My two-and-a-half year old communicates very well, and we talk constantly about things he sees, or what he's feeling, or just about his toys. However, when he uses longer sentences or words that are newer to him, I occasionally have trouble understanding what he's saying. In these cases, I'll usually cheerfully respond with something to the effect of, "what was that, sweetheart?" but then he acts embarrassed and either shakes his head or says something like, "why are you saying that!" (referring to himself, presumably) before running off to play with his toys.

Is this common with children who are learning to communicate more complex ideas? How can I help him feel more confident in his communication, and specifically, how can I help him feel empowered to try out new words and sentences without feeling embarrassed?

  • 2
    Welcome to Parenting.SE :) I found that (depending on what the toddler's talking about) it was OK to just nod and smile and say "wow" or "yeah" even when it was unclear what was being discussed. Pronunciation and complete grammar come with time, and as that developed I encouraged it by being cheerfully interested even when I wasn't sure what was being said. (Seems fair since I'm sure there were times I tried to explain things using words my kids weren't able to parse yet.)
    – Acire
    Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 11:43
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    @Erica My kids are a bit too smart for that, fortunately/unfortunately. If I nod/agree with something I don't understand, they keep going in a direction I am completely lost in, and I end up agreeing to take them for ice cream without knowing it...
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 17:34

2 Answers 2


My 27 month old makes me think I'm losing my hearing sometimes, between his higher-pitched (and thus less easily understood) voice, and his obviously imperfect enunciation. I'm totally with you on this one.

What I do is try to avoid saying "what", or other "I didn't understand you" type phrases. They are understandably frustrating. I know a family member who is hard of hearing, and it's extraordinarily frustrating to him when he has to say that all the time; the reverse is true alos.

Instead, I try as hard as I can to say something in context. This only works if I understood a bit of what he was talking about, of course, or it's obvious from our surroundings; but if it's not the first thing he's said to me, I probably have something to go with. Here's an example from yesterday walking home from daycare.

(conversing as we walk by a sidewalk under construction)

Daddy, why sidewalk ..... ..... ..... ?

J, are you asking why we're not walking on the sidewalk?

Daddy, why sidewalk ..... ..... shun?

Oh, you're asking why the sidewalk is under construction.


Well, they wanted to make it a new sidewalk, because the old one was, well, old, and it wasn't bumpy like the new ones, so it isn't as safe for people with wheelchairs.


The sidewalk is bumpy so you don't fall when it gets slippery, particularly if you have a wheelchair and have to go up it.

(points) New sidewalk.

Yep, this is new sidewalk, and that's what it will look like later when it's done.

So in the first question, I asked him if he was asking . That not only told him I was paying attention (very important!) but gave me some clues when the second garbled message came through - because he emphasized certain sounds, namely the ones I got wrong; here, "construction" (which he of course can't say properly, but "shun" comes through clear enough when he tries).

Then the second time we had a bit of confusion, I'm not sure if I guessed right, or if I just redirected him from something else - and that's life with a toddler, really; but either way making a guess like that can be less frustrating to the child than saying 'What was that?'. It directs the attention away from "you didn't speak clearly enough" to "I'm talking to you, even if Daddy is a bit silly sometimes and doesn't get it right".

This doesn't always work perfectly, of course, when he's expressing a desire for something - if I guess wrong a few times it gets frustrating - but that's unavoidable, and most of the time I guess right within a few guesses.

  • I'll need to make a concerted effort to keep from saying "what" for a while (just like most things in parenting, I guess), but I've been giving it a go and so far, it seems to be helping. Thanks! Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 18:59
  • Yep. I have to do the same (and don't always succeed).
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 19:00

This is common among the toddlers. Even if it is complex idea, then also they will try to communicate it with the words they know and for the first time they will express it with more patience and excitement. If we ask them to repeat it again, then they will feel like frustrated and embarrassed, so don't try to ask them twice instead give them a smile for whatever they say. As a parent I can understand your concern that you need to improve their communication skills and build self confidence. Here are few ways you can try:

Positive two-way communication is very important here, to build self confidence in toddlers.

1) Be patient and listen to your toddler attentively what he is trying to say

2) Give him sufficient time to finish off the words he wanna say

3) Praise him for whatever he do - this will help to boost his self confidence and enables them to feel worthy and loved and also motivates him to learn new things

4) Find the right time and take your child with affection and try to correct their mistakes by explaining them with examples of normal conversations.

Here you can find more effective ways to encourage and build self confidence in your toddler http://www.momjunction.com/articles/ways-to-build-confidence-in-toddlers_00352038/. Hope this helps you.

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