"Use Your Words"

Before your toddler can learn to problem-solve, she needs your help expressing what she feels.

The Meaning of Words

girl holding dictionary

Shannon Greer

"Use your words" is one of those phrases parents of toddlers repeat a lot. But if it doesn't work, there's a good reason: It's much easier for a child this age to express herself by hitting, biting, and kicking than by stringing together a polite request with her limited vocabulary. "Simply saying 'use your words' during a tantrum doesn't help if your child doesn't have the right words to begin with," says Rosemarie T. Truglio, PhD, vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop. "Toddlers are just beginning to learn that there are words to represent their feelings." Your mission? Work with her to find the right words to describe her emotions and show her how to communicate them. These tips will help your child use language (not her left hook) to express herself.

Be Your Child's Interpreter

Whether your toddler's the silent type or a constant chatterbox, his emotional vocabulary is pretty limited at this stage. And that can make for some ugly tantrums when he gets angry or upset. Without words to express his feelings, all he has to fall back on are things like punching and screaming to cope with his frustration.

To help your stressed-out toddler articulate his problems, put his emotions into words for him. For example, if he pitches a fit in the supermarket when you won't buy him cookies, let him know that you understand why he's upset: "I know how much you like those cookies and that you're angry because you can't have them." Using a phrase like "You're angry" gives your child the words he needs to label and express his emotions in the future. Don't get angry yourself or tell your toddler that he shouldn't be so upset. Kids, like adults, calm down when someone "gets" how they feel, so a little empathy will go a long way in these situations.

Be prepared to repeat these "feeling words" over and over again to make them stick. Jackie Crockett, of Naugatuck, Connecticut, says that for her twin daughters, Sydney and Avery, recognizing each other's moods set the stage for identifying their own. "At 18 months, Avery would point at Sydney when she was crying and say, 'sad,'? says Crockett. Even if your child doesn't have siblings, you can point out how other people (children at the park, characters in a book or on his favorite TV show) are feeling.

Help Her See That Words Work

The truth is, it can feel good to hit or kick when we're mad. A toddler won't willingly swap whacks for words until she learns that talking out a problem can make her feel better too. To convince your child that using words really works, help her problem-solve, says Rose Kavo, PhD, professor of child development at the Bank Street College of Education, in New York City. For example: You're in the sandbox at the park when another kid grabs your child's bucket. After her initial fury wears off, say, "Instead of crying, you can tell Amy you're mad. That will make you feel better, and we can get your bucket back." Then, help her figure out what she wants to say, and why: "What did you want to tell Amy? Did you want to say that you're mad because she took your bucket and you'd like her to please give it back?" If she's tongue-tied, you can speak to the other child for her; later, talk about the incident and help her practice what to do next time.

Of course, communication breakdowns don't happen just on the playground. If your child whines when she doesn't get her way at home, don't lose your cool or give in to her demands. Instead, ask your child what she wants: "Would you rather have milk instead of water?" Once she's made her choice, praise her: "I can understand you so much better when you use your words instead of crying! Now I can get your milk."

Act Out Emotions

Toddlers need plenty of practice to learn to handle their frustration. But don't just use tantrums as teachable moments. When you're playing together, try using stuffed animals to act out a recent situation when your child needed to use his words. You can do the "talking" for both characters at first ("Mommy Elephant, may I wear my blue socks instead of my red ones?" "Sure, Baby Elephant! Thank you for asking so nicely!"); then let your child take over a role.

Be expressive yourself -- your child will be more likely to use his words when you tell him how happy you are to see him trying. "Gossip" to others about his progress too (making sure your child can hear you!). Soon, your toddler will be using his words more often and his fists a lot less.

Next: Talk the Talk

Talk the Talk

Remember to use your words to set an example the next time you're in a frustrating situation.

You're cut off in traffic.

You want to: Lean on the horn, roll down the window, and scream out an R-rated word.
Instead, say: "Whoa! I was so mad when that car drove so fast in front of me. Sometimes I get mad when I'm scared, do you?"

You've locked yourself out of the house.

You want to: Kick the front door.
Instead, say: "I don't like not having my keys because we can't get inside right now. Let's play a guessing game to pass the time until Daddy comes to let us in."

Your child dumps a box of cereal on the floor.

You want to: Throw a major tantrum of your own.
Instead, say: "Yuck! I just cleaned up, and I hate messy floors. I can sweep it up faster if you help me."

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the October 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

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