10 Easy Phrases to Teach/ Empower Your Preschooler
One evening last fall, I was driving our 13, 11, and 2-year-old home from an activity and little one was cranky, tired, and in desperate need of who-knows-what…When that couldn’t be found she resorted to mumbling and sputtering every word she could think of— crying and pointing to different objects in the car.
My 11 year-old son was in the back with her trying to help but couldn’t translate her frantic rambling. After fruitless attempts to appease her with random toys, books, and crackers, he started shouting OVER her, to me, AS IF I had no idea what was going on one seat directly behind me!
“What does she want, mom? What am I supposed to give her?” he begged, desperate to end this episode. I told him, “You’re going to have to help her. She needs the words to say what she wants. So, give her words!” And as if on queue, she howled, “I NEED WOOOOORRRRRDDDDSSSS!”
We all cracked up and the tension was immediately broken by the funniest example of parroting our toddler had ever committed.
“Parroting” is what some child development specialists call this stage where toddlers partially repeat and/or imitate the words or phrases they hear. It’s one of the many ways vocabulary is developed and very early language skills are acquired.
It is incredibly helpful to recognize this stage and use it to our child’s advantage (plus it’s a sanity saver for US!) Communication with adults, siblings, and playmates can be especially difficult and stressful when our preschoolers feel misunderstood. Inability to effectively communicate their wishes, feelings, or frustrations fuel many of the toddler tantrums we witness as parents or bystanders.
One (of many) advantages in having a nine year gap between our youngest children is that we now have years of experience to draw upon. My husband and I feel more certain about where to focus our efforts and believe that communication is the most vital way to encourage and empower this little person bursting with personality, energy, and desire for independence.
Here are the first 5 of 10 Simple Phrases we taught our daughter starting around 18 months and through her 2nd year.
Each time we recognized a recurring scenario, we crafted short, 2-3 word statements to give her the words to express what she was feeling or needing at the moment. We would feed her the phrase, and encourage her to use it, then we would respond appropriately. Again, making use of their willingness to imitate us, it empowers our children to communicate their needs and express their feelings, even if their feelings are conflicted and/ or volatile.
- Help please– If you have a toddler at home, your entire life right now is in helping this little one, but as they develop greater independence, they will want you to wait and allow them to try things on their own first. After trying a few times (like say, putting on their pants or shoes), frustration mounts either for your toddler or for the waiting parenting desperate to move on. This is when “help please” allows the child to ask for help without having it forced upon them. Most of us struggle with patience and often want to do everything for our toddlers because it’s easier and faster. But they need to be free to try— eventually they will experience success! But if their efforts fail, instead of falling apart, they will feel empowered when they have the words to say, [I need] “help, please!”
- Let’s share – When kids are arguing over toys, which happens a LOT with preschoolers, the temptation is for a toddler to say “Mine” or “My turn” but I think “let’s share” is better. This phrase doesn’t assume one person’s claim to said toy or activity…it is open-ended and allows for cooperation in the next step. Sure, the toy may stay in the hand of its current possessor, but the expectation has been stated without pressure for immediate compliance. Children love to take their time making a decision, especially if it’s a difficult one such as having to share, but they may surprise you by choosing to do what is right! Giving them the time to agree to what’s right and acting on it in their own time reduces frustration and the likelihood of a meltdown. The waiting child learns patience and sees the impact of communicating their wishes without being demanding or robbing their friend. Afterwards, a successful act of sharing gives parents and caregivers a great opportunity to praise the children for being kind and sharing. Kids love praise, just as we do— and what is rewarded is repeated.
- Your Turn – This is the phrase we teach when the requested toy is handed over to the waiting friend. It affirms good will in the act of sharing— as opposed to just tossing it at the child who has been waiting for their turn— and validates the wishes and patience of the one waiting for their turn.
- I’m upset– This phrase seems obvious, but is great because of the multiple applications. Lots of things can upset our littles: hurt feelings, disappointment, separation, missing toys and loveys, and even uncomfortable clothes/ shoes…Parents and caregivers are often caught off-guard when outbursts occur out of nowhere, and our initial reaction (which is usually negative) may intensify a child’s already shaky emotions. So teaching them to say, “I’m upset” helps toddlers express their feelings while triggering empathy within us and motivation to to help alleviate the problem.
- I’m Hungry / I’m Thirsty – If you get “hangry,” I promise you your preschooler does it even better! Everything young children do is at a rapid pace and with maximum energy and effort. Don’t believe me? Go work at a preschool, you’ll see! This means that grazing is best for littles, but we often attempt to put them on our own schedule of eating / drinking, which can be really hard. Teaching them to express their hunger or thirst again empowers them to get what they need with permission, as opposed to raiding the pantry, refrigerator, or trying to sneak a snack from their lunchbox.
I imagine that this list has already sparked a few ideas in your own minds as to how you can help train your children to communicate their feelings and needs before they spiral out of control! Sure, there will be times when they still tantrum because they do not get their own way in the moment but those are also great opportunities for teaching and training.
These formative years are precious in that we lay the foundation that impacts their later childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood! We may have to wait through many seasons, and sometimes years, to see the fruit (product) of our labor, but the harvest WILL come! We must continue to do this good work!
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Gal 6:9 (NIV)
In my next post, I share the next 5 Easy Phrases YOU can teach to empower your Preschooler. One is especially important as it establishes a critical aspect of giving voice and agency to your child…you will NOT want to miss this one!
I would love to hear from YOU! Will you try some of these phrases with your toddler / preschooler and let me know the results? You may also have other phrases / simple concepts to share with other parents following this conversation!
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