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Just TALK to me: Frustrations in Toddler Communication

As much as I love my Bean and as proud as I am of her, there are days that feel too hard.  I’m sure most parents feel that way. We’ve had a few of these recently, probably in part because she’s been off from school for the holidays, and our routine is out of whack.


Photography by Sasha Georgeson

These days, one of my biggest challenges with the Bean (besides my lack of sleep) is communication.  She’s going to be four years old in March, and while she’s come a long way (baby), figuring out what she wants is still often a guessing game.  Yesterday morning, she woke up way too early and was wailing about something.  Now, most kids her age can say, “Mommy, I want to get up and play”, or “I’m hungry. I want some cereal for breakfast”.  But this morning, all I got was a cranky, “Naaahh”. Sometimes this means, “I’m hungry, I want a snack”; sometimes it means, “I’m uncomfortable – something’s wrong”; yesterday morning I think it meant, “if you make me go back to bed I’m going to make sure you’re as miserable as I am”.

All babies start out being unable to clearly communicate what they want.  Their parents learn to interpret their cries and it starts to get easier, and at the same time, those babies learn to talk.  By one year old, the average child can string together a few words and start to control their world through language. They figure out that “more milk” gets them what they want faster than just saying “more” on it’s own.

The Bean took a little longer than most to get those first words, although sign language really helped.  Learning the signs for her basic needs, and being able to teach them to her, was a huge relief.  “Milk”, “food”, “play”, “all done” and “more” were indispensable tools in our arsenal, and we learned a bunch of other signs that were part of her world and helped her to talk, but were not necessarily included in the “needs” category.

However, as her wants and needs get more complex, it’s getting harder and harder to interpret them with the few words she uses regularly.  Her vocabulary is growing a lot more quickly these days, and when the Bean is calm, she can actually put together five-word sentences: “I want more milk please” (Sounds like “Ah wah moh mih eee”).   Unfortunately, as soon as the Bean is upset, when she needs to be able to communicate most clearly, she forgets that she has any words at all.


Photography by Sasha Georgeson

According to Dr. Harvey Karp (author of the “The Happiest Baby-” and “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” books), toddlers become “cave kids” when their emotional state gets too elevated.  Their brains go into a mode that doesn’t allow any sort of reason to leak through.  It seems, though, that the Bean’s emotional state still gets heightened immediately, when most kids her age are getting to the point where they can control their emotions a little better.  For example, the second a show she’s watching is over, she’s screaming, “Moe, moe, moe” over and over again as if it were the end of the world.  As with all toddlers, we’re working on the concept of patience.  In this particular situation, the context is so specific that I know exactly what she wants, and often, even if I say, “No, we’re all done watching TV” , she repeats “Ah duh” and is happy to be led to another activity.  But all too often, I have no context to her crying and it takes a while to figure it out.

I think this time in the Bean’s life is particularly difficult for communication because she has many of the needs and wants of kids her age.  She also gets frustrated very quickly, which is totally normal and appropriate for her developmental age, if not her chronological age.  But her disadvantage is that she doesn’t have the vocabulary to go with those more complex needs and her heightened emotional state.  Her frustration gets exacerbated because it takes me longer to understand her, and then we cycle into a downward spiral of louder crying from the Bean and increased anxiety on my part, and nothing getting accomplished until I finally stumble on the thing she wants.  AHHHHH!

I need to keep reminding myself that all my friends with preschoolers went through this with their kids when they were still toddlers, it’s just that we’re doing it later and it will last longer.  Even though the Bean is a preschooler, she’s also still a toddler, and that’s just the way it is for us.  It is sometimes comforting to tell myself that God gave the Bean to us because we are the best parents for her needs.  I believe that I am becoming a stronger person and a better mother as I learn from each situation we come across.  I’m realizing more and more that I also can’t do this without God and my husband.  If I were a single mother, I think I might go over the edge.  And I can’t even imagine what adding another baby to the situation would do to us, when the Bean still needs so much help, so that’s definitely off the table.

Thankfully, there are plenty of days when things go very well and the Bean is a happy-go-lucky kid with a positive attitude.  Even the difficult days aren’t all bad – we always figure things out eventually and move on.  Some days include tears in my eyes or frustrated pillow-punching, but most don’t.  Some days I feel supported and encouraged by friends and family, and some days I feel like I’m the only one in the world dealing with these things, even though I know I’m not.  It helps to write about it;  it helps to read about it; it helps to discuss particular issues with her teachers and therapists; and it definitely helps to get together with other moms and discuss everything from how long it’s been since we’ve had a bubble bath to discipline strategies for our toddlers.

I am supremely grateful for all the support and encouragement I receive from my friends, family, and acquaintances.  And to tell the truth, the Bean herself is the best reward  and encouragement for all my hard work.  She is usually a happy, cuddly, funny little girl who makes me feel like I’m the most important person in the world.


About Bethany Seto

I am a first-time blogger and a Stay-at-Home mom. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my husband and daughter.

One response »

  1. Yay for the support system that you’ve placed around your family ie preschool. You made it up to here (again). Your post vividly expressed your daily reality. Thanks for letting me be part of the journey.


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