A common phrase heard in preschools and homes where toddlers reside is “use your words.” This seems like a logical reminder to a young child throwing a fit who needs a reminder to verbalize her frustration so you can understand her needs. But what about the child who doesn’t have very many words to begin with? This is a good time to try something new.
Without needing to assess exactly what your child is indicating, let’s respond to what we DO know. She’s frustrated or sad or upset. If we acknowledge the emotion underlying her behavior, it gives her a sense of being seen and heard without needing to use specific language. This provides a sense of safety and connection to you, the parent, and reduces the need to scream in order to get your attention. She will learn that you are reliably available for emotional support even when she is unable to express her best self.
We will use potty training as an example. If your toddler is sitting on the potty while screaming, you can try saying, “I can tell you’re frustrated! First, potty for 1 minute, then we’ll play Elmo.” She may not stop screaming immediately, but you’re laying the groundwork that will make sense to her after a few times. She’ll feel that you understand her frustration and will no longer need to scream to be acknowledged. You can help her get “unstuck” from the tantrum by using “first, then” statements. This sequencing language provides a sense of structure and forward flow so she knows the new situation won’t last forever. For added success, set a visual timer so she gets visual feedback on exactly how long she will be practicing the new skill.
Keep in mind that even though your child does not have the words to express herself, her behaviors are communication. Tune in to her underlying emotion and “use your words” to support the development of her language and social attachment.