Talking to toddlers and pre-schoolers

Toddler listening to dad talking gently

Toddlers and pre-schoolers use their parent’s faces and tone of voice, along with their increasing understanding of language to make sense of their experiences.

Your toddler's level of understanding

At this stage of development, toddlers and pre-school children rely on their parents to respond to their need to explore, or provide comfort and care - and will notice obvious changes in your behaviour.

When they’re exploring or playing they will look to their parents for cues about whether things are safe and whether they should continue exploring. Small children take cues from their parent’s facial expressions and tone of voice. They are also starting to link feelings with words like ‘sad’, ‘sleepy’, ‘cranky’ etc. From these cues, they’ll make choices and try to understand what they are experiencing.

A toddler's signals and behaviours can be easily misunderstood if they are trying to please you or are acting in a way that’s distressing. In fact, this is when they may be reacting to behaviours or situations they don’t understand and need help to manage their feelings. It may be that they have noticed behavioural changes (such as a change from happy to irritable) and they often feel somehow responsible for this. They might also become upset or irritable if you don't respond to them in a way that they expect.

Thinking about your symptoms

Woman reads to toddlerWhere you're unwell, it's important to be aware of how your symptoms (which can influence your behaviour, facial expressions and tone-of-voice) affect your child.

To help you reflect on this, consider the following questions:

  • What might your toddler or pre-schooler see in your face and feel in your interactions when you experience a particular symptom of your mental illness?
  • What might they hear in your tone of voice?
  • What might they understand in the language you use?
  • What obvious changes in your behaviour might they notice?
  • How might your behaviour affect how they choose to communicate their needs?
  • How might your symptoms interfere with your ability to understand your child?
  • If they look to you for cues about their surroundings, what message will they get from you?

Communicating when you're unwell 

I am slowly explaining to my children what has happened.

Today I went to my psychologist. My son asked where I was going. I told him to the psychologist. He asked what that was. I told him it was like a talking doctor… best explanation I could think of for a three year old.
Mandy, a mum with mental illness

It can help to do the following:

  • Let them know in simple language that you’re not well and it’s not their job to worry because you’re taking steps to get better.
  • Use stories to help them understand things happening around them. They are starting to link words with feelings and will understand when you say that mum or dad 'have the sad sickness' and are 'seeing the doctor to get help'.
  • If you are feeling irritable, reassure your child by saying something like 'Mummy/Daddy is angry right now, but it's nothing you have done'.
  • When you talk about your illness or how you are feeling, use a calm voice and a gentle facial expression.
  • If you are not feeling well and your child is distressed, try managing your own feelings before trying to offer them comfort.
    • If you are finding it difficult coping with your childs needs, try finding someone you trust to be with them while you take a break. You might need to relax, call the parent helpline in your state or do something else you know works for you.
  • If you have to leave your child, it can be distressing for them so reassure them by telling them, 'Mummy isn’t feeling well and is going to get some help, but I'll be back on (appropriate date)'.
  • If you are feeling a strain in the relationship with your child or finding it hard to feel love for them, speak to a health worker. In this situation, it’s important you persist to get the support you need. Your relationship with your child can improve with the right help.

Download a one-page fact sheet of this information

Other age groups below:

Videos for young people

Young people explain to others what mental illness is and how to understand symptoms a parent may experience.