How many of you struggle with communicating with your toddler? Are you tired of all of the tantrums and outbursts? Does your child “communicate” by hitting, biting, and other aggressive actions?
I wanted to create a list of tips for parents who are looking for a better way to communicate with their young children. Here are 11 tricks that have helped me build more trust with my son, avoid tantrums, and feel more connected to him overall. Even better, we’re establishing a way of engaging with each other that will persist as he gets older, which will come in very handy during those rough teenage years (I hope!).
Tip #1: Listen to them. This seems obvious, but I’m often surprised at how many parents forget to do this (I know, it’s easy when the topic is Dora the Explorer and they go on and on for 30 minutes). What your child has to say is important to them. Sometimes it seems like they babble on and on about nonsense, but keep in mind how small their world really is. To them, these things are paramount. The more you can be engaged and curious about their lives, the more they’ll open up to you as they get older because they know you’ll truly listen. This will also give you important insights as to who your child is and what is meaningful to them.
Tip #2: Try “signing” with your child. Children are able to understand us much earlier than they can form words and phrases. Teaching your child a few basic signs when they’re around 9-12 months old can help you avoid a lot of issues as you enter these tricky toddler years. The signs we found to be most helpful were: “milk,” “more,” “eat,” and “all done,” (we also added “please” and “thank you,” just to start working on our manners!). You can find YouTube videos that will teach you any American Sign Language signs, and there are plenty of resources for baby signing out there. Don’t go overboard – just choose a few signs that you think your child will use most. You’ll be amazed at how much this helps your child avoid frustration and aggression since they have a better alternative.
Tip #3: Repeat phrases fully and correctly. Children begin mastering the art of language from birth, but it’s hard for us to tell until they’re closer to three years old when their language explodes. But starting from birth you can demonstrate that you hear them by repeating what they’re trying to say the correct way (yes, this even works with infants… their “babbling” is the earliest stages of communication). Language is all about repetition. The more they hear the correct words and phrases, the faster they’ll pick it up and the more their vocabulary will expand. This has the added bonus of allowing your child to feel heard and understood as well, even in those early infant stages.
Tip #4: Use simple commands. Be clear when you ask your child to do something. Don’t leave room for interpretation as to what you want. For example, instead of saying “Can you please clean your room?” instead give a clear request: “[Your Child’s Name], please put the toys on the floor into this drawer now.” You can say it with a friendly tone, but give precise instructions and stop insinuating that it’s a suggestion. This is something my husband and I have had to work very hard to correct in our family. We used to end every request with an “…okay?” But we’ve learned that being wishy-washy about what we want with a toddler can lead to a lot of confusion (and really, if he has the option of saying no, why wouldn’t he?)
Tip #5: Offer choices. Being a kid is tough. They begin to have opinions and preferences as early as 9 months old, but don’t have the language needed to communicate those opinions and preferences until they’re closer to three years old (and even then, it’ll take years before they’re really GOOD at telling you want they want… I know some adults who still have a hard time with this!). That’s a long time to feel out of control! One way to help avoid tantrums and to give your child a strong sense of autonomy is to offer them choices whenever possible. Give them two clothing options and let them choose which one they like. Give them two dinner options. As often as possible, offer choices… But try to limit it to 2 or 3 options at a time. Too many choices can be overwhelming too (as we all know!).
Tip #6: Be consistent. One of the hardest things for a child to understand is when boundaries are set, but then not enforced. Or if a limit is drawn, and sometimes it’s okay to push that limit and other times they get punished. When you’re inconsistent with your child, they’ll begin to either a) push every boundary to test out which ones are real, or b) walk on eggshells because they have no idea what’s acceptable. Neither of these are ideal outcomes. The more consistent you are with your child, the more they’ll listen to what you say because they’ll know, without a doubt, that you MEAN WHAT YOU SAY. They’ll also grow up feeling more secure because they’ll have a clear understanding of what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Tip #7: Choose your battles. Related to the tip above, choose your battles! If it’s worth the struggle, draw your line in the sand and STICK TO IT. Don’t waver. If you aren’t willing to follow through and re-direct your child EVERY single time they test you, then don’t even start. Decide which boundaries are truly important to you (mine mostly revolve around safety and respect for others) and let the rest go. Let them be kids. Give them the gift of exploration and experimentation and independence. They are hardwired to try, fail, learn, and try again. It’s a messy process, but having you there as they go through it is how they learn to become independent and confident. Don’t try to limit their life experiences because it’s inconvenient in your busy life. Give your kids freedom within very clear boundaries.
Tip #8: Get down to their level. If your child is upset, try kneeling or sitting down so that you’re eye level with them. Kids are small. It’s intimidating and discourages connection when a giant adult hovers 3 feet above their head. Get down to their eye level and they’ll feel safer and more comfortable with you. It’ll have a calming effect on them and you’ll probably be able to understand what’s upsetting them a whole lot better.
Tip #9: Slow down. I think this is one of the hardest things for parents to do these days. We have busy lives, and it’s so easy to become impatient when our child is in their own world. But children are still developing. Their brains don’t compute and process things as quickly as ours do. Sometimes it may take a long time for your child to tell you what’s on their mind. That’s ok. Try to stay quiet until they’ve had a chance to get it all out. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t finish their thoughts for them. Don’t tell them to “spit it out.” They’re doing the best they can, and your patience will pay off by making them feel important and respected in your life.
Tip #10: Allow interruptions. It’s common to want to “teach children patience” by making them wait as you finish a conversation. But kids have no concept of time until they’re close to 8 years old. Everything happens for them in the moment. There are times when my son needs my attention immediately. My initial reaction in those moments is to tell him he needs to wait. But when I am able to turn my attention to him as he needs it, it’s amazing how quickly he is able to move on after saying what he needs to say. It takes maybe 30 seconds of my time, but it means the world to my son. Here’s a wonderful article that helped me move on from trying to “teach” my son patience by making him wait to share his world with me.
Tip #11: Model good communication. I don’t know many parents who wouldn’t like their children to be polite. What most people forget is that your children are natural mimics. They are watching whatever you do intently. If you want a polite and respectful child, BE polite and respectful yourself. Say “please” and “thank you” to everyone around you (especially your child). Be clear when communicating with others. They’ll pick up your habits (good OR bad!).
Communicating with your young child can be tricky! Give a few of these strategies a try if you want to improve your connection and your communication with your child.
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