Golden rules

Communicating with toddlers should be child’s play once they start to use language. So why is it that, all too often, we parents find it hard? Self-development guru Richard Templar* has some tips for parents who struggle to connect.


It’s amazing how fast most small children learn to talk. But it can be frustrating for both your toddler and you when communication isn’t smooth. When this happens, you need to use every strategy available to help things along. Some of these strategies are about how you use language, and some are non-verbal. Put them all together and not only will your understanding of each other increase, but you’ll help their language skills develop too. This is the key to improving your understanding of each other in the long term. Try these eight techniques.

When communication is urgent or frustrating, speak at their level. When they’re relaxed, that’s the time to model the next step.

Follow their lead

When children point and use single words, they’ll understand you best if you do the same. Once they start to speak in two or three word sentences, talk back to them in the same way. That way you’re fitting your communication style to their level. But you also want them to develop their communication skills, so look for opportunities to talk to them in slightly longer or more complex sentences so they can learn the next stage from you. When communication is urgent or frustrating, speak at their level. When they’re relaxed, that’s the time to model the next step.

Listen properly

Ideally, you should give toddlers full attention when they’re trying to communicate. We all know life’s not always like that ­ but aim to stop what you’re doing to listen whenever you can. And show you’re listening. Make eye contact (preferably at their level), look warm and encouraging, and repeat back key words or phrases so they know you’ve heard them properly: ‘You want some water? Yes of course’.

Watch their body language

If you’re struggling to understand your toddler, look for any clues you can see beyond the words they’re trying to say. Try to read their facial expressions – do they look excited, or worried, or frustrated? – and ask them to give you clues: ‘Can you point at what you want?’

Read to them

Reading builds your toddler’s communication skills in so many ways. The key is to be interactive. Ask them to point at things in the picture: ‘Where is the Gruffalo?’ As time goes on, you can make this more challenging by asking them to show you things that are harder to spot. Then you can progress to asking them questions: ‘Who is drinking the milk?’ ‘Which is the blue dog?’ When they’re ready you can start to ask them about feelings, for example ‘Who looks happy?’ And get things wrong too so they can correct you: ‘Look at that tiny elephant.’ ‘No Daddy! It’s a mouse!’ They’ll enjoy that and it will make them laugh.

Don’t correct their language

It’s a normal stage of development for children to use grammar that seems logical to them, even if it’s not correct: for example, ‘I runned in the garden’. Correcting them is unnecessary – it may undermine their confidence and they’ll pick up the idiosyncrasies of the language in time without any help anyway. You can always repeat back the correct grammar to them: ‘You ran in the garden?’

Use concrete words

It’s much easier for your child to understand words that signify a thing they can see or touch. They’ll grasp words like ‘car’, ‘table’ or ‘trousers’ much more easily than abstract concepts like ‘worry’ or ‘thinking’ or ‘time’. So stick to the concrete words until they’re ready for the abstract ones, and then save those for when you have time to talk about what they mean.

If your child isn’t making sense to you, encourage them to use different words to help you understand.

Find different phrasing

If your toddler doesn’t seem to understand you, try saying the same thing again in a different way. So if they hesitate at ‘Time to put the bricks away’ you can follow this up by saying ‘Let’s put the bricks back in the box’. When your child is ready, this is also a great way to teach new words. Put the word in a sentence, and then repeat it using easier words: ‘It’s hot so eat it cautiously – be careful because it’s hot’. If your child isn’t making sense to you, encourage them to use different words to help you understand.

Notice them

I hesitate to say ‘praise them’ because, while praise is important, it’s also important not to praise too much. Too much praise can undermine them in the long term as they feel under pressure to keep behaving in ways that elicit yet more praise. So keep praise in proportion ­ don’t exclaim that they’re a genius just because they’ve worked out how to stack a few bricks ­ and mix it with other positive forms of acknowledgement. However you choose to phrase it, let them know when they’ve done a good job of communicating with you. That could be a ‘Well done’, or it might be ‘Thank you for explaining that clearly’ or even ‘I didn’t know you even knew that word.’

*Richard Templar is the author of the global best-selling The Rules of… series. The Rules of Parenting is available in all good bookstores and is published by Pearson.

Visit www.pearson.com


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