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Teaching Toddlers to Communicate Their Wants and Needs With Words

Whining, crying, hitting and meltdowns top the list of toddler behaviors that drive parents crazy. During the toddler stage, your child goes through an intense period of growth and development -- transforming In less than two years from an entirely helpless baby to a child who can walk, talk and express strong opinions. It's no wonder, then, that toddler behavior is sometimes less than perfect. The sooner your child can speak her mind instead of communicating by behavior only, the happier she (and you) will be.

Boosting Language Experiences

Toddlers are like little sponges -- they absorb something from every daily experience. The more language they're exposed to, the more language they'll use, says child-development specialist Faith Golden, founder of It's Aparent, a parenting and education consulting service in Encino, California. Talk with your little one throughout the day. Describe what you're doing, label common objects and read simple books together. Sing silly songs and read nursery rhymes. All these activities encourage language development. The richer your child's vocabulary, the more likely she'll use words instead of tantrums or misbehavior to get what she wants.

RELATED: How to Empower Your Toddler

Sign Language

It might seem counterintuitive, but using sign language can encourage earlier spoken-language development, says Sarah Lendt, a National Certified Counselor and licensed parent educator from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. Using signs for common words -- such as "snack," "more," "drink" and "play" -- eases frustration, reducing temper tantrums and increasing cooperation. It also teaches children the powerful lesson that communication is the best way to achieve your goals. "Repeat a word out loud after your child makes the sign to encourage and reinforce verbalization," Lendt recommends.


Like sign language, pictures can reduce frustration while toddlers are developing language, says Golden. Take photos of items your toddler frequently uses and laminate them on 2-inch cards. Attach the cards to a laminated poster board. When your little one wants something, ask him to get the picture. Point to the picture and say, "You want a book?" (or whatever the item happens to be). Ask the child to respond with, "I want a book, please." At first, your toddler may say only one or two words. That's OK. Praise your little one by saying, "You told me what you want. Great work. Let's go get a book." In time, your toddler won't need the photo board and will use words instead.

RELATED: 10 Terrible Toddler Phases

Understanding Behavior

Your little one isn't throwing toys or melting down in the grocery store just to make your life miserable. She's misbehaving simply because she wants something and she doesn't know how to get it. Pay special attention to your child's cues and help her before she reaches the boiling point. Nancy S. Buck, a Denver-based psychologist and the author of "Why Do Kids Act That Way?" suggests using the "magical question" to help children ask for what they want and reduce frustration.

For example, if your toddler hits, ask, "What is it you want that you are trying to get by hitting your sister?" Then, "If we can figure out a way to help you get what you want responsibly, by following the rules, are you willing to work it out?" Children almost always say yes, reassures Buck. "They don't want to misbehave. They want and need something. They don't know how else to get it. When we teach them, they begin to use the new behavior."

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