You have this tiny, beautiful human and all they can do is lay tightly swaddled in your arms with closed eyes and lips parted in sleep. Communication between you and your baby at this point consists solely of deciphering newborn cries of “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” “I’m wet,” and “I need you.” I remember those newborn days well (they were only six months ago with my third son), and while those cries are not exactly easy to figure out all of the time, there’s nothing too complicated about them.
Fast forward 12-24 months, and the relationship between you and your baby-turned-toddler is a lot more interactive, two-way, and many times, confusing (not to mention, often highly emotionally-charged). Have you, like me, also experienced the immediate melt-down at the breakfast table, the power struggle to get shoes on and leave the house, the seemingly irrational refusals to comply with simple requests, and the tantrums (special shoutout to the public tantrums)?
Fast forward 12-24 months, and the relationship between you and your baby-turned-toddler is a lot more interactive, two-way, and many times, confusing (not to mention, often highly emotionally-charged).
It turns out being a licensed therapist does not insulate me from daily communication struggles with my toddlers.
After five years of being knee-deep in the little years with my three young sons, I’ve learned five great tips for improving communication with your toddler. Janet Lansbury is a parenting resource to whom I have turned to over and over again, so I credit her for these ideas that I’ve turned into action.
1. Speak in the first person
It’s so easy to find myself using baby talk and third-person narration well past the baby days. Without realizing, sometimes I’m talking to my three-year-old like I talked to him when he was 10 months old. When we say “Come over here to Mommy!” and “Mommy loves Ryder so much!” instead of “Come over here to me,” and “I love you so much,” we convolute the communication process.
We don’t speak in the third person with anyone else, and when we do with our kids, it immediately makes the conversation less serious and more confusing. After all, our toddlers are still learning how to communicate, and our inconsistency doesn’t do them any favors.
I find when I speak directly to my kids, they innately feel respected. Elevate your communication with your child in this very simple way by referring to yourself and your child in the first person. Yes, you can start referring to yourself as “I” again instead of “Mommy!”
2. Be mindful of commands vs. requests
Another easy key we can turn to unlock clearer communication is being mindful of how we phrase commands vs. requests. It seems like the two get mixed up and blurred often when parenting toddlers. For me, this is often because I’m trying to not come on too strong and spook my toddler (not just me, right?). It seems softer to say, “Do you want to go put your pajamas on?” rather than, “Please go upstairs and put your pajamas on.”
But, if what I really mean is that it’s time to get ready for bed now and this is not an option, it is confusing to a little person if I phrase it as a choice or a question. The all-too-familiar “No!” from our toddlers may come regardless of how precisely we choose our phrasing; yet contrary to popular belief, children do intrinsically want to meet the expectations we have of them, and communicating clearly gives them the best possible opportunity to learn how to meet those expectations.
3. Take a pause
Angela Santomero, the creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, is known for implementing pause in the shows she writes for preschoolers. The show models this by giving a few seconds of pause after a question is asked. The reason for this pause is that preschoolers’ and toddlers’ brains are still developing, so their brains take more time to both process information and create output than ours do.
When we ask a question and our child doesn’t answer in the next beat like an adult would, we often rush through the silence to ask more questions:
“What did you do today?”
“Did you have fun with Grandma? Did you go to the park? Was it so fun?”
Wow! Talk about an overload – their brains are working overtime, but we think they’re just ignoring us. Practicing pause is not natural or socially comfortable to us as adults, but with children, it is essential to connection.
In addition to waiting a few extra seconds to give your child a chance to respond, it can be beneficial to simply cultivate moments of companionable quiet and silence in the day. This communicates, “There is room for you here.”
Here are a few ideas to practice having more silence in your daily life:
- Ride in silence sometimes in the car, without reaching for tunes or the DVD player
- Wait a few seconds before responding when your child has an outburst
- Be quick to listen, and slow to speak
4. Talk through your plans slowly, explaining all the steps
It seems like the importance of consistent routines for young children is shouted from the rooftops, and while I couldn’t agree more, I find it to be easier said than done. Our family lives are increasingly full, complicated, and dynamic — so each day is not necessarily going to fall into form. This is where communication is most important. While our children are not little adults and do not need to shoulder the responsibility of our calendars, a moment’s empathy can help us imagine what it might be like to walk through each day without knowing the plan, either on the macro scale (i.e. today is a daycare day) or micro-scale (i.e. after lunch, I’m going to put away the dishes, then I will read you a book and tuck you in bed for nap).
I have seen my own toddlers fall apart time and again when asked to do something (go, stay, dress, cooperate with, you-name-it), simply because they are going through their day and feel blindsided by the requirement for a sudden shift. One of my best and easiest parenting hacks is to simply say out loud what I’m planning to do. It’s a simple way of being respectful of the little people around me and gives them the opportunity to be aware of, and even prepare for, what’s next.
One of my best and easiest parenting hacks is to simply say out loud what I’m planning to do.
5. Don’t take it personally
Want to have a better day as a mother? Today, don’t take anything your toddler does personally. That’s right, not a thing – not the hitting, not the screaming, not the tantrums. The truth is, those behaviors aren’t about you or me. At this early and dynamic stage of brain development, your toddler is literally operating without a fully-developed pre-frontal cortex.
I’m not saying that our toddlers aren’t incredibly smart and capable in many ways, but if you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you might remember that the pre-frontal cortex controls emotional impulses, moderates social behavior, manages attention span, and enables reasoning.
So, yeah. That might explain a few things. While our little ones are growing and developing, it’s our job to simply focus on supporting, teaching, and training them without complicating the moment with our own feelings. Even though the tough moments can feel incredibly charged, just repeat to yourself as often as necessary, it’s not personal. We can do this, mamas.