Beyond No! Communicating with Toddlers

Communicating with two-year-olds can be frustrating. They’re passionate and stubborn, as likely to bite as to speak. But it doesn’t have to be this way—spending time with toddlers can be fun! Yes, really.

Toddlers are amazing—they’re still connected to their magic, and look at the world in a way we’ve forgotten. They have lots to say and can be good influences, reminding us to slow down and smell the roses (and occasionally eat them). When you communicate peacefully with a little kid, your relationship will be more interactive, respectful and satisfying.

Rule number one of good communication is Know Your Audience, so let’s take a moment to think about what toddlers are going through:

  1. Toddlers hear a lot of negativity: Stop that, get out of there, you’re driving me crazy. Pick that up, put that down, no you can’t pee in the corner, stop throwing rocks at the cat and for the love of dog, stop shouting!
  2. Toddlers get moved around a lot, often with little or no warning. Imagine being in the middle of doing something when a giant hand suddenly lifts you away. You’d protest, explain you’re not finished and want to take your work with you. This is exactly what toddlers do. Usually it sounds like this: “no, no, play more, play, fire truck, truck TRUUUUCCCKKKKK.”
  3. Toddlers are working hard. They’ve just learned to walk and have been speaking for about five minutes. (I know it feels like a lifetime, but you’ve got years of chatter ahead of you—another reason to figure this out now.) Everything’s new: they have to learn the language and the ideas behind it. They have to and want to explore: what is this thing and how does it work? They don’t know what’s safe or unsafe, or even what safety is.
  4. Toddlers experience lots of frustration. More so than their parents. (Yes, that much.) They’re short, weak, tire easily and get hungry often. They depend on others for everything, but can barely explain their wants and needs. Hitting and yelling are some of their few communication tools.

Now that we understand our audience, the next step is developing a strategy for communicating with them. Let’s use communication skills that work everywhere: simple words, active sentences, and a positive approach.

Positive, Simple, Gentle Speech

The main trick to speaking with little ones is keeping it positive and gentle. Get down to their level—a standing adult is quite intimidating to a toddler—face the child, and speak clearly, calmly and directly. They’re new, not stupid, so use real words and sentences, not baby talk. This helps them learn concepts and enlarge their vocabulary.

  • Keep your words simple—use mostly nouns and verbs, and use common words that they hear often and can say. Remember the 18 words rule.
  • Use short and active sentences with clear statements: Yes those are great! We’re not going to buy them… then redirect ..Which bananas do you want to get?
  • Keep the words and tone positive—Let’s eat lunch! is better than You have to stop playing now so you can eat.
  • Be gentle. Let love come through in your tone of voice. Soften your voice—loud adults can terrify a small child.

Look At The Positive Side Of Life

Toddlers hear “no” a lot. Try to keep it positive—what to do instead of what not to do. Try a redirect: Did you show Auntie your new bear? Would you like to hold the grocery list?

Just as we keep our words positive, encourage kids to do the same—ask for what they want, not what they don’t want. Focusing on the positive is a lovely approach to life.

Explain Yourself!

Talk to toddlers with respectful authority. Most of the time they have a good reason for doing what they’re doing—try to find out what it is before shutting them down. (Unless you see smoke.)

When you have to say no, give a 1 or 2 word reason—something like “ow-hot!” or “ow-dangerous!” This tells the child what will happen (ow=hurt) and the reason (hot or dangerous). Like any rational person, a child is more likely to comply when you give a reason.

One of the best phrases you can tell your child is “My job is to keep you safe.” This is an excellent reminder for them and a good reason when you have an unequivocal “no.” (It also translates well as they get older: you can say it to a teenager who wants to go to a sketchy party.)

Question & Answer Period

At this age kids love to learn. You can have fun teaching them the names of things and helping with their pronunciation. No one’s as proud as a 3 year old who can say pterodactyl. This sets them up to think they are smart and learn easily; a powerful self-belief.

Toddlers are thrilled when their opinion is valued. Instead of telling them everything, try asking. Questions about preferences are usually easy for little ones to answer, and get them in the habit of thinking about what they want. Keep questions multiple choice, with two or three possible answers. For example:

  • It’s time to go to bed. Do you want to wear your yellow or red pajamas?
  • Would you rather eat the apple or the banana?
  • Which toy do you choose to bring?

(Kids have the coolest answers: If you have the time, try asking a toddler one of the Big Questions of life, such as: why are flowers so beautiful, what is the meaning of life, what are stars, why do we laugh, or what is love?)

Why Is It Important To Teach Children Communication Skills?

  • Being able to communicate clearly will reduce their frustration and thus acting out.
  • Kids who communicate clearly have better relationships with friends, teachers and adults.
  • This is a skill that will improve and affect the rest of their life.
  • Teaching your child to take responsibility for their needs and wants is part of teaching them to take responsibility for their emotional wellbeing.

Teaching kids how to communicate clearly is a gift that’s much better than anything you can buy. It sets your child up for a life of success with less frustration and fewer miscommunications.

Lucinda

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Lucinda Atwood is a coach, speaker and author who helps clients build expertise and confidence in their speaking and leadership skills.
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