February 03, 2004
Dr. Harvey Karp is a board-certified pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics at UCLA School of Medicine and the author of the book and DVD The Happiest Toddler on the Block, in bookstores now. He offers advice on understanding your toddler and how to stop your child’s temper tantrum in seconds:
It helps to think of your toddler as sort of a caveman. With all their grunting and grabbing, toddlers often seem quite primitive. To communicate with them, you have to speak in a primitive and almost prehistoric type of language — Toddler-ese — with lots of gestures. It needs to be as energetic and dramatic as the child is being. To speak Toddler-ese, use:
Follow the Fast-Food Rule. This rule is simple: When your child is upset, you should take a lesson from the order-takers at a burger joint — always repeat back his "order" (what he wants) before you tell him your "price" (what you want). Toddlers who are in the middle of a meltdown are incapable of hearing our message (our reasons, reassurance, distraction or warning) until they're sure we understand and respect their message. So when your tot is upset, before you mention your ideas, take a minute to sincerely describe what he's doing and how you think he feels.
When using Toddler-ese and the Fast-Food Rule, children are much more reasonable because they feel respected and heard. Otherwise, they don't think we understand them.
Here's an example. Your bored 15-months-old child toddles over to the front door, bangs on it and screeches to go to the yard. Whether you intend to go out or not, the first thing you should do is reflect his message by energetically and lovingly saying, "Out! Out! Out!! You say, 'Go, Mommy, go, GO!!!'" Once your son calms a little, then you can go out with him or offer some options or a distraction.
If your child is screaming because you took away the lipstick he was using as a crayon, passionately echo his feelings by saying, "You want! YOU want!!! You want it nowwww!! You want! YOU want!! You want it nowwww!!" Notice the repetition, the short phrasing, and the way the sentence builds up to the final emphasized word. You should be energetic, but never shouting.
Don't be surprised if it takes four or five repetitions before you even begin to get your little buddy's attention! You'll know you're making progress when he suddenly looks up, as if he's thinking, What? Did you say sumptin'? But don't stop then. When he's really upset, you may need to repeat his feelings another five to 10 times before he realizes that you really "get it" and that you're on his side.