Communicating with toddlers sometimes takes a bit of guess work and a lot of patience on our part so we can make sure our directions and requests are understood. Even when we remember to get down on the child’s level and make eye contact, we can sometimes still get the feeling that what we’re saying just isn’t registering.
This is where the guess work begins. Drawing the conclusion that the child is just being obstinate and refusing to listen is very tempting because that’s what it can appear to be. If we stop, however, and think about where a toddler is developmentally, we can gain a better perspective into the possible “whys” that will help us understand how to handle the situation better. Here are some suggestions you might want to think about:
Keep it simple. When communicating with your toddler, remember his memory and vocabulary skills are still developing. You want to be clear without giving too much information or direction. So, instead of “Wow, it is so cold outside. If we go out to play you will need to wear your coat because we don’t want you to catch a cold,” try “It’s cold outside, let’s put on your coat!”
Remember wait time. We sometimes expect immediate compliance instead of remembering to build in wait time. Break your requests down into doable steps and adjust your expectations. “Please come over here.” (wait) “How do your hands look?” (wait) “Let’s go wash them so you can have your snack.”
Clearly set expectations as close to an event or outing as possible. Children are likely to have trouble remembering what you tell them about going somewhere if it’s hours before you go. Language is a symbol system that toddlers are becoming increasingly comfortable with, but we can sometimes overestimate their ability to process information—particularly if it’s abstract or out of context. You might be wasting your breath when you say, “Remember what we talked about?” if the conversation was held the day before.
Having choices can improve “listening skills.” Two-year-olds just don’t usually want to be told there’s no choice other than doing what you’re asking. Toddlers typically respond well to being given real and positive choices.
Communication is a reciprocal process. We adults are not always good at listening to what our children try to tell us. We forget that the way in which we respond is likely to impact how our children respond to us. Are you a good listener? Do you tune in and really try to understand what your child is trying to tell you? Children learn to be good listeners by being listened to.
Repetition. Be consistent in your requests and try to repeat directions using the same words. Ask your child to repeat specific directions that have become associated with specific situations. “What’s the rule for walking across the parking lot?” Many toddlers already enjoy a good game of parrot, so make it fun and build your child’s memory at the same time.
Stay safe. When it comes to safety, be consistent in your message and choose a safety word and signal that your child recognizes. For example, maybe your safety word is danger and your signal is the sign language sign for danger. When you say danger and your child sees you make the sign he knows to stop. Connecting with more than one of your child’s senses will aid in your child’s communication development. For more information on the value of Sign Language as a way of communicating with your child, read my Q&A with sign language expert Stacy Thompson.
Make it fun. Help your child develop his listening skills with fun games. For example, using puppets is a great way to capture his attention once he is all ears– for a little while at least! By the time they are 3 or 4-years-old, children love to play Simon Says and other listening games, which also build memory skills.
Listening, just like any skill, develops best through natural, everyday experiences. We remember meaningful experiences. Listening to stories and music that encourage children’s participation gives them a sense of being included and increases their attention.