The Toddler Dictionary: Tips on Communicating with Your Toddler

mother talking to child
Photo: Getty

Your toddler isn't hardwired to ignore you -- they're just learning about language, so what seems logical to you can be baffling to her. Think of this guide as your discipline decoder.

When you say: "Shh, quiet!"

You mean We're in the library, and I'm mortified that you're being so loud!

Why your kid doesn't get it Toddlers are still learning to modulate their voice and manage impulse control. "Moreover, social graces -- like knowing when a situation calls for a whisper -- take time for them to internalize," explains Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

Speak toddler Whisper, "Use this voice!" Little kids are natural copycats, so if you show your child how you'd like him to talk, he will likely follow, Dr. Borba notes. Also practice talking in "quiet voices" at home. "It'll make things easier if you allow your kid to transfer the behavior from a secure environment, one-on-one with you, into the real world," Dr. Borba says. Finally, tailor your expectations to where he is developmentally. Expect to whisper reminders and to take him to the lobby frequently the first few times you visit a new quiet-required environment. Ultimately, you'll see a big payoff.

mother and child

When you say: "Don't be rude!"

You mean Show a little respect for me!

Why your kid doesn't get it As young children discover that their language has power, they begin to be defiant. "Toddlers talk back because they're testing limits," says Jeff Bernstein, Ph.D., a family therapist and author of Liking the Child You Love -- it's one way they begin asserting their independence. So if your child shouts "No!" when you ask her to put away her playthings, it's not because she's trying to be a pain; she just wants some control.

Speak toddler Don't take it personally and snap at your child when she's challenging you -- it's a necessary step toward becoming an adult. "Model the right way of interacting. Calmly say, 'It's not okay to talk to me that way,'" Dr. Bernstein recommends. Next, empower her by offering her some choices. You might say, "Do you want to put away blocks first or books?" Once your kid has some of the control she craves, she's more likely to comply.

mother talking to child

When you say: "Do that again and you'll get a time-out!"

You mean Can't you listen and follow directions? I feel like a broken record!

Why your kid doesn't get it What exactly drives your child to repeat something immediately after you've made this threat? Well, it's not that he's willfully ignoring you (you can look forward to that later!). "Little kids still haven't developed the capacity to understand cause and effect," Dr. Borba explains. In other words, telling your toddler that there will be a consequence if he continues to do something simply won't sink in enough to scare him off the bad behavior.

Speak toddler Don't speak at all! The fastest way to fix the issue is to simply remove your kid from the situation and get him interested in something else, Dr. Borba recommends. So if he won't stop splashing the water in the dog bowl, redirect his attention: Gently pick him up, move to the couch, and start a new activity together, like doing a puzzle or reading a book. Not only will it nip any naughtiness in the bud, but over time it will show him that certain pursuits (like spilling water all over the floor) are no-nos.

When you say: "Be gentle!"

You mean Stop torturing the cat!

Why your kid doesn't get it For starters, she may not understand what gentle means, says Julie Holland, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. "In addition, toddlers are still in the process of developing empathy," she explains. While your kid may be starting to realize that others have feelings, she's still pretty egocentric -- and she's not going to be thinking about how her actions affect others all the time.

Speak toddler Encourage your little one to be more understanding by verbalizing feelings for her. You might say, "It really hurts the cat when you pull his tail -- just like it hurts when you fall down." Then try giving a more specific command as you show your toddler the right way to do things. For example, try, "This is how we pet a kitty," while taking her hand and using it to delicately stroke your pet. As you do so, repeat the word gentle several times, illustrating what it actually is. Finally, give your child the chance to do it on her own. Dr. Borba suggests: "After exaggeratedly saying 'gentle' while stroking the cat together, say, 'Now you show me gentle.'"

When you say: "Go to your room and think about what you've done!"

You mean I need to imagine you marinating in your own guilt!

Why your kid doesn't get it "That's like telling your dog to think about what he's done," says Dr. Holland. "A 2-year-old is about as able to follow this direction as a pet is! Most toddlers can't reflect upon what they've done in a meaningful way."

Speak toddler You can't expect your kid to ponder his conduct on his own and come to see the error of his ways -- but you can help him learn the correct way of doing things. Since he learns more by watching and doing than by listening to you lecture about right and wrong, try modeling and role-playing the behavior you want to see, Dr. Holland suggests. For example, if your child refuses to share and snatches toys from his sibling, make sure he sees you split your apple slices with his big brother at snacktime. When he offers you one, give a big "Thank you!" and hand him one of yours later. You might also set up a tea party with stuffed animals and have him practice sharing with them. When you make proper behavior a game, he'll naturally want to join in.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles