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How to Communicate Effectively with your Toddler

by Christina Feulner, TC3 Lead Teacher

Toddlers are capable of a tremendous number of things. They can put their shoes on with little to no assistance. They can pour their own milk from a pitcher. They can assertively let others know that they want to, “do it themselves.” They can even clean up spills of any sort.                                               

Seeing that they are capable of so much, we often forget that they are like foreigners in our grownup world. We then get frustrated because we believe they should be able to behave in a certain way. In the end, it is our unrealistic perceptions and expectations that lead to power struggles between the adult and child.

Toddlers are nothing like us, in terms of their brain. According to research by Deborah MacNamara, PhD, it takes 5-7 years to develop a brain that resembles ours. Before then, their brains are impulsive, and egocentric. We try to make sense of their behavior using our adult psychology when what they truly need is the time and space to develop and mature.

In the meantime, there are some things that we can do to establish a connection while validating their feelings and encouraging them through loving guidance. Sometimes when they ignore our requests or throw tantrums it can be a reflection of how we have been talking to them. Slightly tweaking our language can help obtain cooperation without making them feel powerless.

  • Connect with your child by kneeling or squatting down to their eye level when talking to them. When you are on the same level with your child you are giving them the message that you are willing and ready to engage with them. It helps them feel safe and more in control. You can also experience learning what it’s like to be down at their perspective, helping you to understand your child better.

  • Do your best to remain calm and confident. This can often be hard to do but it really is the key to getting them to listen. If we raise our voices all we are doing is inviting resistance and power struggles. When we remain calm children learn to trust our guidance.

  • Maximize comprehension by making sentences shorter, slowing down your speech, and pausing after each sentence. It takes toddlers 8 seconds to process what we say to them.

  • Acknowledge their feelings and desires by recognizing their point-of-view about what is upsetting them. You can empathize with a child’s experience yet disagree with his behavior. Give them encouragement to work through frustration.

  • Offer them two or three choices, any more is overwhelming.

  • Break down your requests into kind and clear actionable items:

               “It’s time for pajamas and brushing teeth.” (clear)

               “You can pick which you do first!” (kind)

               “It’s time to wash your hands.” (clear) 

               “I can’t wait to guess what soap you used.” (kind) 

Other phrases that promote cooperation:

“May I show you a trick?”

     -Try offering help a little more indirectly.

“When you...then you can…”

     -When you use the toilet then you can go outside to play.

“Would you prefer this or that?"

     -Another way to offer choices.

“I wonder if you know how to…”

     -Try musing aloud and see if it provokes action in your child without you even having to ask.

It can be frustrating when your toddler seems to be acting out or not listening. Even in those moments, it’s important to remember these techniques when speaking to your child. Having patience, staying calm, and remembering they are absorbent little humans is key. This Maria Montessori quote sums it up:

“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future… Let us treat them with all the kindness which we would wish to help to develop in them.” – Maria Montessori

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