How to Speak to Toddlers: Speaking ‘Toddler-ese’
On This Page
If you were an ambassador to China but only spoke Greek, trust me, you’d have problems communicating! Likewise, talking with your toddler will be 100 times easier once you learn their “native language”: Toddler-ese. To learn what exactly Todder-ese is, why we need it, and how to use it, keep reading!
What is Toddler-ese?
Toddler-ese involves speaking to your toddler in their “native tongue,” which involves repetition of short phrases and mirroring their feelings with body language and facial expressions. I discovered Toddler-ese by accident. Like most pediatricians, I dealt with 20 tantrums a day from toddlers who hated being at the doctor’s office. Then I began noticing that when I echoed a bit of the child’s upset feelings back—using a very simple style of language—I could usually convert their crying to laughter (or at least cooperation) in minutes…or less!
Why Toddler-ese Works
In most adults and big kids, the right half of the brain (associated with lightning-fast decisions, quick recall, impulsivity, emotional reactions) strikes a pretty good balance with the detail-oriented left half of the brain (which takes the lead in careful listening logical thinking), with the left side often taking the wheel. But that’s not the case with toddlers. Their rowdy right side is at the helm…and is often too busy to listen to its more logical counterpart. And the raucous right-side gets even more amped up when big emotions are involved!
That’s why tots have a hard time hearing well-meaning parents who try to speak calmly and rationally during tantrums. Those parents are appealing to the left side of the brain, when the right side is running the show! To overcome this communication gap, it’s important to become fluent in your toddler’s native language: Toddler-ese, designed to talk directly to the right side of your tot’s brain.
The Basics of Talking to Toddlers
Curious what makes up Toddler-ese? Here’s a quick breakdown of talking to toddlers:
Toddler-ese is your toddler’s “native tongue.”
Think of toddlers as “cave kids” who existed before the dawn of civilization. Remember those Tarzan movies…and the simple language used? “Come, Cheetah, come!” “No, Jane, no eat.” You get the idea.
You can translate anything into Toddler-ese with three simple steps: short phrases, repetition and mirroring a bit of your child’s feelings (using your tone of voice and gestures).
The more you practice Toddler-ese, the better you get at it.
Amazingly, all of us automatically use Toddler-ese with our young children…when they’re happy. But we often forget to use it when they’re upset.
How to Speak to Toddlers: It’s as Easy as 1, 2, 3
Toddler-ese turns adult language into simple messages that our cave kids understand…even during a frenzy. You can translate anything you want to say into Toddler-ese with just three simple techniques:
Mirroring—a bit—of your child’s feelings with your tone of voice and gestures
Step 1: Use short phrases.
The first principle of Toddler-ese is to use very short phrases. The more upset your toddler is, the simpler your words need to be. For young tots, or very angry older kids, start with one- to two-word phrases, using just key words. For example, for an upset 2-year-old:
“I know you feel mad about it.”
“Did that doggie scare you?”
“You really want that candy, don’t you?”
“You’re mad! Mad! Mad!”
“Scared! Scared! Big doggie!”
“Candy! Candy! You want it…now!”
These “bite-size” bits of lingo are perfect for a child’s stressed-out brain. Of course, as your tot recovers, you can stretch your phrases back to normal.
Step 2: Repeat those short phrases…a lot!
Repetition is just as important as short phrases. Words whiz by your toddler’s brain too fast for them to handle when they're in an emotional tangle. And the more upset they get, the less receptive they'll seem. That’s why you’ll need to repeat the same short phrases three to eight times…just to get your upset toddler’s attention. Then, it helps to say it a few more times, to convince them you really understand.
Does this sound excessive? It’s not. In fact, many parents fail to soothe their child merely because they think acknowledging their child’s feelings just one time is enough. But when emotions slam the door of your child’s mind shut, you have to “knock” many times just for them to hear you and “let you in.”
Here’s how to do it: Imagine it’s raining, and your 2-year-old, Sam, is desperate to go splashing in the mud. He’s crying at the door, struggling to reach the knob. In response, you:
Get down on his level and point to the door.
Say: “You want…you want…you want outside! Outside now! Sammy says, ‘Go…go…go!’”
If he keeps fussing, repeat your words a few more times. Soon he’ll turn to you, as if to say, Huh? You talkin’ to me?
As his crying lessens, stretch your sentences back to normal: “Sammy says, ‘Outside now!’ You really want to go out! You say, ‘Let’s go play, Mommy!’”
If you have noticed his feelings accurately, he’ll turn to you, look you right in the eyes and think to himself: Bingo! That’s exactly what I want. Mom “gets it”!
As he calms a bit more, it becomes your turn to give a message (explanation, distraction, etc.): “But no, sweetheart, noooo. It’s raining! Raining! Wet…yucky! Come with me! Let’s have a pillow fight. Come fun! It’s fun!”
Step 3: Mirror a bit of your toddler’s intensity.
The first two parts of Toddler-ese are a big help, but the third is the magic key! Your little one may not understand all your words, but they're brilliant at reading your voice and face—a right-brain specialty! That’s why mirroring a bit of your child’s emotions with your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language lets you connect perfectly with their sweet spot!
Use your voice. Use more oomph than normal, but speak at a lower volume than your child is using. Reflect some of the fear, frustration, and other emotions you hear in their voice, but at about a third of their intensity. (If your child is very tentative or sensitive, you will probably have to use a bit less intensity.) Gradually bring your voice back to normal as they begin to calm.
Be expressive. Raise your eyebrows, shake your head, open your eyes, furrow your brow, or purse your lips.
Use lots of gestures. Wag a finger, wave your hands, point, shrug, or stomp the ground.
Practice talking to your toddler.
It can take a little time to get the hang of Toddler-ese. After all, speaking in Todder-ese can be embarrassing! We’re not used to talking like that, but it’s the way that works. So, you have a decision to make: Should I do what works for my child or should I worry more about what other people will think about me? If you’re just learning and still feel self-conscious talking like that, no worries—just start out slowly. You may even want to practice in the bathroom by yourself! Then, use it for little ups and downs first. Once you get more comfortable using Toddler-ese, gradually start using it for more turbulent upsets. I guarantee that you will love using it!
How Toddler-ese Build Bonds
Toddler-ese helps children feel cared about and understood. And when you combine Toddler-ese with the Fast-Food Rule, you will be able to prevent up to 90% of tantrums before they even happen and you’ll settle more than 50% of the meltdowns that do occur…in seconds! (In a nutshell, the Fast-Food Rule is: Whenever you talk to someone who’s upset, always repeat their feelings first…before offering your own comments or advice.) If this sounds too good to be true, fortunately, it’s not! Most parents who try Toddler-ese see major improvements in their child’s behavior in just days and feel better connected with their child.
Good communication is the foundation for a respectful relationship and cooperative kids. And learning to speak Toddler-ese is one of the most important tools parents have to forge that healthy communication from a young age!
More Toddler Advice From Dr. Harvey Karp:
- Toddler Discipline: Two Tactics That Really Work!
- Understanding Your Toddler’s Temperament
- How to Stop—and Prevent!—Toddler Defiance
- Get Your Toddler Ready for Potty Training
Have questions about a Happiest Baby product? Our consultants would be happy to help! Submit your questions here.
Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.