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Saying: “Use your words” to a toddler isn’t always helpful

Saying: “Use your words” to a toddler isn’t always helpful

My three little ones ALL had delayed speech. They all had multiple ear infections and ended up with grommets. So I like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to toddlers and their speech. Turns out, I didn’t really know much at all.

My catch-phrase when my toddlers were trying to talk to me, or having tantrums was “use your words.” That’s what everyone else seemed to say to their child so I figured I needed to as well.

It turns out it is kind of hard to do that when you a) don’t actually have them in your vocabulary and b) at the age of two it’s difficult to articulate: “Mum I’m having an awesome time playing in the sandpit here with my friend James, so can we leave in five minutes instead of right now please?”

So instead they would scream and yell and I would carry them to the car remaining outwardly calm, but dying a little on the inside. I read recently that actually telling your child to “use their words” is actually a trigger when they’re on the verge of being upset. In fact according to the article it is the equivalent of you “saying, ‘you need to calm down’ to your spouse after you’ve stepped on his or her big toe. In other words: potentially infuriating, inflaming, and shortsighted.”

This actually makes perfect sense to me. Add in their emotional limitations at such a young age and I can see why my little ones would get so genuinely frustrated with me. I’m not excusing their behavior but I understand it better now. In fact I would have been better off finding alternative ways of getting them to explain their feelings than using the phrase “use your words.” Some quiet time, moving them away from an audience or giving clear directions that we would be leaving a place soon or even using mime might have helped diffuse some very awkward and upsetting tantrums.

Do you say “use your words” to your toddler? How do you diffuse a tantrum?

8 Member comments Post a reply

Avatar SarahBlogger



My three little ones ALL had delayed speech. So I like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to toddlers and their speech. Turns out, I didn’t really know much at all.

Read the full blog post: Saying: “Use your words” to a toddler isn’t always helpful

Posted 02 August 2011 - 07:59 PM

Avatar OC1246

It depends on the age really. There is no point saying "use your words" if they don't actually have any! I said it to my 18month old the other day, just on the odd hope that she might have some to share instead of screeching......but sadly no. The article you read makes sense in regards to a young toddler. But not really for a kid who has a good vocab. I say "can you use your words" to my 4 year old and she either says"no." or she will stop crying and tell me what she wants. So at her age it works well,but it wouldn't have when she was younger then 3.5.

Generally, I try and prevent tantrums from happening. I know what the triggers are so I work around them. Leaving places is a big one for them though. If worst comes to worst I will pick up the kid, put them in the car while having a tantrum. I won't say anything. Once I have taken a breath and got in the car, I will start singing or telling a story. (you have to do it loud at first) they usually calm down and start listening. Once all is calm again we can have a little chat about what set the tantrum off. I found tantrums really only started with my 4 yr old. She didn't really have them before that and my 18month old doesn't really have them either. She just does that ear piercing screech if she wants something...

Posted 02 August 2011 - 08:36 PM

Avatar patriciamcintosh@me.com

I have a almost 3 year old who has had numerous ear problems which lead to tonsils, adnoids and finally grommets. His speech is/was massively delayed. I also say use your words - thank you for your insight - i will think twice before i use that again - the only problem is what do I say now?????

Posted 02 September 2011 - 06:55 AM

Avatar beksparkles

i am always saying "use your words" to my 21mth old... maybe i'm not helping. when i think about it, she usually breaks down when i say it to her... whops!!
i find it is a lot easier on her to give her a warning "10mins until we go/bed/tv off" & then "5mins" & then "time to...". she knows it's coming then. obviously at this age she doesn't know time, so it's not 10mins if i can't keep the time (when out), but she gets the idea anyway & it helps with the "i'm not ready to go, so i'm guna chuck a tanty".

Posted 08 January 2012 - 03:01 AM

Avatar BinkyB

I used to get right down at DS1's level and quietly say, "come and have a chat to Mummy" when his emotions were escalating, or when he seemed to be too overwhelmed to get his message across. I would take him a few steps away and sit him on my lap for a close quiet talk together.

I found that this helped distract DS1 from whatever had become an issue and gave him some space from the source of the problem. I would give him a big hug (even when he wasn't keen on it!) and tell him "I love you, even when you're cranky/upset with me/frustrated": in the process he got some physical reassurance and comfort while we quietly talked about what had happened or what was causing a problem.

Words didn't start flowing for DS1 until somewhere between 2-2.5 yrs, so between the ages of about 1-2 yrs I would try to be really patient and ask lots of simple questions that I knew DS1 could answer in really simple language or by gesturing (yes/no, point to what's making you sad/cranky, point to what would make you happy/ what you need etc).

I found it useful to try to demonstrate a feeling in a humorous way and then start fishing for what DS1 was feeling... such as [scrunching fists, grimacing, and making a silly "Arrrghhh!" noise] asking, "are you feeling frustrated?". The sillier the better to break the tension.

Now that DS1 has lots of words, containing the excitement of the story he is trying to tell can be more the issue - a happy one at that though. I now find myself saying "stop/slow down"....[big pause]...."now try again just a little slower", and when he does get his message across I say "Oh silly Mummy... of course that was what you trying to tell me...my ears couldn't keep up!" or something equally as silly but with some positive reinforcement.

Oh, such a beautiful stage!!

Posted 18 January 2012 - 12:34 PM

Avatar Mum-2-2-Babes

My DD is 22 months and I always say can you plaese use your words or can you tell me whats wrong/why you're frustrated/what you want and I always get a great response from her, whether verbal or non verbal. She does have quite a large vocab but even before she could speak a lot I would say this to her, and get down to her level and she has never got angry at me about it. Im also an Early Childhood Teacher and say please use your words several times a day but I've never seen a negative response to it so this was really interesting to read grin

Posted 25 January 2012 - 01:32 AM

Avatar mirabi

i also say "use your words" and tell my daughter (nearly 3) to say "stop i don't like it" when another child is bullying her. this seems to work for her, as she does have a very good vocabulary, but every child is different. she will tell you exactly what happened on a play date, and will even be honest and dob herself in :)bless her smile

Posted 25 January 2012 - 02:49 AM

Avatar Dannysteph1

I don't say use your words, I say 'tell mummy what can help you with... ' Which I guess is the same thing. Although my 3 yr old has good speech sometimes a little tantie is needed... We've taught J to say 'please stop' if we are upsetting him like tickling games or just playing in general. I've even heard him say it when husband and I are chatting in the kitchen... 'Stop please' works well and if I get to j quick enough he will tell me what's going on in his head without being prompted.

Posted 30 March 2014 - 11:19 AM

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