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Decode Your Toddler

Toddlers are pint-size drama queens. One minute they want to cuddle in your lap, and the next, they're dodging your hugs. Yesterday they loved macaroni and cheese; today they slap it away as if it's a plate of slugs.

Because little kids often don't have the words to articulate what they want or feel, they have to act out in a big way to get any point across. (Imagine the wild gestures you'd make in a foreign land where nobody understood you.) Though their outbursts may seem random, their motivations are fairly constant: independence, stability, playfulness, greed. Here, we've developed a toddler-to-English dictionary to help you figure out what your child is thinking.

TODDLER BEHAVIOR #1

Your 1-year-old dives into the stacks of laundry that you've just folded. You gently say, "Stop, sweetie." She grins and relaunches. Your voice gets sharper: "Stay away from that laundry!" She gleefully kicks it instead. Now you're yelling: "Quit it!" She backs off, startled by your tone.

Translation: "If you want me to stop, just say, 'No.' I don't understand complex phrases like 'Get away from there!' And why do you want me to stop anyway? If you're touching the clothes, then I want to do it too."

Better Tot Tactic: "Words like 'don't' and 'not' can confuse your toddler," says Alan E. Nelson, Ed.D., an associate professor of child development and family relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. When you say "Don't touch that," her brain breezes over the first part and just hears "Touch that." Simply say, "No." Then say it again and again. (After all, just because she understands doesn't mean she'll listen!) Better yet, find a way to say "Yes" that lets her in on the action. For instance, let her climb in and out of your laundry basket.

TODDLER BEHAVIOR #2

During a playdate, another child picks up your toddler's stuffed dog. Your child lunges for it, screaming, "Mine!" You tell him it'll be his turn in two minutes, but a tug-of-war ensues.

Translation: "Share my toys? Are you crazy? I don't see you sharing your possessions--like your car, purse, or phone. And what are these 'minutes' you keep ranting about? When I find those minutes, they're mine!"

Better Tot Tactic: Toddlers are still too self-absorbed to care about others' feelings, and they have a fuzzy understanding of time, says Stefanie Powers, a child-development specialist at Zero To Three, an infant and toddler advocacy group, in Washington, D.C. Try putting it this way: "When the song on this tape ends, it'll be your turn." And avoid conflict by storing away favorite toys before playmates come over. Eventually, your child will learn better manners; you just have to play referee for a while.

TODDLER BEHAVIOR #3

For weeks you've been planning a trip to the circus, a chance to relive a fun family tradition from your own childhood. But as you sit in your ringside seats and the action starts, your toddler bursts into tears and wants to go home.

Translation: "This is too loud and flashy. Everyone's jumping around with weird clothes on. They're acting like a playgroup on steroids. I'm outta here."

Better Tot Tactic: "A lot of things you think will delight your child may actually scare him," says Helen Stein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, in Topeka, Kansas. Prepare him for big outings like the circus, a photo op with Santa, or a birthday party with costumed characters by checking out some library books and videos that depict similar scenes. Talk about what will happen at the event. That way, on "game day" some of the new sights and sounds will feel familiar.

TODDLER BEHAVIOR #4

At the beach, your toddler is contentedly digging in the sand. You spy a little fish nearby--something you know she would love. You try to coax her over, but she refuses to leave her boring pile of dirt.

Translation: "When I'm actively engaged in something, don't try to divert my attention to something that you think should be more fun. The trouble of the transition may just not be worth it."

Better Tot Tactic: It's natural to want to share everything new and fantastic with your child, but toddlers need to move at their own pace. Build on what your child's already engaged in. If you absolutely must show her the fish, put it into a bucket and bring it to her. Uninterrupted play improves her attention span--something that you'll be grateful for later.

TODDLER BEHAVIOR #5

While sorting shapes, your 18-month-old repeatedly tries to jam a triangle into a square hole. You take it from him and plop it into the right opening to show him how it works. He flips out--and throws an octagon at your head.

Translation: "What part of 'Back off!' don't you understand? How do I know this shape won't fit unless I try it from every angle? I'm learning what I'm capable of doing and what I'm not. Plus, I'm practicing my fine motor skills."

Better Tot Tactic: Before taking over when your toddler's struggling, ask if he needs help, Dr. Nelson suggests. If he refuses your offer but still gets frustrated, try gently guiding his hand while letting him complete the task. It can take a surprising amount of patience to hang back: Just as your child is adjusting to being able to do a little more, you must adjust to being needed a little less.

TODDLER BEHAVIOR #6

Your child normally loves bathtime. But today he's acting afraid of the water, crying and lurching away when you try to dip him in.

Translation: "Yesterday I noticed the water going down the drain. Now I'm scared that I'll go down the drain too."

Better Tot Tactic: When your child seems genuinely afraid, respect his feelings, says Cathryn Tobin, M.D., a pediatrician in Toronto. We don't always understand our kids' fears, just as they don't always grasp ours. (Your toddler's probably thinking, "Why can't I run into the street? There are so many colorful cars out there, just waiting to play chase!") Give him some time to get over his anxiety. "It's okay to stick to sponge baths for a while," Dr. Tobin says.

TODDLER BEHAVIOR #7

Your toddler can't get enough of the word "no." You ask whether he's hungry. "No!" he retorts, while scarfing down a cracker. "Let's play with Barney," you suggest. Another "No!" as he grabs the purple dinosaur.

Translation: "I like to say 'No!' because it's one of the few words I know. And I feel powerful when you react."

Better Tot Tactic: Let your naysayer assert his individuality. If he obviously wants what you're offering, calmly give it to him and move on. Also, a playful approach may encourage cooperation, Powers suggests. For instance, if "Do you want to eat dinner?" doesn't work, try "Yum, this chicken is delicious. I'm going to eat it all up."

TODDLER BEHAVIOR #8

At the playground, your toddler normally wants to hold your hand while she goes down the slide. Today she orders you to stand back. On the way home, she refuses to walk and insists that you carry her instead.

Translation: "Sometimes I want to be big. Sometimes I want to be a baby again. And sometimes I want to be both at the same time. I know it's hard for you to understand. I don't understand it myself."

Better Tot Tactic: Accommodate your child's fickle ways, and try not to be offended when she pushes you away. "Your 2-year-old is struggling for independence," Powers explains. Knowing that you're there for her will give her the confidence to venture out. Toddlers can feel overwhelmed by so many new feelings, abilities, and possibilities--in the same way teenagers do. The downside is that unlike teens, toddlers can't talk about it. The upside? Toddlers can't talk back.