We all agree that toddlers can be complicated! Even the best parents and caregivers sometimes feel confused or helpless when it comes to dealing with these unpredictable creatures. If we adults put into practice a few simple tricks, we’ll enjoy the benefits of improved communication, mutual respect, and a life with little ones that’s a whole lot smoother.
1. Get Close
We’ve all seen that toddler who somehow doesn’t hear the adult calling to him or her from across the room, haven’t we? Though at times this behavior is an avoidance strategy, it’s a fact that task-oriented toddlers are capable of blocking out other sights and sounds when they are focused in on play.
Rather than raise our voices or call to the toddler from the next room over, it helps to approach the toddler so that he or she can hear us with less distraction.
2. Match Their Level
Toddlers are used to the bustling of “big people” and may not even notice that we’re nearby. After approaching a toddler, bend, sit, or kneel to get closer to his or her direct line of vision and hearing.
3. Use a Gentle Touch
If the toddler is comfortable with us as a trusted parent or regular caregiver, we can use a gentle touch on the arm or shoulder to get their attention before speaking.
4. Be Intentional About Eye Contact and Expression
After approaching the toddler and matching their level, make an effort to achieve eye contact. Adults who focus on maintaining a pleasant or neutral expression (especially while giving directions or cueing a change in activity), will find that toddlers respond better to calm, consistent body language cues than they do to hurried or frustrated faces.
5. Be Calm and Assertive
In addition to exuding predictable body language, encourage a favorable response from toddlers by speaking in a calm, assertive voice. Whether a toddler is quiet and content or loud and squawking, the predictable voice of a trusted adult will help them feel secure– which significantly improves the odds of cooperation!
6. Use Short, Direct Statements
Toddlers process short statements better than directions with multiple steps or narratives outlining the daily schedule. For example, “It’s time to get our shoes on and get in the car” will receive a better response than “If we’re not in the car in five minutes, we’ll be late for the party and we might miss the games.” Toddlers are not little adults — let’s not treat them as such! For more efficient and productive transitions, activities, and clean-up efforts, keep it simple.
7. Keep Emotions Out of It
Of course there is a time and place for adults to express emotions to their children, but using emotional tactics to manipulate a child’s behavior is ineffective and inappropriate.
Yelling, sarcasm, and empty threats hurt the respect level in any relationship. Rather than being dramatic or manipulative to make a toddler react, implement clear rules and boundaries, and follow through on consequences.
8. Offer a Choice
This strategy is gold when children are in that “I’m-the-boss” phase. When children feel as though they have the power of choice several times throughout their day, they are less likely to fight adults on every detail.
Simple choices like the following can be very empowering for a child:
Would you like to eat your yogurt with a spoon or a fork?
Would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt today?
Should we walk the dog before you eat your toast, or after?
Adults can choose alternatives that work well with the daily plan, and kids can enjoy the benefit of feeling like they have some control over their lives.
9. Tell What They CAN Do
It’s easy for parents and caregivers of toddlers to feel as though we are intervening all day long with the phrase, “No, don’t do THAT!” A simple change in wording allows the adult to offer a better alternative, and the child to understand what positive choice could replace the negative behavior.
For example, rather than saying, “Don’t pull the dog’s hair,” say, “Please touch the dog with a gentle pat.”
Instead of, “Don’t throw food on the floor,” try, “Let’s keep our food on our plates.”
Instead of “Stop leaving toys all over the floor,” say, “Please put your toys back in their cubbies.”
Children respond more favorably to words that encourage positive behavior than they do to words that remind them of yet another thing they are NOT to do!
10. Encourage a “Yes” Response
Adults can encourage a “Yes, Mom” or “Yes, ma’am” response after giving directions or redirecting. This type of response reassures parents and caregivers that the child has heard and comprehended the request.
11. Be an Example
The best way for adults to teach appropriate communication is by modeling it! If we make eye contact, respond to requests, and speak in a respectful, affirming tone, the children in our lives will learn to do the same.
Ask yourself: In what areas is my toddler communicating well? In what areas do I hope to improve my toddler’s communication skills or abilities? What are the children in my life learning about communication through my example?