“He just doesn’t listen to me as he listens to you.” I’ve heard this more than a few times over the years. The pain and frustration a parent feels from feeling like they cannot connect with their child are one of the hardest things for someone in my field to see. No one wants to feel like they are failing their child, and no one wants to feel like they cannot connect with their child. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way! The power struggles, selective listening, and the unique way a toddler can dig in their heels when they want something don’t have to be a daily challenge! There a few, small, and easy things you can change in your approach to your toddler that will reap huge benefits!
One of the first things I do with every child is getting on their level. This can mean physically, emotionally, play-wise, interest, or all of the above. If I came in, guns blazing, telling them what we are going to do and how to do it they would run. This is especially important to remember when you're having heightened power struggles. Everyone does better when they feel like they are being seen and heard so get on the floor and see what is interesting to them. If they like vehicles then pull some out and play next to them for a while (otherwise known as parallel play and a very important skill for children to learn when they are approaching preschool) without interrupting their play. Model how you would play with the toy, maneuvering it around the room, making sounds, etc.
For some children, imaginary play doesn’t come naturally, by seeing you model it helps them to navigate this and learn. I typically go by my Rule of 3 which is to only ask 3 questions about their play. Some examples are:
“What are you doing?”
“What is that?”
“I like how you.....”
By asking a few simple questions you are letting them know your interested, not only in their play but what they have to say. Play, by definition, does not have to have a purpose so keep it light and playful. If you ask too many questions or narrate the activity too much, you can overwhelm a child and they will either leave the area or have a meltdown. Most children I work with have a communication challenge and if someone is asking question after question this is anxiety-producing and does not help with their language.
When you know what really interests your child you can use that to your benefit to help you connect with them. If your not sure I’d suggest doing a reinforcement survey (this is just a fancy way of saying make a list of the toys, activities, and people they really like to play with). This list will give you a good toolbox to pull from when you are working with your child. Sometimes adults feel like children aren’t learning if they are just playing. But play is learning, and that is how children learn the best. If you facilitate a fun, safe, and inviting environment your child's self-confidence will soar!
Most of the time we parents like to make all the decisions for our little one and with good reason. But if we don’t give them some opportunities to make choices important to them at the moment we are hindering other skills that they need as a foundation of growth. Start by using a few activities they really like (or, highly motivating) and let them pick from the two. This is called pairing and what you are basically doing is taking something they really like and pairing yourself with. If I come into a home and a child is playing with something that is super motivating, such as an iPad, and I take it away I have basically paired myself (something negative because I took it away) to something positive (their iPad). This is going to do little in the way of helping me build a trusting relationship with a child, and they will have a hard time not seeing me as a negative in their environment. If you want to make a big impact take the time to pair yourself with something highly reinforcing to them. That means play with the games or toys with them so they will see that you are respecting their space and not trying to take anything away. Once you are able to do this it is easier to move onto less motivating activities because you already hold an organic value to them. And by beginning, this process with two choices you are narrowing down the scope as to not overwhelm, at this age too much of a good thing can be bad! When we empower children to make choices it helps build problem-solving skills and confidence.
So we’ve seen what they are into, played next to them, asked a few questions, and even given them some choices. So now what? This last step seems to be the hardest to practice but actually helps the most. We wait. “Wait for what?” You may be asking. We wait for them to let us in, to share what they are doing, share what they are feeling, to share their ideas, and even to share their toys! Let them help to narrate their play and show you what they are doing. By doing this you are just making your presence more valuable to them and creating a bond between the two of you that will help both of you flourish!