How to Communicate With Toddlers So They Listen and Respond

“Tell me why it is that a toddler will gag over a perfectly wonderful breakfast of ham, eggs, biscuits, juice, and jelly. But then He will enthusiastically drink the dog’s water and play in the toilet. Truly, he is his parent’s greatest challenge…and their most inexpressible joy.”

 – James Dobson

Let me start out by saying, I am no expert on toddler communication. In fact, if you struggle when it comes to communicating with your child, welcome to the club. Our youngest daughter, Hannah, is two years old. The quote above describes her perfectly. There have been many nights where my wife and I have sat dumbfounded over her strong-will and complete lack of communication skills. Sin nature peaks it’s little head out at the earliest age.

What we have had to painfully learn is that communicating with a toddler takes work – hard work. Teaching communication isn’t about demanding obedience out of your child. Communication is about training. We want to equip our toddlers from their youngest days with the confidence to be an effective communicator.

Here are some things that we have put in place in our home to communicate with our toddler so that she listens and responds.

Get Down on Her Level

Toddlers are short. Getting down on her level lets her know that we need her undivided attention. Eye contact can change an entire conversation. Not only does it encourage you to slow down and focus. It helps your child connect – briefly grabbing hold of their attention. Not to mention, teaching eye contact is an invaluable skill that needs to be taught at an early age.

Stop and Ask

After connecting at eye level, it’s important to clearly verbalize what is on your mind. If your toddler is upset about something, respectfully ask what is bothering them. Tell them they need to calm down and use words. Help them work through what they are telling you. Part of proper communicating is making sure that you know exactly what is going on in your toddler’s head, so that you can lead them in the right direction.

Active Listening

Another great way to communicate well is through active listening. After asking your toddler a question and listening for a response, repeat that response back to them. This helps ensure that you understand what they are trying to communicate.

Often, they just need to know that their thoughts are heard. Other times, you will hear, “That’s not what I said!” This allows for further conversation and clarification of their thoughts.

Help Them Understand Their Emotions

As dads, we are able to work through our emotions, because we know what we are experiencing and why. An axe and wood pile quickly helps us work through the thoughts and emotions going through our head. However, our toddlers, do not understand how to process emotions until we teach them.

If your child is sad, angry, joyful or excited, explain the different emotion to them. This will help them know how to communicate when they are experiencing different emotions. Instead of throwing a tantrum, they can eventually learn to tell you that they are angry and you can help them work through why.

Use a Kind and Respectful Tone

Our children are learning how to communicate with others through how we communicate with them. When I am impatient or rude, my toddler is learning to be impatient and rude. However, when I show patience and respect, they are learning to do the same. When we communicate in a respectful tone, they are more likely to listen and respond well.

Remembering that our toddlers are people is imperative. If we wouldn’t speak that way to a friend or stranger, don’t say it to your kid. Our toddlers are tiny little personalities that we are continually pouring into. Let’s teach them to be kind, respectful, obedient, and firm.

Encourage Positive Action

Encouraging positive action takes practice. Toddlers are more likely to respond to positive statements than negative. For instance, “Don’t climb on the kitchen table” won’t be received as well as, “Let’s see if we can walk on the floor instead.” One is a negative statement telling them to stop. The other is an encouragement to do something right.

A great way to encourage obedience from your toddler is to give them positive statements. Give them something to do. You can even turn it into a challenge.

Keep it Simple

Toddlers can’t handle more than one thing at a time. Our daughter, Hannah, needs simple and direct instruction. If I ask her to clean up her toys and put her shoes on, she most likely won’t finish either task. However, assigning her one task at a time helps her to effectively listen and respond.

The same is true for all toddlers. Keep it simple by requesting one thing at a time. Then, praise their obedience before moving on to the next thing.

Encourage Honesty

We want our home to be a safe place for our kids. One way that we do this is through encouraging honesty. If one of our girls breaks a toy, we try our hardest to remain calm and ask them what happened. I never want my girls to feel like they need to cover up their mistakes because I can’t handle my attitude.

Be calm, get on their level, and help them work through a resolution to the problem. Teach them that you are on their side. As you create an open environment in the home, you will gain respect and create a positive atmosphere of respectful communication.

Listen Before Responding

I want my girls to know that they are heard. We are working hard to ensure that we listen to everything our children say before responding. They are learning their listening skills from us. If I interrupt them, they are learning that it’s ok to interrupt others.

By fully listening before responding, it also gives the opportunity for me to encourage my children to think through things for themselves – teaching them the irreplaceable skill of conflict resolution. Let’s not rush to jumping in with an answer when they can learn to come up with them.

Overall, communicating with our toddlers so they listen and respond is centered on one thing – training them for life. Too often, communication feels like it’s about getting a task accomplished. However, when we look at the bigger picture, we see that it’s about equipping our toddlers with the communication skills they need to be successful.

As dads, let’s resolve to take communicating with our toddlers seriously. A few months ago, I asked myself what I was teaching our daughters about communication and I wasn’t pleased with what I saw. want to encourage you to do the same. Figure out where you need to improve and make it happen.

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