Hey please step away from the street, cars are dangerous!” might be a phrase that is well-intentioned, but with toddlers, they will quickly stop listening. In this case it would be more reasonable to say “Get Back!” and then once you have their attention, you can get down at eye level with them, hold their hand and talk with them about the dangers of cars and being in the street.
Similarly, stoves are “ouch, hot!” or “hands off”. It’s to the point to get their attention without a lot of fluff and then opens to door for further communication.
Ask how you can Help.
When toddlers fail to have words and they are flustered in their circumstances, the best thing we can do is simply ask how we can help. Sometimes they start whining, saying “I can’t”, or just melt down. These are the moments that when we ask how we can help, sometimes it’s a one word answer like “Orange” and I know she needs the orange peeled because she could muster a single word and pointed.
Find more on how to encourage children when they say they can’t.
Also, asking how you can help opens a positive door of communication rather than shutting them down for whining, crying, or screaming.
These 5 simple tips have helped both my husband and I in the trying times with our two year old. When she is at points in her development when she can’t think of a word or when her emotions are so high she can hardly function, using one or more of these has drastically cut down the frustration as a parent and our child’s frustration as well.
Read more on overcoming being a frustrated parent.
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Kara is an author and advocate for positive, grace-filled parenting. She is homeschooler to her 4 children living in Boston, MA and believes in creative educational approaches to help kids dive deeper into a rich learning experience. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!