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Talking with Toddlers: The Power of Positive Language

“No.” “Stop it.” “Don’t touch that!” As a parent, you might find yourself using these words and phrases when your child begins to make their own choices. It’s a natural reaction for most—so if you use these terms, you are not alone. Take a moment to think about how you are speaking to your child; are you finding success in stopping your toddler’s undesired behaviors?

It's fun to work independently with messy materials! This defined space, ample work time, and a smock make the “cranberry bog” a positive opportunity for curiosity and exploring.

It’s challenging for toddlers to understand the concept of negatives. Often, they miss the “don’t” or “stop” at the beginning of the sentence; translating, “Don’t climb on the counter!” into “Climb on the counter!” This leaves our curious, independence-seeking toddlers wondering, “Why are they telling me to do exactly what I am doing? And why are they mad at me for it?”

Being specific on what they can do and when makes it easier for your toddler to understand; and they are more likely to learn from the experience and cooperate with the request in the future. One example is: “Please keep your feet on the floor.” This request is specific and clear on the desired behavior from your toddler. You can also explain further by adding, “Your feet stay on the floor because you could fall down and get hurt”—which gives your toddler the desired behavior and explains why this behavior is desired.

Talking calmly, clearly, and at the child’s level can maximize concentration (and smiles).

Using positive language empowers your toddler to make appropriate choices on their own and, in turn, boosts their self-esteem. It allows the toddler to focus and learn from the positive behaviors instead of focusing on negative ones, which can often leave them feeling frustrated and confused.

Try This at Home:

  • Replace “don’t” with “do.” Tell your toddler what they can do! If they are coloring on a table, try, “Crayons are for coloring on paper. Which color paper would you like to use: the white or blue?” vs. “Don’t color on the table!” It is more likely that your toddler will make an appropriate choice once they understand the expectation and are given the appropriate options available to them.

  • Change your tone and approach. When giving a direction or instruction, get down to the same level as your toddler. Make eye contact. Try not to let the frustration of the situation come through in your voice. Communicate calmly and clearly.

  • Tell your child “when.” When your toddler asks to do something that is completely off the table at the moment—such as going to the park—rather than saying no, acknowledge their request and explain when it would be an appropriate time to go. For example: “The park sounds like a great idea! We do not have time to go right now. Would you like to go after your nap today or tomorrow morning after breakfast?”

  • Use “first-then” language. A “first-then” statement provides clear direction and expectation. If your toddler wants to have a snack but you would like for their blocks to be picked up, you could say, “First, pick up your blocks, and then you may have a snack.”

  • Offer benign choices. As most parents experience, toddlers like to feel in control of their world. Try offering your toddler two choices. When they are offered options, they are more likely to comply.

  • Give your child time. It is easy to feel frustrated when your toddler does not respond quickly to requests. Remember it takes 3 seconds for a toddler to process what you have just said. Count to 3, remain calm, and allow time for your child to think about what it is you have said and how they will complete the task at hand.

  • Ask a question. Help your toddler remember, as they are easily distracted! Your child may need a gentle reminder to stay on task. Asking, “What’s next?” or “Where are your shoes?” can help your child remember what they are doing and draw their attention back to the task at hand.

Focusing on positive language and simple changes in the way you communicate can be powerful and incredibly impactful as your toddler learns desired behaviors. You will likely experience fewer tantrums, less tears, and an overall decrease of challenging behaviors. What we say to our toddlers and how we say it is one of our most powerful and effective teaching tools!

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