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How to Master Your Toddler’s Secret Language — in 3 Easy Steps

Dr. Harvey Karp

The toddler brain is a bustling place, with billions of cells zapping millions of signals to each other every day. To keep this flurry of activity straight, our brains are organized into two halves; each has its own special duties. The right half is the brain’s super-speedy side. It helps us with lightning-fast decisions and quick recall — but it can also be impulsive and emotional. The left half is its slower-paced, more detail-oriented foil. Where the right side is yelling “go go go!” the left side allows us to stay calm, listen carefully, and think logically.

In most adults and big kids, these halves strike a pretty good balance, with the more logical left side often taking the wheel. That’s not the case with toddlers. Nope! 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 toddlers 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! It would kind of be like being an ambassador to Japan and trying to speak Italian to everyone you met. It’s a good skill to have, but you’d have a hard time getting your message across in that situation, wouldn’t you?

To overcome this communication gap, it’s important to become fluent in your toddler’s native language: Toddler-ese. As a pediatrician, I’ve dealt with dozens of tantrums a week from toddlers who hated being at the doctor’s office. But, when I started speaking their secret language, I realized I could quickly convert their crying to cooperation — by simply echoing a little bit of their upset feelings back to them.

Toddlers have a hard time hearing well-meaning parents who try to speak calmly and rationally during tantrums.

And fortunately, you don’t need to endlessly level up on your Duolingo app to learn Toddler-ese. To master your tot’s native language, you just need to follow these three easy steps.

Step 1: Use short phrases.

The more upset we get, the more the left side of our brain gets drowned out by the right. That’s especially true of toddlers. That’s why the first principle of Toddler-ese is to use short phrases; “bite-size” bits of lingo are much more digestible for a toddler’s stressed-out brain.

The more emotional 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, focusing on key words. For example, for an upset 2-year-old, instead of: “I can see you felt so angry that I made you come inside,” try: “You’re mad! Mad! Mad!”

Step 2. Repeat yourself.

When toddlers are upset, words whiz by their brains at warp speed, making it hard to grab hold of their meaning. That’s why you’ll need to say the same short phrase over and over again. You may have to repeat yourself three to eight times — just to catch your tot’s attention. And, once you’ve gotten through, you’ll probably need to repeat yourself a few more times…so your toddler really understands.

To grownups, this might sound like overkill. But for toddlers, acknowledging their feelings one time is rarely enough. Think of your upset toddler’s mind as a door that’s been slammed shut by their emotions. They may not hear you knock once — you have to knock several times to get them to let you in.

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Here's a simple tip to help you sidestep power struggles: Keep it positive! Saying what you like versus what you loathe emphasizes the desired behavior…and helps kids feel respected even as they are criticized. The results: fewer power struggles. You can also keep it positive by turning conflict…into play. Does your child have trouble with transitions? Make a loud trumpet sound to signal it’s almost time to switch tasks. Too much dawdling when you're in a rush? Try whispering what you want your tot to do…or challenge her to a race! And, make it extra fun by playing the boob during the race…like dropping your shoes over and over so your child can win. (You can read more about "playing the boob" in The Happiest Toddler on the Block) We guarantee, you’ll amaze yourself! Once you start thinking of communicating this way, you'll come up with lots more ways to help your child succeed with the rules through play vs threats. #happiesttoddler #happiestbaby #parenting

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Step 3: Mirror a your tot’s intensity…a little bit.

Steps 1 and 2 are helpful — but mastering this step is what will make you fluent in Toddler-ese. Little kids may not be able to understand all of the words we say, but they’re great at reading your voice, face and gestures. That’s why echoing a tiny bit of your toddler’s intensity with your tone, expression, and body language helps you get your message across loud and clear.

Here’s how to do it: Reflect about a third of your toddler’s anger or frustration with your voice. That means speaking with more oomph than usual — but still at a lower volume than your child. Be expressive with your face (maybe you furrow your brows, shake your head, or narrow your eyes) and use lots of gestures (you may stomp your foot or throw up your hands, for example). Just don’t overdo it; hamming up your response too much could make your toddler feel like you’re mocking them.

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.

Now that you’ve got your tot listening, start some important conversations with these children’s books by Black authors and illustrators.

Childrens books black authors

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