The ‘Toddler Whisperer’ Shares Her Best Tips for Dealing with People Under 5

In the world of childhood experts, Dr. Tovah Klein breathes rarified air. She’s actually known as the “Toddler Whisperer” (or, as we like to call her, the president of parenting). A child psychologist and mother of three boys, she is the director of the renowned Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, and author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success. In short, she speaks toddler, and she’s here to translate. Read on for some essential wisdom.

Here’s What 7 Real Toddlers Ate in a Day

mom and toddler in blanket

Put Yourself In Your Child’s Shoes

“Once you start to observe and understand your toddler, you’ll be able to understand (and sometimes even anticipate) their reactions and concerns. I call this ‘seeing the world through your toddler’s eyes,’ or your Parenting POV (point of view). It’s when we as adults shift our view from seeing the world from an adult perspective to that of a child’s perspective—a shift that can happen immediately or take some time. When this happens we suddenly are in a position to support our children in a way that is clear and much, much easier to carry out. Why is seeing the world from a child’s point of view so important? Because that’s the best way to understand them, to guide them with love and encouragement, and to avoid shaming and controlling them.”

toddler tantrum

Where There’s Acting Out, There’s An Unmet Need

Klein mentions an example of a three-year-old girl, Tanya, who screams ‘I don’t like you!’ every time she sees a friendly older neighbor in the elevator. Naturally, her parents are concerned about rudeness. But, writes Klein: “More than likely, Tanya behaved the way she did because she felt like a small person in a crowded elevator. Maybe she is frightened by the woman she hardly knows, or unsure of herself and put on the spot. All could explain her desire to not interact and close down the situation. What I’ve observed again and again in these paradoxes is that our children often trigger well-meaning parents to try to control or fix their kids’ ‘bad’ behavior, without seeing the underlying need behind the behavior…Toddlers are not thinking ahead of themselves. They cannot. They are beings tied amazingly to the present tense, thinking only about themselves and wanting to feel safe, loved, taken care of, and yet independent all at once.”

toddler getting messy with fingerpaint

It’s Not Your Kid, It’s His Brain

“All of us experience our emotions long before our reasoning kicks in. But for toddlers this difference is even more dramatic. Toddlers often feel the full force of an emotional response without having the ability to rationally ‘think’ their way out of it. Through the toddler years, connections are being made between the higher level of the brain [where executive functioning happens] and the emotional centers. In fact, this is the most important learning and wiring occurring in toddler brain development. But connections take years (many!) to create and become automatic. This network develops over many, many life events. This linking between thinking and emotion happens in the hundreds of small interactions your child has with you and other important people every single day. Every time you comfort your child or walk them through a routine, you are helping form these connections.” Above all, remember: “They really cannot manage intense or negative emotions too well (yet), and stopping themselves from doing something they should not is equally hard at this age.” 

mom and toddler high fiving
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Repetition Is Normal—and Absolutely Necessary

Toddlers, writes Klein, “need to experience events over and over (and over!) again to master them, especially something as hard as managing strong emotions. Lots of practice and repetition are needed. Every time you respond to a frightened child with comforting words, ‘Oh…that was scary. The noise was so loud. I’m here with you. You’re safe,’ or you encourage your child to persist in a task by labeling their feelings, ‘You’re feeling so frustrated because that puzzle piece doesn’t fit! You can try again and it might fit,’ your child is building connections between thoughts, feelings, and soothing. Over hundreds or even thousands of trials, your child will begin to internalize this process. She’ll start to say to herself, ‘This is hard but I can do it,’ or your son will say, ‘It’s scary but I’m ok.’ Children learn to use their thoughts and words to manage feelings and organize their behavior based on these many interactions with you over time…And it’s this ability to cope with strong feelings and handle behavior in socially acceptable ways that is the essence of self-regulation, which is also one of the best predictors of achievement and well-being throughout the life-span.”

mom and toddler snuggling
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So You Lost It And Snapped At Your Kids. Here’s What To Do Next

Klein describes a scenario wherein an exhausted parent yells at or criticizes a child who refuses to put on his shoes (because of course). How to recover? “What’s crucial for parents to see and understand is that during the toddler years, the needs of the child (for autonomy and exploration, coupled with support and comfort) and the needs of the parent (for time for self, or the need for the child to be good) come into constant misalignment…A child in hysterics because you put his boots on for him to get out the door in a timely fashion when he wanted to do it himself (in spite of his dallying and not doing it) can be downright maddening. Sometimes you handle it well; sometimes you don’t. It may sound odd, but the mishap is not the problem, so long as there is a positive reconnection, a repair. The key at times like these—when their needs collide with ours—is how you reconnect with your child. Coming back together again, without blame, lets them know you are here for them, always, even when bad moments happen.”  

mom and toddler playing

Memorize These Mantras

Klein’s path to a positive parent-toddler relationship, and to laying the foundation of a well-adjusted life, are mapped out in this list:

Parents can… 

1. mirror back a sense of safety and relative order;

2. listen to children instead of always talking at and directing them;

3. give children freedom to play and explore on their own;

4. allow children the space and opportunity to struggle and fail;

5. work to understand who each individual child is and what he needs at a given age; and

6. provide children with limits, boundaries, and guidance.