Tag Archives: toddlers

Using Language to Reduce Meltdowns and Tantrums

I am a woman who often likes control and has battled a lifelong tendency towards perfectionism. The more tired or stressed I am, the more calm and collected I want things to be. My first time trying something new usually stresses me out because I don’t want to mess up or not do as well as I’d hoped. The first hurdle is always the hardest for me and then I usually glide along until I hit a new, bigger one or see the finish line. I’ve learned that this part of me is quite rooted in anxiety. I am also self-classified as a “highly-sensitive person”, which plays itself out in a variety of ways, including me being very aware of how everyone around me is feeling and anticipating problems and needs before they arise. There’s a lot more to say about all that, but now I just give you this hint of my background to help you understand a bit of why I have even thought of these things to begin with.

So, toddlers and young children who are tantrumming stress me out a bit, particularly my own. Especially when we’re not sleeping well at night.

Having had a lot of experience with children, and having studied child development- mainly communication skills- I foresaw a few of the developmental hurdles that would be particularly challenging as my first baby turned toddler. I knew turn-taking could be really tough. I also knew delayed gratification and waiting for certain toys or food would be hard. Lastly, I knew how frequently a child’s lack of understanding could cause a communication breakdown which would usually result in that child getting upset or tantrumming.

Using Language to Reduce Meltdowns and Tantrums

( Don’t let his sweetness fool you. He doesn’t want to share. Not even with the monkeys.)

So, when Charlie was six to nine months or so, I started modeling language for him to help him understand the concept of taking turns. I wanted to provide the words and concept before the problem had actually come to fruition. The scenario would be something like this:

Me (while holding drumsticks, ready to show him my awesome skills): “Mama’s going to drum!”*

Charlie watches and eventually expresses an interest by babbling or trying to grab the drumsticks or squealing with excitement.

Me: “Ok! Charlie’s turn!”

Charlie gets to drum away.

Me (pick up maracas): “I’m going to shake my maracas.” Oh, yeah.

Charlie stops drumming and requests the maracas.

Me: “Ok, first mama, then Charlie.” I shake them a little longer, making him hold out a bit, but keeping the interaction positive and successful. “Charlie’s turn! Can mama have a turn with the drums again?”

We trade. You get the idea.

Basically, I made taking turns fun. I emphasized the words “turn” and “first X, then Y.” And I would model this language for him a lot. Babies and toddlers need tons of repetition to learn something. You will be bored with it long before they are. (Have you hidden a book yet because you just can’t read it again? We have several that go into hiding for a month or two.)

Later, when Joey wants to play with Charlie’s trains, Charlie can understand that Joey wants a turn and then he will get a turn again. I can remind him with that language he’s heard over and over again, “First Joey gets a turn, then Charlie.” He doesn’t think the world is going to end when his train leaves his hands. Because kids think this. They crumble to pieces thinking they have lost their favorite train forever. And life without Thomas would be so, so sad. It’s like how I feel if you take my chocolate truffle, except I know I won’t see that truffle again. Please don’t do this to me.

I would bet that teaching the “first, then” concept has probably been our most effective language-based** tantrum reducer. Young children have such a hard time understanding that something is still going to happen even though something else needs to take place first. Plus, waiting is really freakin’ hard. So, they hear playground!, get totally excited to go and then absolutely freak out when you try to get them dressed first. You can remind them, “First clothes on, then playground.” It also provides awesome leverage for when kids hate getting changed, dressed, into car seats or strollers or other strapped in devices. “First car seat, then FUN (toy, food, music, high-five)!” “First diaper, then soccer!”

This is best taught in playful ways, just like turn-taking, and integrated into all your normal everyday situations. “Oooh, first we get to eat carrots (as you set them down), then I’m going to cut some cheese slices!” It can be as simple as playing with blocks (“First I’m using the red block, then I’m stacking the blue block”) or airplane (“First, on my feet, then, up in the air!”).

Please don’t get me wrong. I may not like tantrums, but I also understand that there is a time and place for children to experience disappointment and have to learn boundaries. I don’t try to shield my children from all challenges. I don’t think I’d be doing them any favors by sparing them disappointment and obstacles. But, I find that normal life scenarios bring up plenty. People get sick, budgets constrain, weather prevents plans, toys break, mom doesn’t let you use the chef’s knife, food doesn’t taste as we hope, etc… None of us need to add extra challenges during regular, routine moments like leaving a fun place or getting into a car if a little talking through it at their level will help.

Additionally, we have expectations for our boys. They both clean up after themselves and help out around the house and yard. Even at two-years old, Miles knows how to clean up and actually has been able to (to a degree) for a year! He doesn’t always want to, but he can do it with most of his toys and will usually come around if we structure it right. (“Let’s clean up so we can go ride our scooters before bedtime!” We have to be willing to have that awful, sad moment of him not getting to go ride his scooter on occasions that he doesn’t pitch in, but you can bet that’s all he needs to do it from them on, at least for a week or two.) It’s all about motivation and consistency.

I’d probably be very rich if I could guarantee this will work 100% of the time. It won’t. You know that, I’m sure. But, if children are well-rested and well-fed, this strategy will help mitigate and decrease the number of less than pleasant moments that make you want to pull your hair out and wear earplugs.

*Maybe you’re wondering why the heck I am not using pronouns talking to babies and young toddlers. Pronouns are pretty confusing to little ones- they really don’t understand them. I’ve found that their comprehension is aided by using proper names for the first year, often first two. If you’re keyed into your child’s understanding, you’ll know when switching back to “I” and “you” isn’t a problem for them. And, please, for the sake of all our ears, switch back. Nothing’s weirder than somebody talking to a four year old this way.

**Best ways to prevent tantrums: feed your children healthy food on a regular schedule, make sure you children get the sleep they need. These are pretty hard to argue with. Meals, naps, and bedtimes are ridiculously sacred in our house.

Genuine Interactions by Modeling and Scaffolding Language

Here’s the scene:

Dad, watching daughter’s eyes (yay!), sees her look at a passing dog.

Dad: “Is that a dog? Do you see the dog? Can you say dog? Dog. Dog-gie.”

Toddler: Silent. Possibly pondering why dad asked if she knew it was a dog when he was clearly so sure of himself. Or maybe wishing she could throw him a bone. (The dog, people, the dog.)

 

I will probably go to my grave able to hear my graduate school supervisor’s voice advising me to stop asking questions while providing language therapy with my first pediatric client. I think she even kept data to monitor my progress. So, I’ve been aware of this pattern for years and have noticed how everyone does this with children to some degree. Stop, listen and you’ll hear kids being asked ridiculous questions everywhere you go. Plus, it’s an incredibly hard habit to break. Yet from an normal interaction standpoint, it’s actually quite silly when you think about it. There’s a much more effective way to build language skills.

Most of us don’t form our knowledge base about a topic from questions. We learn a little bit, then ask questions. Essentially, we build a foundation from which we can ask questions, which take us to the higher levels of thinking. Young children use vocabulary as the cement. (I guess phonology is the sand and water?! Maybe we shouldn’t take this too far.)

 

The scene above could instead go like this:

Adult: “Oh, there’s a dog!” (Modeling the word and pausing, giving daughter time to process and speak.)

Toddler: “Dog.” (That’s the truth, right?! It doesn’t get super complicated very quickly.)

Adult: “What a sweet brown dog.” (Continues conversation and adds a new descriptor or two- scaffolding her language just a little bit.)

Toddler: “Want dog.”

Adult: “Do you want to pet the dog?” (Genuine question, very appropriate.)

Toddler: “Yup. Pet dog.”

 

Moving away from constant questioning to a more reciprocal interaction style is liberating. Instead of taking over their topic of interest, we are able to follow their lead and build on it. We are no longer putting kids on the spot, either. (Though there remain many moments when I am still guilty of this- and always feel regretful afterwards.) We are engaging with them at their level but allowing them time and space to comment on whatever interests them, not just to answer our questions.Conversations with toddlers are not always easy, but with this technique they get easier and can be incredibly fun, silly and enlightening. Since toddlers are still pruning their semantic network, the connections they’ll make between different words and ideas can be hilarious. If adults are in constant bombardment mode, babies don’t get as many chances to shine. And make us giggle! I remember one very bright little toddler insisting that crows were pigeons for a few months. Kids will come around through modeling.* All you have to do is work in corrections in a gentle, natural way.

Toddler: “Pigeon! Caw-caw, pigeon!”

Adult: “Wow, I see that black bird. What a noisy crow. Caw-caw, crow.” 

Toddler: “Bye pigeon!”

Adult: “Bye birdie! Bye crow!”

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Also, modeling language is a great way to mediate a scary or challenging situation for young kids. For example, we had a thunderstorm roll through Seattle this week, scaring my little guy. (We may get lots of rain, but thunderstorms are very unusual.) I used snuggle time and lots of soothing descriptions to help him get through the storm. Each time lightning struck I would quietly say part or all of something like this, “There’s lightning. Here comes the thunder. There’s the thunder. It’s loud. It’s grumbling.” Miles just sat on me, listening, taking it all in. Later in the day he kept saying, “Thunder turn on and then thunder turn off.” When Charlie mentioned lightning, Miles added “Thunder turn on and Lightning McQueen turn on.” (Lightning McQueen! How awesome is that?!) Rather than giving him an outright correction or bombarding him with questions, I could just model the appropriate language for him. “First lightning came and then we heard thunder. And then it happened again. Now it’s all done. The storm is over.” Modeling the language during a scary situation provided a way for him to talk about his fears later. By calmly providing the words (instead of questioning him), he could take it in at his pace and feel as safe as possible. I feel certain that just knowing the name of something can help demystify, reduce stigma and help us feel more comfortable with new situations.

So, even though I’ve known this stuff for years. I still ask the stupidest questions sometimes, particularly when I’m trying to connect and not feeling particularly witty or energetic. Like asking, “How old are you?” to a kid I’ve known since they were in-utero while we’re at their birthday party with enormous cut-out 5s everywhere. Such patient kids, putting up with all our silliness.

 

 

*There are kids with language disorders and language delays who will need therapy and more direct teaching styles to develop vocabulary. I am referring to a typically developing child.

Nurturing a Love of Books

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Parents are reminded ad nauseum to read to their children from day one. I swear, while mom and dad fearfully prepare to take their newborn home for the first time, a nurse slips you a pamphlet on the importance of reading to your child. You don’t know the basics of feeding and changing your child yet and they’re already making you feel guilty for not reading to them enough. You are reminded of this all over the media and at every pediatric appointment. Often there aren’t any strategies laid out for how to encourage a love of books, particularly with babies.

Some of our natural inclinations for reading to children can actually lead to bored, squirmy babies who no longer want to be a part of storytime. Some caregivers believe they need to read every word in a book because of a misleading notion that language develops best if we speak with complexity to babies. Others don’t want their baby to move or interrupt during the story. Thankfully, most remember to show the baby the pictures of the book and don’t attempt Charlotte’s Web with a six month old! I’ve heard “my baby doesn’t like books” from many of my friends and acquaintances and I think it’s often because their storytime approach is better suited to older children.

I approach storytime with little babies by completely following their lead. A baby just a few months old will give you clues as to what interests them with their eyes. So, I rarely read the printed word. If they are staring at a pictured light, I talk about it. This is often as simple as saying, “Oooh, light. That’s a nice light.” while emphasizing the word light, and letting them look as long as they maintain interest. Parentese is ubiquitous across cultures; it serves the purpose of allowing babies to learn the sounds of their native language better. Just as we adapt our speech when talking to babies, we need to do it with our language while reading with them.

There are very few books with language simple enough to please a baby, so I adapt most to meet them at their level. A few that I rarely change are Goodnight Moon or Pat the Bunny. We will sit with individual pages as long as the baby desires. We might talk about the kittens for five minutes, meowing and pretending to pet them.

I might adapt a book like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by imitating the animals after each question: “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? Roar roar roar roar roar, roar roar roar roar.” (Count the roars there. I know the book by heart.) Eventually I’ll adapt back to the written word, but this quickly draws the babies in and helps them associate the sound with the animal they’re looking at.

My youngest, as a one year old, would turn pages through several books as quickly as possible until we hit his favorite page. The exciting part for him was just interacting with the book, so I would read quickly or simplify the words depending on the type of book and we’d go back and forth between that page and the next over and over again to his heart’s content. The sweet spot in Goodnight, Gorilla is when the zookeeper’s wife turns on the light and finds the gorilla lying there in bed. He still loves this page because my husband and I always make a shocked, silly gasp and dramatically exclaim something like, “Oh! Gorilla!!! What are you doing in my bed?”

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It is important to remember that the goal is enjoy yourselves while exploring books, not to finish the book or read every sentence. Time with books should provide a dedicated time together seeing new things, labeling new words, talking simply about what’s interesting. It can be a launching pad for a longer conversation about a single picture or topic, returning to finish the book another day. If a child is tired of a book, just close it and move on to a different one, even if you’re on page one. If they need to run around the room and just check in every once in awhile while you read, let them. Be silly, make the book interactive, keep your language simple, and vary your pitch a lot. Most babies will not be interested in every word of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but they will love touching the holes in the book and probably delight in hearing silly eating noises while you try to nibble their fingers or toes.

If you’ve been having challenges reading to a baby or toddler, give these strategies a shot. A baby with a strong built-in aversion to books will need some serious playtime with the first few books, maybe even the first few hundred books. Make sure that baby knows you are going to have FUN and storytime has changed. Make crazy animal noises while looking at pictures, get a puppet, stuffed animal, doll, or other favorite toy to read, or whatever other silly idea you have to make it clear the routine is different now.

For example, as a toddler, our oldest wanted his stuffed robot to read his books every time for at least a year. We made up a monotone robot voice and read every book that way. When he wanted to talk about the book or ask questions he would say, “No, robot talk,” if we used our voice. We would have to answer him in the robot voice and have the robot point to things. He and the robot had many stimulating conversations, let me tell you.

After a few experiences with the new and improved storytime, I imagine your child will be bringing books to your side to request a reading. Give it a try, follow their lead, and see how much more pleasant it is. I hope you will find this makes reading more pleasurable for both the adult and child.

In Their Eyes

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A great time to begin focusing your attention to what those little eyes are landing on is when babies are just starting to focus on the world around them, cooing and observing all that’s new. Learning to watching their eyes from early infancy will help you get tuned into their perspective with more ease and develop a better understanding of each other. This will pay huge dividends as you journey in learning to communicate with each other.

One of my favorite activities with my boys as infants was going on walks outside with them held close to my chest. I could see their little eyes taking in the leaves shaking on trees or the raindrops landing on our umbrella. They would show increased interest in something using early babbling noises or kicking feet and smiling! I would observe with them and provide the label (eg, “Oooh, birdie. What a beautiful bird.”). With these interactions helping them know that I was tuned in to them, they would babble more frequently, seemingly wanting me to provide the label for each new interest.

This dynamic was a foundational part of our relationship. I was letting them know that I cared about what excited them. It was also incredibly rewarding for me because I could watch their comprehension grow (eg, seeing them look for a dog when I mentioned one passing by) and be more tuned in to their first words by letting their eye gaze help me understand what they were talking about if their articulation wasn’t clear (it won’t be, trust me.). I knew the moment they spoke their first words because I was tuned into what they were looking at and knew the single utterance “igh” was their attempt at “light.” (Yes, both of my boys said “light” as their first word!) Babies and young toddlers are very context dependent. They are not going to tell you about the airplane they saw last week. They will tell you about what they’re looking at or what they want and it’s almost always within sight (or it’s food!).

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As early as three months (and try it earlier if you want!), babies can choose from a couple books. With the baby in your lap or laying on the floor, hold two books in front of the baby. Ask them simply, “Do you want The Big Red Barn or Gossie and Gertie?” Their eye gaze will go back and forth between each book, but stay engaged with one more than the other. You will respond accordingly, “Ok, let’s read that!” With practice it gets easier and easier to figure out what the baby wants. Eventually the baby will have the motor skills to grab whatever book they want.

Allowing babies to choose with their eyes is a great way to provide them ith some control over their environment. I haven’t met one who isn’t thrilled with the opportunity. Without being able to verbalize, they can now have some say over their books and toys. As they get the concept down, they can even pick which way to go on a walk if given the choice.

Learning about communicating with babies using eye gaze was probably the most formative bit of knowledge in my early parenting experience. I believe this came from reading some of Dr. Patricia Kuhl’s research, but I have also heard her lecture and read her book. Part of parenting two young boys with less than stellar sleep habits has included losing half of my memory. So, please forgive me if I don’t remember my sources correctly. I would rather spend time writing these posts than digging through journals and my Speech-Language Pathology grad school notes right now. That time may come so that I make sure not to forget any juicy grad school tidbits that helped my transition into motherhood! Nonetheless, I hope these prove to be as helpful to your communication experiences with babies and young children as they have been to mine.