Nobody teaches us about how to talk to toddlers. Many parents are left to figure it out on their own which can leave them struggling to be understood. There is no right way to talk to a toddler, but there are definitely things we want to avoid and strategies that will help make communication easier. Things like body language, simplifying words, and using emotive expressions can all help us talk in a language a toddler will understand. Plus, it can be fun to talk like a kid again. No matter how silly or embarrassing it may feel, you will be amazed what a difference it can make when everyone’s speaking the same language.
Within Your Reach
There are a lot of situations where a child can become confused by your language. For example, when we tell them a list of instructions, when something serious happens, or when they’re in the middle of a meltdown, language can become more of a barrier than an asset. But thankfully there are a lot of strategies for how to talk to toddlers.
One thing I’ve always found helpful is instead of asking a child to choose between many different options, give them a choice between two things. Instead of saying “What book would you like to read?” ask them “Do you want What We Feel or The Hungry Caterpillar?” and point to each option. Not only does phrasing things this way give them a sense of agency and improve their decision-making skills, it also avoids overwhelming them into indecision by simplifying the options.
If you struggle to get a toddler talking in the first place, I have a few recommendations. In this vein, it’s no secret that I love reading. Reading together and watching movies or TV shows provides ample material for conversations. Asking a toddler questions after reading a book to them and watching an age appropriate show together will get them to start thinking critically. Questions like “How do you think that made (a character’s name) feel?” and “If you were (a character’s name), how would you have felt?” will improve their emotional vocabulary and how they consider and identify with the emotions of others as well.
Key to developing your child’s communication skills is developing their vocabulary. And along with vocabulary for everyday sights and sounds and smells, we should develop a toddler’s emotion vocabulary. Giving a child the words to describe feelings is so important for developing self-awareness and self-regulation. I’ve written about this before many times, but here are some of my specific strategies for working on this.
It’s important to engage toddlers with language, but keep in mind that every child learns differently and at different paces. Let them pick up language at their own pace and don’t force them to talk. They will begin to learn words for things as they go. It helps to make lots of eye contact to show you’re listening and that what they say is important to you. This encourages them to speak more if we’re willing to listen to them and ask questions.
What this is all leading to is a beginner’s guide for how to talk to toddlers in their language, “toddler-ese.” This is an ancient language that has been spoken as long as language has been around, but has only recently been identified and translated into English. The important thing is that it can make all the difference between being understood or being ignored.
Toddler-ese is an amazing term that comes to us from former pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp. His first advice is to always keep it simple. Being a toddler is a confusing time in life. Everything is new and perplexing, but sometimes that confusion can cause fear or anger. If a child is having an emotional outburst, sometimes the worst thing we can do is over-explain what we mean. We need to be able to speak on their level in order to reach them and when they’re in an emotional state, they’re even more likely to misunderstand or tune us out.
Using their name frequently will not only help them learn it, but they will also learn when they are being spoken to. Repetition is also one of our best friends. When a child is emotional, they will struggle to even recognize they’re being spoken to let alone what is being said to them. By repeating our words, we can reach them if not the first time then the second, third, or tenth time.
Another helpful thing when trying to learn how to talk to toddlers is using expressive gestures and facial expressions to make our meaning and emotions abundantly clear. It may seem absolutely ridiculous, but it really works. Kids need a lot of different types of sensory information to come to the same conclusion that adults are able to discern from just a look or a phrase. By incorporating redundancies into our communication, we make ourselves understandable and approachable.
Words can be hard to understand especially in the middle of an emotional outburst, so speak at a low volume with a clear voice, be expressive with many facial expressions, and use lots of body gestures to really add a visual component to our words. It can require a lot of patience and we might feel ridiculous, but little ones will connect with us and see that we’re actually trying to speak to them on their level.
What to Avoid When Talking to Toddlers
Just as important as how we talk to toddlers is what not to say when talking to toddlers. Obviously saying negative things and yelling at toddlers are big no-nos, but assuming we already know this, here are a few things you may be doing that are more harmful than helpful.
The word “NO” is a powerful one when used correctly. But constantly saying “NO” will lead to toddlers tuning it out. I mentioned the value of repetition earlier, but repetition is a tool used in certain situations where we do not want to misunderstood. When we repeat the same instruction (in this case, the word “NO”) across many different scenarios, it begins to lose its meaning. This is especially bad when it comes to “NO” as this is a word we want to have in our back pockets for emergencies and dangerous situations, so the little ones will actually respond to it. Instead of “NO,” try using other words and phrases such as, “Why don’t we do this instead,” or, “What did I say about doing that?”
There are plenty of other things not to say. One way that people try to reason with toddlers is through bribery. They say, “If you eat all your vegetables then you can play outside.” Seems harmless, right? But bribery teaches a bad lesson. Bribery teaches a child that they will be rewarded just for doing the basic necessities. What can start as bribery can soon turn into extortion when your child starts expecting rewards for every completed task.
Another thing we never want to do is tell a child to “stop acting like a baby.” Regression is an expectable part of toddlerhood and this phrase is just plain insulting. It’s dismissive, especially when used as a response to a toddler’s emotional display. If a toddler is struggling with something and they’re so frustrated that they start crying, how is saying “stop acting like a baby” going to help anything? In my experience, nobody’s mood has ever improved from being insulted.
These are just a few examples of things not to say that I think some parents can fall into accidentally. If you’ve already fallen prey to some of these common tendencies, don’t worry. It’s never too late to change and start working towards being the parent we want to be. We all make mistakes and good for you for reading this article and other useful information on best parenting practices to help fill in gaps in our knowledge about how to talk to toddlers.
While this article is intended as a guide for communicating with kids so anyone can be understood by a toddler, every child develops their language skills differently and at different speeds. The important thing is to keep trying! With enough repetition, simplification, and emotional intelligence, you will begin to communicate more clearly with toddlers in ways you never thought possible. If you haven’t already signed up for the free Learn.Love.EQ. Hoppy & Poppie EQ Guides, do so now right here on this website! The three Guides are full of “Can Do Now” tools and tips for how parents can begin teaching EI to their babies, toddlers and preschoolers, including specific examples of ways to converse with your littles.
Let me know if this guide for communicating with kids was helpful, how your communication strategies are going so far, and what pitfalls you’ve overcome along the way!