If I examine the reasoning behind my own use of the phrase “use your words,” I can appreciate my intentions. When my child (who is now 4) has a flailing meltdown, I say the expression to help him faster. After all, I can make sense of words quicker than I can understand tears. And mom—me!—is the ultimate problem-solver, right?
But that’s the issue: The success rate of “use your words” is nil when I think back. And if I put myself in my son’s shoes, I get it. Hearing “use your words” during a hard moment (like when I put honey on his chicken and, oops, he didn’t want honey on his chicken) is frustrating at best and patronizing at worst.
The main reason for that is because he’s not developmentally capable of reasoning through non-verbal emotions at his age. Toddlers and preschoolers are still learning how to process events, feelings and words all at once. “Use your words” sets an unrealistic expectation that they absolutely cannot meet.
So, what’s a stronger approach? According to the experts at Transforming Toddlerhood, it’s more effective to pause and validate what your child might be feeling in the moment and remind them that you’re on their team. Their advice: Say, “I see you’re upset. What happened?”