How to Respond to Communication-Related Tantrums

by Megan Ahlman, M.A. CCC-SLP at Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center

Communicating can be frustrating for both parents, and toddlers!  Toddlers often know what they want, but are not yet able to express their wants accurately to caregivers.  Communication breakdowns happen when toddlers point or whine, sending an unclear message to the adult they’re communicating with.

Remember – it’s normal for toddlers to communicate this way!  Toddlers are exposed to new words every day, and they need to hear and try new words many times before using them consistently.

But, when tension builds and frustration mounts due to a communication breakdown, toddlers may completely lose their cool!  Your toddler may cry, scream, run away from you, shut down, or even hit and pinch when you offer comfort.  Toddlers can become overwhelmed with their emotions, which can turn into a full-blown tantrum.

Toddlers also learn how to push limits as their need to experience independence grows.  As toddlers attempt to make their own decisions – open the refrigerator, dress themselves, decide they want to go outside to play – communication breakdowns may occur.  This can be exhausting and irritating for parents, who feel frustration with their toddler’s growing desire to do things on their own.  Again, remember- this is a normal behavior for toddlers!

How should a parent respond when a toddler can’t communicate what they want?
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Don’t Take It Personally

Every parent can remember a time when their child pushed the limits.  Toddlers constantly gauge what they can (and cannot) get away with.  The playground, kitchen table, and grocery store are only a few places where they may test their boundaries.  It’s important to remember that toddlers are impulsive and easily swayed by their emotions.  As they attempt to control the world around them, their actions may seem defiant.  In reality, children are learning what is (and is not) allowed.  Remind yourself that your child is learning, and maintain your patience rather than viewing his actions as a personal attack.

Respond Consistently

Show your child that you are not affected by their behavior.  Dealing with a tantrum and emotions that are running rampant can quickly become challenging, but remember to keep your composure.  You are the parent, and you are in charge.  Do not allow your child to control a situation by using their emotions to get your attention.  Parents may become embarrassed when their child throws a tantrum, but it’s a normal part of toddler’s growth of their emotional knowledge.  Respect their emotions, but don’t give in.  Respond calmly- don’t threaten or punish your child for feeling strong emotions.  Instead, recognize their feelings, and help your child work through their emotions.  Tell your child what you would like for them to do.  Instead of saying “No, don’t throw the ball in the house!” say “I see you’re angry.  We throw balls outside.  Please go outside so you can throw it.”

Remove The Pressure – Accept & Listen

When a child is trying to tell you something, he may feel pressured to use words to say what he wants.  Parents can remove this pressure by accepting the means of communication their child is using.  Let your toddler point or gesture.  Using words can be hard for toddlers, so they should be encouraged to communicate with others in a comfortable way.  Using gestures is still a good way for your child to get his point across, and gestures can be combined with sounds for emphasis.  If your child is trying to use words, you may hear approximations, distorted or shortened words.  This is expected for toddlers, and parents should encourage the use of approximations even though they may be difficult to understand.

Give your toddler time to get his message across.  Slow down the pace of the interaction, and continue the conversation in an un-hurried way.  If your child is attempting to use words, make sure you take time to truly listen to what your child is saying.

Model How You Want Them To Talk

You may hear a lot of “No, no, NO!” from your toddler, especially when you’re trying to help them and figure out what they want!  Toddlers may not have the words to ask for a favorite toy, a snack, or to go to the bathroom.  In order to help your child and avoid a potentially exasperating situation, model the way you would like your child to ask for things during play or daily routines.  Saying “my turn” while pointing at your chest may encourage your child to point to his chest when he wants something.  You can say “I want cereal.  Do you want cereal?”  Then, help your child ask appropriately, modeling “I want…”  If your child is using approximations, encourage them to keep talking by taking your child’s approximations and modeling the correct way to say it.  For example, if you child says “doo,” parents can reply “Oh, you want juice!”  If your child says “doe ow-sigh” while pointing to the door, model “Go outside!  I see you pointing.”

Provide Choices

Toddlers are developing independence and may become upset if they feel like they’re being ordered around.  You may be able to “trick” your toddler into thinking they are in charge of a situation by offering them choices.  Asking the question “What do you want for breakfast?” may result in an answer like “Cupcakes!” or simply no response if your child doesn’t have the vocabulary to answer you with what he wants.  Instead, phrase your question as a choice, saying “Do you want cereal or eggs for breakfast?”  This allows your child to still feel in control, while ensuring they will make an appropriate suggestion and avoid frustration.

Offer an Alternative Activity

If your child’s tantrum becomes out of control, take a break from the activity or reason for the communication breakdown.  Remove your child from the situation and remain close to them, in case they attempt to communicate with you.  Try going for a walk, eating a snack, or sitting quietly together.

Toddlers expect their parents to know exactly what they want at all times, and sometimes parents do!  Avoid situations in which you know your child may be primed for a communication breakdown.  For example, if you schedule a doctor’s appointment during your child’s typical nap time, you’ll likely experience an emotion-laden toddler who is difficult to communicate with.
These tips may help parents keep their cool while helping their child through a communication-related tantrum.  If parents find that they are unable to understand their toddler’s verbalizations of their wants and needs more than 50% of the time, a licensed speech-language pathologist (SLP) may be able to help!  SLPs can help parents learn strategies to make communicating with toddlers easier, and ultimately less frustrating. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s speech or language development, contact the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center at 216-231-8787.



Developing Social Skills in Young Children

Social skills are the ways we use our language skills in social situations. Social communication is important in developing effective interpersonal skills and is critical to various aspects of our daily life. Social skills are important in childhood and adulthood. What is the relationship between social skills and speech-language skills/disorders?

Navigating social interactions is one of the most complex tasks in which human beings participate. Social communication involves many psychological systems, such as visual and auditory perception, receptive and expressive language and problem-solving skills. These systems develop throughout childhood into adulthood and are influenced by our personality (nature) and the environment and interactions around us (nurture). When these systems do not function properly, social exchanges may not go smoothly. For example, a child with a language deficit affecting social communication may not be able to understand or respond to verbal or nonverbal social cues such as when to end a conversation or how to change topics during discussion.

There are many different types of social skills deficits. Some examples include children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), who tend to have deficits in understanding another person’s perspectives. Many individuals with ASD do indeed desire social involvement; however, these individuals typically lack the necessary skills to interact effectively. Children with the hyperactive and impulsive subtypes of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) tend to have poor impulse control and social problem-solving skills. Socially anxious children are overly cautious, in part due to fears of what others will think of their actions, which may result in avoiding social situations.

Research presented at the 2007 meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development by a team of Michigan State University researchers indicate that a child’s social skills at age 3 could predict his or her future social and academic performance. Important social skills in early childhood include emerging abilities to manage feelings and behaviors, recognize social cues from others and engage in positive interactions with peers.

Young children who experience problems with social-behavioral adjustment often have co-existing deficits in early language and literacy skills. These deficits may compound the challenges they face and place prospects for success in school and in positive social relationships at risk (Bos, Coleman, & Vaughn, 2002; Hinshaw, 1992; Kaiser, Car, Hancock, & Foster, 2002; McGee, Prior, Williams, Smart, & Sanson, 2002; Tomblin, Zhang, Buckwalter, & Catts, 2000).

What do social skills include?

Social skills include:

  • using eye contact
  • greeting others
  • taking turns in conversations
  • starting and ending conversations appropriately, not abruptly
  • staying on topic or appropriately changing topics
  • using the correct tone of voice for the situation
  • using the appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures
  • sending the message as it was meant (e.g., was it a joke or a request or a way to disagree)

How are social skills evaluated?

Evaluating a child’s social skills is best done by observing a child in a variety of contexts or having the caregiver report about their skills, as well as some formalized testing and checklists. A speech-language pathologist (SLP) will observe a child during a speech-language assessment and record his/her responses. These responses are then reviewed and analyzed for accuracy and appropriateness of each of the skills listed above. The SLP may also ask the parent to complete a checklist of skills the child has demonstrated or to describe difficulties the child has when interacting with others.

How are social skills disorders treated?
Social skills disorders are best treated in a group setting to provide a variety of partners and situations to practice learned skills. Our groups provide direct instruction through a variety of teaching techniques that include modeling, role-play activities, coaching and games. Group lessons address specific goals identified for the group members, such as paying attention to others, holding a conversation, understanding turn-taking, interviewing, problem solving of daily issues, compromise and self-evaluation. A successful group includes plans for generalization and maintenance of newly learned skills outside the training environment. We use group activities to create opportunities to practice real-life skills, and homework is assigned to increase the generalization of skills beyond the group session. Parents and teachers should be involved to ensure carryover of skills to natural settings.

Social skills options at Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center (CHSC)

CHSC is able to design a social skills group based on a client’s age and skill set.  Please contact Barbara Choudhury at (216) 325-7532 or Linda Lange at (216) 325-7531 for more information.