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.

Understanding your symptoms and behaviours

By understanding your mental illness, you will be more familiar with how it affects your emotions, behaviours and moods. Emotions, behaviours and moods affect how you view yourself and how others view you. They also affect your relationships, including with your child.

When you are unwell, it is important to be aware of how your symptoms can influence your behaviour, facial expressions and tone of voice. These are the changes that will be noticed by your toddler or young child.

The first important step is to reflect on the symptoms you experience and the behaviours your child sees and hears. Then consider how your symptoms and behaviours could affect the way your toddler or young child feels. COPMI's factsheet 'Communicating with your toddler or young child when you have a mental illness' has a useful reflective exercise to help. It can be helpful to do this activity with a partner, friend or health professional. You can also do the activity on your own.

 

Understanding what your toddler or young child notices and experiences

Woman reads to toddler

Although a toddler or young child may be still be developing their understanding of what you say, they will be very sensitive and responsive to your emotions and to the tone of your voice. Toddlers and young children are very perceptive and can detect even the smallest change in their parents’ behaviour or body language (despite a parent trying to ‘hide’ any change).

 

You might notice that when you are struggling with your moods and emotions, your child’s responses may also change. Your child may be reacting to behaviours or situations they do not understand. They may need help to manage and name their feelings.

 

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

  • What could your toddler or young child see in your face?
  • What could you say to them?
  • What could they hear in the tone of your voice?
  • How might they have processed this?
  • Which of your behaviours might worry your toddler or young child?
  • What have you noticed about their reaction?

Communicating with your toddler or young child to support a nurturing connection

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

Quick tips for communicating and connecting with your toddler or young child:

 

  • Let your child know using simple language that you are not well and it is not their job to worry as you are taking steps to get better.
  • If you are not feeling well and your child is distressed, try to manage your own feelings before trying to comfort them. Use a calm voice, gentle facial expressions and slowly lower your body to be with them.
  • Sit quietly and have a cuddle, read a story or sing a song. If you do not have the energy to sing, listen to music together or just snuggle.
  • Start to link words to feelings. If you are feeling irritable, reassure your child by saying Mummy/Daddy is grumpy/angry right now. You are not making me angry. It is just how I am feeling and I can see that this is making you sad.
You might start a conversation about your mental illness with:
 
"I know I used my angry voice. I want you to know I am not angry with you. I can see it makes you sad/frightened when I use my angry voice. I will try to use my quiet voice when I am talking to you."
 
or
 
"Mummy/Daddy is unwell and that is why they are tired and sleep at lot. I do not like feeling this way, but I do like to spend time with you. Can we do something quietly together?"

 

Tips to remember

  • Toddlers and young children communicate feelings, frustration and their need for attention with their behaviour.
  • Toddlers and young children need to trust that you can respond to their needs in a calm and positive way.
  • Encourage your toddler or young child to use words to express their feelings. For example, "I can see you are looking sad. Are you feeling sad?" or"I can hear you using your angry voice. Are you feeling cross/frustrated?"
  • Spend time with your child each day.Plan ahead if you know you will not have a lot of energy. Tell stories, read a book, listen to children's music or play in the sand.
  • Although discussions might be short, their meaning is important. Small conversations can build on your child’s and your family’s shared understanding over time.
  • Your child needs to know that they have not caused you to be unwell, it is not their fault and that you are taking steps to get well.
 
Consider grandparents, other family members or good friends. Have a conversation with these people. Tell them about the information you have given your child and the information you would like them to share with your child. Also tell them if there is any information that you do not want to be shared with your child.
 
 

 

Download a one-page fact sheet of this information

Other age groups below:

By understanding your mental illness, you will be more familiar with how it affects your emotions, behaviours and moods. Emotions, behaviours and moods affect how you view yourself and how others view you. They also affect your relationships, including with your child.

When you are unwell, it is important to be aware of how your symptoms can influence your behaviour, facial expressions and tone of voice. These are the changes that will be noticed by your toddler or young child.

The first important step is to reflect on the symptoms you experience and the behaviours your child sees and hears. Then consider how your symptoms and behaviours could affect the way your toddler or young child feels. It can be helpful to do this activity with a partner, friend or health professional.

Videos for young people

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