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How to speak to toddlers so they’ll actually listen

A child psychologist shares some sage advice for dealing with little ones.

Lauren Taylor
Thursday 08 February 2024 17:02 GMT
Learning to properly communicate with toddlers will go a long way (Alamy/PA)
Learning to properly communicate with toddlers will go a long way (Alamy/PA)

The toddler years come with a whole set of new challenges – and for parents, communication skills during the most difficult times can be key.

Child psychologist Laverne Antrobus says tone of voice is crucial. “You have to be a bit of an actor [as a parent] – nobody tells you when you have children about all the different roles that you’re going to have to inhabit. One minute, you’re being the clown – one minute, you’re being the investigator.”

Antrobus is backing a new Department for Education campaign to encourage more people to work in early years childcare, as a new £1,000 sign-on bonus for new starters and returners to the sector in 20 local authorities is announced from April – and she believes the skills to talk to toddlers are seriously underrated.

She says they can help prepare children “for the rest of their educational life” – and how they are spoken to holds so much influence as they grow up.

Here’s her advice for communicating with toddlers during three key moments of the day.

When they say ‘no’

If your toddler seems full of resistance for doing certain things, whether it’s playing something new or getting dressed, it can be tempting to put your foot down. But Antrobus suggests reframing their ‘no’ in your mind.

“Embrace it as an expression from your child of not quite knowing what to do. [It’s their] quick way of maybe cutting off a request, because in that moment they just really don’t understand what’s going on.

“Of course, it becomes very, very powerful depending on the parents’ response, so I would say that, if you can, be quite curious about why it’s a ‘no’. [Ask] ‘What’s going on?’ Be quite upbeat about your response. It might be a fearful response, they might not want to do something, [so ask] can I help? Can daddy help? What can we do? What can we do together?”

A “sense that somebody is with them and willing to help them” really helps, she says. A child’s ‘no’ response might be because they’re worried about failure: “Failure is a big thing for individuals very early on.”

If your child says ‘no’ to eating their tea, for example, she suggest leaving a pause. “Say, ‘OK, maybe you’re not hungry today, we’ll just wait’. The pressure with parenting is that we’re working to a beat and a rhythm. And sometimes that can overtake our more intuned response of what’s going on.”

If they say ‘no’ to going to nursery in the morning, for example, you can say things like: “I think your friends might miss you at nursery today, [or] I’ll tell you what, I’m going to put my shoes on, are you going to put your shoes on? Move things forward gently.

“What you’re doing is providing some sort of scaffolding for a little person who’s feeling that they can’t do something.”

During a tantrum

Antrobus wants to reassure parents that tantrums are absolutely normal. “We need them to happen [at ages one to three] because if they happen in the right developmental phase, we have a good chance of children moving through it.”

But how you pay attention to your child in that moment is key, she says. “If a child learns that every time they have a tantrum, they get masses of parental attention, they’re really going to go for it.”

Antrobus’ advice is to take a step back, without literally going away. Asking questions like ‘how are you doing?’ and ‘how can I help you?’ shows to your child you know that “something’s going on” and “you’re there to help”.

Timing is important. “You have to be quite observant as a parent of the moment you think [the tantrum] might be dying down. Step in and say, are you ready? No? Back to the tantrum, step back again…”

“Fundamentally, remember that it’s really, really important in those moments – they’re struggling with a set of things that might be really blowing their little minds and they don’t really know why they’re doing it, they just know that in that phase their body transports them into this place of dysregulation. Our job is to help them get back to something that feels more together, that they can move on from.”

In nursery settings, she says she often hears the phrase, ‘Oh it’s not a great day is it today?’, which shows an adult is noticing and tuning into their behaviour. “All behaviour has meaning,” she stresses. “And you can unravel that with them.”

When you leave them

How you drop your child off at nursery or childcare in the morning is key, she says. “That’s often the most difficult part of the day, but it’s the most crucial for lots of children who really struggle settling in those spaces. It’s because they literally feel dropped – not just dropped off, but dropped.”

No matter the rush parents are in to get to work, Antrobus suggests spending five or seven minutes making the transition smoother. “[If you] drop your child off well, you really reinforce something about your attachment, the ability for them to leave you.”

The main thing to communicate to them is that although you’re leaving, you’ll still be thinking of them.

“The worst position that a child can be in is where they feel that the minute they’ve left their parent, they no longer exist in their mind. And it’s such a profound thought for them, that it can interfere with their functioning,” she says.

At pick up, she suggests reconnecting by saying something like: ‘I was thinking of you and all the things you were doing at nursery’.

“That’s how we build up a sense of their self worth. [So they learn] the most important people in their lives think about them at every point in the day.”

The Department for Education has launched a nationwide campaign to encourage people to start a career working with small children. Visit to find out more about a career in early years and search for existing vacancies.

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