Once children pass their first birthday, you enter tantrum territory…and one of the biggest mistakes parents make is responding to toddler tantrums with tactics designed for either little babies or big kids. Toddlers are neither! They’re more like cave kids who are still learning how to act in our modern world. The simple fact is that toddler tantrums require toddler solutions.
If you think of your child as a kind of primitive creature, you can think of your job as a parent like being an ambassador from the 21st Century to the Stone Age. Ambassadors connect with respect to build smooth working relationships. And, you can do this with your toddler by mastering two basic techniques: The Fast-Food Rule and Toddler-ese.
The Fast-Food Rule
When you hit up a fast-food drive-through, the person who is hungriest—the person who is ordering—gets to speak first. Likewise, the Fast-Food Rule says “whoever is hungriest for attention gets to talk first.”
This is the golden rule for speaking to anyone who’s upset. In this case, fuming toddlers get to express themselves first. Then, the Fast-Food Rule says that parents can respond to their furious tot not by offering a solution, but by simply repeating back their toddler’s own words—much like how someone working a drive-through repeats back your order.
Parents who respond to a tantrum by immediately voicing their adult views or offering a distraction are like impatient fast-food order-takers who jump right to their message (“You owe $10”) without repeating the order. Both kids and adults calm faster and feel most understood when their frustrations are acknowledged with respect.
However, for the Fast-Food Rule to work, you must repeat the message in a language your toddler understands…
You will be much more successful quieting your toddler’s tantrums once you begin translating your words into your tyke’s native lingo: Toddler-ese!
Our brains are divided into two halves: the quick-thinking right side that helps us recognize faces in seconds and make snappy decisions…and the more rational, order- and details-loving methodical left side of the brain. For adults, the left side is often at the helm, but for toddlers, the rowdy right side tends to take charge…and can totally take over when a toddler’s upset. To someone who is really emotional, what you say is almost meaningless if you don’t say it in the right way. That’s why you have trouble reaching a tantrummy toddler with well-intentioned words of reason (“Candy is for after dinner”)—you’re appealing to the logical left side, when the raucous right side is in the hot seat.
Fortunately, you can learn to speak Toddler-ese in three easy steps:
- Use short phrases. Too many words overwhelm an upset toddler’s brain. Stick to one- to three-word phrases till she calms (“Candy! Candy! You want candy!”).
- Repeat yourself…several times. You may need to say something five times before you get through to your upset child.
- Mirror your child’s emotions with your response. This is the most important part: As you respond to your toddler, reflect about one-third of their intensity with your tone, facial expressions, and body language.
You may feel strange speaking to your tyke like this at first, but believe it or not, you’re probably already using Toddler-ese without realizing it! For example, if your 2-year-old goes down the slide all by herself and is grinning with pride, would you feel weird smiling, applauding, and happily squealing “Yay!! Yay!! Good job!! You did it! You did it! Yay!”? That’s Toddler-ese, too!
Now try it at a time when your child is upset. To get more confident, it’s a good idea to practice this toddler technique on small outbursts a few times before you test it on a major eruption. But you may be amazed with the results! It’ll help your toddler feel respected, understood, and loved. Which are the best results in being an effective communicator and taming tantrums!
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Dr. Harvey Karp is a world-renowned pediatrician and child development expert. His celebrated Happiest Baby/Happiest Toddler books and videos have guided millions of parents and are translated into 30 languages. In 2016, Dr. Karp debuted SNOO Smart Sleeper, a new class of responsive infant bed designed to add 1-2 hours to a baby’s sleep, quickly soothe crying and to improve safety by preventing dangerous rolling. SNOO won the National Sleep Foundation Innovation of the Year award as well as 20 other top national and international honors. Medical studies are underway to evaluate SNOO’s potential to reduce postpartum depression, infant sleep death and to improve the care of infants withdrawing from opiates. Dr. Karp is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the AAP. He is an advocate for children’s environmental health and a board member of EWG, whose mission is to protect our nation’s public health and the environment.
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