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How to Interpret a Toddler's Nonverbal Behavior

by Tamara Runzel, studioD

Your toddler might seem like he’s growing and developing at an amazing rate, but he might still find some areas a challenge. While all kids develop at their own rate, most toddlers go through some period where verbal communication is limited. During this time, your toddler relies on nonverbal behavior, which is sometimes difficult to interpret. Learning what his nonverbal behavior means will help avoid tantrums later.

Watch your toddler’s facial expressions. Is she frowning, smiling, grimacing? All of those faces mean something. If she’s frowning, she might be unsure of something or unhappy. A smile means she’s excited or pleased. Grimacing might mean she’s uncomfortable.

Pay attention to your toddler’s proximity to an object and his reaction. If he’s backing away from an object or person, he is unsure of himself or uncomfortable. If he’s moving toward an object, he probably wants that object.

Notice her gestures. Watch where she points or to what she points. Does she reach up to indicate she wants you? Does she shake her head "no" or nod it for “yes"?

Watch for tantrums and try to figure out what causes the fit. While tantrums aren’t always acceptable, they are a toddler’s way of communicating displeasure. You can figure a lot out from paying attention to the cause and avoid another tantrum in the future.

Pay attention to his eyes. Notice what he is looking at or where he is looking to figure out what he wants.

Offer choices if your toddler understands the difference between shaking her head “no” and nodding “yes.” Choose two lunch choices and hold one up at a time to ask which one she wants. You can do the same with toys or clothes.

Encourage your little one to build his verbal communication by talking to him frequently. Describe what you’re doing as you help him get dressed, eat or pick up his toys. Point out objects in books, at home or on walks.

Teach your little one sign language so she is better able to express herself even if it is nonverbally.

Put pictures of different items up around the house and refer to them often so your toddler begins to see what you’re talking about. Use labels on toy cubbies so he knows where to put toys away and learns the words.

About the Author

Tamara Runzel has been writing military, parenting, family and relationship articles since 2008. Runzel started in television news, followed by education before deciding to be a stay at home mom. Her articles have appeared in military publications as well as numerous online publications. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communication from University of the Pacific.

Photo Credits

  • Amos Morgan/Photodisc/Getty Images