How to talk so your toddler will listen
Change the way you ask, and you’ll be amazed by how your child responds!
Clever ways to communicate
H aving a conversation with a toddler can sometimes feel like you’re in the middle of a comedy sketch. You tell her it’s time to go home and she scampers off to the hardest-to-reach part of the play centre. You suggest putting her shoes on, and she holds onto her toes as if you were persuading her to feed them to your pet shark. Want her to eat her lunch but she hasn't finished emptying the Tupperware from the cupboard? Oh the drama!
But there’s a good reason why communicating with little ones can be tricky. Right now, you’re talking different languages: you’re talking grown-up; she speaks toddler. And life will become a lot easier if you learn to talk toddler too – she’ll not only listen, she might even do as she’s told!
Clinical psychologist Dr Kerry Taylor says the first step in getting your toddler to listen is by understanding how her brain is wired. “Toddlers haven’t yet developed the part of the brain that inhibits our reactions and helps us to stay in control when we are overwhelmed with emotions,” says Kerry. “This is the last part of the brain to develop and it keeps developing right up to adulthood. And so toddlers are unable to deal with emotions in the way adults are, and go straight from emotions to behaviour. So, if she feels angry, she may instantly kick. If she feels sad, she may cry.”
Once you know that this link is missing, it becomes obvious why she reacts in the way she does when you ask her to do something. Led by her emotions, of course she’ll protest when you want her to put her coat on and she’s annoyed that she needs to stop playing. But with the right guidance, toddlers can learn to cooperate, even when that’s at odds with what they would like to do. “Children are strongly shaped by a parent’s positive response to them,” explains Kerry. “And our natural tendency is to seek approval.” It’s a happy circle: talk to your toddler in a way that helps her act in the way you want to, and the praise you give her for doing as she’s told will make her more likely to want to do it again next time.
If you always do things in the same order, your toddler will know what to expect. So, think about not just the bigger routine of your day, but also the routines within smaller tasks – for example, always wash her hair in the same way. “Toddlers enjoy familiarity,” explains Kerry. “They like to know what’s going to happen, and when.” If she’s expecting something to happen, she’s more likely to be cooperative when it does. “It’s a good idea to talk through your plans for the day too. Just let her know, ‘Nana is coming for lunch and then after your nap we’ll go shopping.’ This will give her a sense of control and time to ask questions."
When your day includes an activity that’s out of the ordinary, use storytelling to give your toddler a positive image of what will happen. “Make her the central character in a mini adventure,” Kerry suggests. “Ask her, ‘Would you like to hear a story called Lucy and Teddy Go to the Doctor?’ You can then tell the story of how the little girl walked into the surgery, seeing lots of interesting things on the way, and then met the doctor who checked her ears and Teddy’s ears too. And then make sure the story has a happy ending with something fun to look forward to when they come
Children are strongly shaped by a parent’s positive response to them.
home! She’ll fill in all the details, and is far more likely to listen. And if she has a tantrum during the activity, remind her of the story – and particularly the ending.”
KEEP it short
Your toddler doesn’t need to know all the details of why you would like her to do a certain task. “It’s best to say, ‘Shoes on’, rather than, ‘Please put your shoes on because we are running late and Daddy is waiting,” says Kerry. “Giving too much information is confusing, so stick to the basics.” And only ask for one thing to be done at a time – so rather than saying, ‘Come here so I can clean your teeth,’ try, ‘Come here’ and then, ‘Let’s clean your teeth’. A useful way to gauge it is to ask yourself if the toddler could repeat the request – if she can’t, it’s too complicated.
SAY what you want
Have you ever noticed that when you want your child to do something, you often start by telling her what not to do? “Let’s say your toddler is climbing at the park,” says Kerry. “You’re likely to say, ‘Don’t fall off’. But instead of saying what you least want to happen, use positive words about what you most want her to do: ‘Take it slowly, be careful.'”
TONE it down
The way you use your voice is just as important as the content of what you're saying. “Speech and language therapists have found that children respond best to a lower voice pitch,” says Kerry. “And the inflection on the end, giving your voice a higher tone, gets their attention and makes them stop and think.”
PLAY the game
Turning a chore into a game will help your toddler listen and react positively. So, suggest that her Teddy (with a little help from you) helps put her toys back in the box, or ask if she wants to help get Teddy ready for bed while you get her ready. “Show her that doing as she is told can be fun,” says Kerry. Toddlers love completing a task in a set timeframe, so add an element of challenge too. Play a song and ask her to see if she can tidy up before the end, or see if she can come and hold your hand before you count to five.”
PRAISE the positive
If she cooperates, then let her know you’re happy with her behaviour. “Recognition is an important part of communication, and helps her know that you are aware of
It’s tough being told what to do all day, so whenever it’s possible, delegate the decision to her.
everything she does right,” says Kerry. “Use praise too just before asking her to do a task she’s not keen on: for example, ‘Well done for building such an amazing tower! Great work! Let’s have lunch now.’”
DITCH the negative words
As you teach your toddler how to interact with her world, it’s natural to say ‘no’ or ‘don’t touch’. But whenever you can, consider whether you can use a word describing a gentle action instead. “If she’s pulling the cat’s tail, say, ‘Gentle’. Or, if she’s being a little rough with her baby brother, say ‘Nicely,’” suggests Kerry.
LET her decide
It’s tough being told what to do all day, so whenever it’s possible, delegate the decision to her. “Let her know that this job is a special task for her,” says Kerry. “Say, ‘I chose to wear a blue top today, what colour top will you choose?’” There is always an element of control you can hand over to her: for example, if it’s time to put her shoes on, ask her, ‘Which shoe will we put on first?’
NAME that feeling
If she is experiencing a strong emotion, acknowledge it. “Say softly, ‘I can see you’re feeling sad that you can’t carry on playing right now,” suggests Kerry. “This gives a name to what she’s feeling, and shows her that you care about how she feels. But don’t veer from your request. Acknowledge her emotion again, and reaffirm your request, thinking of a positive reason why she might want to cooperate: ‘I can see that you’re sad, but it’s time to go to daycare. You can play with your friends at daycare.’”
REPEAT, repeat, repeat
When your toddler doesn’t listen, repeating the request usually works. “Use short, firm repetition,” says Kerry. “And don’t let her emotion cause you to become stressed. Show her you’re there for her, but remain firm.” Athough this gentle approach might take a little time to start with, by not escalating the situation, she’ll realise she needs to listen. In time, and as her brain develops and she’s better able to control those emotions, she’ll listen and do as you ask.”