March 5, 2004 -- In his new book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Dr. Harvey Karp explains that if you talk to your tantrum-prone toddler in what he calls "toddler-ese," the tantrums should stop.
Read an excerpt from The Happiest Toddler on the Block, which is also on video/DVD, by Dr. Harvey Karp.
You can also find more information on Dr. Karp's techniques at www.thehappiestbaby.com.
EXCERPTS: The Happiest Toddler on the Block,
"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."
The Fast-Food Rule is the best way to talk to any upset person: Before saying what you think, repeat what he said — with sincerity. If you skip the Fast-Food Rule, your irate friend may not be able to listen to you. When your child is upset, it helps to translate what you say to him into Toddler-ese (his native language). Toddler-ese has four characteristics: very short phrases, repetition, emphasis, and gesturing.
How Do You Say That in Toddler-ese? Communication That Really Works!
Toddler-ese takes some practice-but it will help you be a better, and happier, parent. You are about to learn a new and highly effective way to defuse your toddler's outbursts with love and respect. It's based on understanding how his prehistoric mind works.
First, let's start with a little quiz. Which best describes your toddler's mind?
1. A neatly manicured park 2. A rolling green meadow 3. A jungle If you answered (3) "A jungle," you're absolutely right! Toddlers are sweet and fun, but they're also wild and disorganized. This is especially true when your child gets upset (angry, frustrated, hurt, etc.). As ambassador to your little jungle pal, your job will be much easier once you learn to speak his language (complete with grunts, gestures, and short, primitive phrases)! Becoming fluent in his language is nothing less than your ticket to a fun, wonderful relationship. But before being trained in Toddler-ese, you must first master the number- one law of speaking with anyone who is upset-the Fast-Food Rule!
Okay, I know that burgers and fries are not very prehistoric. But I hope that this funny name will help you remember this important concept forever! Once you've learned it, I'll show you how to translate the Fast-Food technique into Toddler-ese. Together they will be your miracle potion for quickly calming your toddler.
The Fast-Food Rule: The Golden Rule of Communication In conversations you have to take turns-and whoever is most upset goes first! — Karp's rule of communication
The Fast-Food Rule is simple: Before you tell an upset person your concerns, you must repeat back his-with total sincerity. It is a very simple rule and once you master it, you'll be able to make the person you're listening to feel understood, respected, and cared about.
Here's how it works (and why my patients named it the Fast-Food Rule):
The Fast-Food Rule, Step 1: REPEAT the message you hear Burger joints have their problems, but they do one thing incredibly well: taking customers' orders.
Imagine you're at the drive-through. A voice crackles over a speaker, "Can I take your order?"
You reply, "I'd like a burger and fries."
What does the order-taker say back to you?
"What's the matter? Were you too lazy to cook tonight?"
"Do you realize how much fat is in that meal?" "That will be four dollars."
The answer is none of the above!
No. The first thing she does is repeat your order back to you!
She knows she can't do a thing until she totally understands what you want. So, what she actually says is, "Okay, that's a burger and fries. Ketchup? Salt? Something to drink?" Only after she is sure she's got it — and you know she's got it — does she finally "take her turn" and say, "That'll be four dollars. Please drive forward." Now let's apply this rule to a typical real-life situation. We'll start with one involving adults, before moving on to its application to toddlers.
You are terribly upset because you lost a purse. You're frantic because it contained important papers you've been working on for two weeks, and you're afraid that when your boss finds out, he'll fire you. Weeping, you begin telling a friend what happened, but your friend cuts you off and wraps you in a big warm hug, saying, "It's okay! It's okay! Don't worry, you can write another report. I love you no matter what you did. Hey, this will make you laugh; did I tell you what happened to me yesterday?"
How would you feel? Although she only wanted to ease your pain, her reaction probably made you feel interrupted, disrespected, and even more upset!
A much better response would have been for your friend to listen carefully, every once in a while letting you know she understood your feelings, before offering her solution or distraction.
Let's replay the conversation and imagine how you would feel if she had listened and reflected your feelings before giving her opinions:
"I went to a restaurant and left it on the seat!" "Oh, no!" "And my boss is so rude, I know he'll scream at me again."
"No wonder you're so upset." "Yes, I'd been working on that report for two weeks!" "Oh, no! All that effort!" "Thanks for giving me a shoulder to cry on. I'll get through this somehow." "You know I'm always here for you. What can I do to help? Can I give you a hug? Hey, did I tell you what happened yesterday? This may cheer you up a little …" When you're upset, you want your friend to listen and care! Of course, suggestions can be great, but they're not what most of us want first. The best communicators show they truly understand someone's feelings before expecting that person to be able to hear their advice. They don't want to be like the waitress telling customers how much they owe-before they've even finished giving their order!
Do You Ever Get to Give Your Message First?
Most of the time crying toddlers are so upset they need us to deal with their messages first before telling them what we have to say. But you can skip the Fast-Food Rule and proceed immediately to your message if your toddler is in danger, he is being aggressive (hitting or biting), or he is breaking an important household rule. In those cases, your message takes top priority.
The Fast-Food Rule, Part 2: Repeat the message sincerely, using your face, voice… and heart.
We're used to thinking that what we say is the key to good communication, but that's not always true. In fact, what you say to someone who is really upset is less important than how you say it! Just parroting back a friend's complaints, with a blank face and a flat tone of voice, will make her feel even worse, no matter how accurately you repeat her words! That's why this second step of the Fast-Food Rule is so critical.
Using the Fast-Food Rule with Toddlers
When talking to upset children many of us are so impatient, we would never make it as an order-taker at Busy Burger. We interrupt their cries and complaints with comments like "Be quiet" or "Stop that" or "Don't be a baby." And on and on and on. We think our busy schedule or our desire to make our kids feel better gives us the right to stop them in the middle of their turn! We don't mean to be rude and disrespectful. But that's exactly the message we send.
Here are some of the messages we often interrupt our toddlers' cries to give them:
The Fast-Food Rule works only when you give your unhappy friend your full attention and closely mirror her words, tone of voice, face and body gestures. Once again, imagine you were just fired and are meeting your friend for tea and sympathy. Which one of these two responses would make you feel really cared about?
Reasoning: "See honey? There are no monsters in your closet." Minimizing feelings: "Oh, come on, it's not so bad. That didn't hurt." Distracting: "Hey, let's look at this book." Ignoring: Turning your back and leaving. Questioning: "Why did he hit you?" Threatening: "Stop now, or you'll get a time-out." Reassuring: "Don't cry, it's okay. Daddy's right here." Please don't misunderstand me: all of these responses have their place-but not until it's your turn!! Farmers must plow before planting, and parents need to patiently reflect their toddler's feelings before getting to their own agenda. Oops! Some Parents Do the Right Thing at the Wrong Time
Two ways parents push their child's feelings aside instead of showing them respect via the Fast-Food Rule are by rushing in to use distraction and by being too quick to say, "It's okay." Let me explain.
Why Distraction Backfires
"It ain't over till it's over." — Yogi Berra, former New York Yankees star
Imagine if every time you tried to discuss your concerns with your doctor, she immediately pointed out the window, saying, "Look, there's a new building over there." You'd probably soon decide to switch doctors. Upset toddlers also hate it when we answer their protests with irrelevant distractions. However, they don't have the option of switching moms, so instead they either become more defiant (to make you listen to their message) or more quiet and shy (thinking you really don't care how they feel).
Why "It's Okay" Isn't Okay
"Putting a lid on a boiling pot doesn't stop the boiling." — Stephanie Marston, The Magic of Encouragement It's natural to want to soothe your crying child, but interrupting him to say, "It's okay" (over and over again) may accidentally backfire. He may think you're saying that he's wrong to feel upset or that you no longer want to hear about his feelings. So save your loving reassurance for after your child starts calming down-when he really is beginning to feel "okay."
Monica was preparing a snack for 20-month-old Suzette. On the plate was her daughter's favorite-a face made out of grapes, little cubes of mozzarella cheese, and crackers.
As a surprise,Monica decided to be even more creative than usual. Instead of whole crackers for the body, she broke them into strips to make arms and legs. Suzette reacted as if she had just been forced to watch Friday the Thirteenth-pure horror! Monica skipped the Fast-Food Rule, and instead tried to calm Suzette by repeating, "It's okay. It's okay," over and over-about twenty times.
What was her little Neanderthal's response to this "reassurance"? She screamed even louder! Suddenly snack time disintegrated into chaos, with Monica saying, "It's okay. It's okay," and Suzette wailing as if to say, "No! It's NOT okay! It's NOT okay!"
I sometimes think of the Fast-Food Rule as a rescue mission. Your toddler is stuck deep in the jungle of his Stone Age emotions. The only way you can rescue him is by finding him in his jungle. And the only way to find him is by mirroring his feelings. Now that you understand the Fast-Food Rule, you need to do one more thing to make it work perfectly with your toddler. You have to learn how to reflect your child's feelings back to him in his own language — an ancient lingo I call Toddler-ese.
Toddler-ese: Your Stone Age Friend's Native Tongue
Imagine that a woman is visiting a country whose people speak a different language. She suddenly needs a bathroom. She stops someone on the street and politely, but urgently, asks, "Bathroom?" The foreigner replies, "Wjoorkt," which means "I don't understand." "What?" the increasingly desperate woman says, and she loudly repeats, "Bathroom! BATHROOM!" The stranger, hurt by her tone, yells back, "Wjoorkt! Wjoorkt! WJOORKT!!!"
Pretty soon they're both red in the face with frustration! And neither feels heard. Even the most caring stranger would have trouble helping you if he didn't speak your language. The same is true for caring parents. The Fast-Food Rule works best with toddlers when it's translated into their native tongue, as this loving mom found out one afternoon in my office: The moment I took out my flashlight to look in Shannon's ears, the 23-month-old began to cry withworry. Her mom,Mary, responded with a respectful, calm voice, saying,"I know you don't like it, sweetheart. You're afraid and think it's going to hurt, but the doctor will be gentle. It's important to know your ears are good so you don't need to take that yucky medicine again, okay? It's almost over."
Do You Ever Get to Speak Normally?
You don't have to speak Toddler-ese to your child all the time. Usually you'll talk in your normal way. But when his mood turns stormy, you'll discover that regular talking is much less effective or even counterproductive.
So did Shannon calm down? NO! She yelled even louder! Why? Wasn't Mary using the Fast-Food Rule? Well, here's the problem. There were too many words, and the way Mary said them didn't accurately mirror her daughter's panic!
Angry, fearful toddlers quickly turn into intense, rigid Neanderthals. (That's even true for older kids-and for adults too!)
Why the Usual Parenting Tactics Often Flop with Stone Age Toddlers
"What we have here is a failure to communicate." — Chain-gang warden to convict Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke I am all for being caring and reasonable, but there are some good reasons why logic, distraction, and even loving acknowledgment often fail to help irate little primitives, when they're in a frenzy.
Your toddler can't really "hear" you. All of us have more trouble seeing (and hearing) straight when we're upset. That's especially true for toddlers whose prehistoric brains don't handle language well to begin with. Your toddler is not good at logic yet. Reasoning requires parts of the left brain that are still very disorganized in children under four. Your toddler is focused on what he wants-not what you want. Can you imagine your fuming toddler saying, "You're so right," or "I never thought of it that way before"? Don't expect your prehistoric pal to be reasonable and compromise when he's livid. (He has a hard enough time being that way when he's happy.) Your toddler thinks you didn't get his message. How could your toddler yell his complaint at you-twenty-five times-and still think you didn't get the message? As odd as it sounds, it's probably because you never answered him in his language! Usually, once you tell him in Toddler-ese that you understand and respect him, the badgering and whining quickly get better. Neanderthals are upset, our gentle words just sound like a jumble of noise. Poor Shannon! She was worried and scared and felt that even her mom didn't understand her! So she yelled louder-like the tourist who thought that screaming would help people understand her! How could Mary have better helped her frightened little daughter? What should she have said? Easy! All she needed to do was translate her loving words into Toddler-ese. But how do you do that?
The Four Ingredients of Toddler-ese
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
I first learned Toddler-ese in my office, where I serve as an honorary ambassador to Toddlerland! I gradually mastered it by handling twenty tantrums a day. Eventually, I could take most crying twoyear- olds and have them laughing and playful (or at least cooperative) in minutes.
Sound too good to be true? Actually, Toddler-ese is easier to learn than French, Chinese-or even pig latin. You may feel a bit selfconscious when you start trying it out. But please stick with it, and within days your little time-traveler will look up at you with big appreciative eyes, as if to say, "Hey, you understand me! Thanks, you're awesome!" Here are the four simple steps for converting any messages into Toddler-ese:
1. Short phrases 2. Repetition 3. Correct tone of voice 4. Facial expressions and body gestures
These four steps break your communication into small, easy-tounderstand pieces that allow your toddler's stressed-out brain to realize you "get" his message. Repeat his words (or what you think he would say if he could), but also use your tone of voice and gestures to mirror his feelings. Remember, with upset toddlers, the way you say something is a hundred times more important than the words you use!
1. Short Phrases: "Brevity is the soul of wit." — William Shakespeare, Hamlet Imaginereadingasentencethatcontainednopunctuationorcapitaliza tionorevenanyspacesbetweenanyofitswordsitwouldbehardtounder standwouldntit
Okay. You may have figured out what that sentence says, but would you have had the patience to decode it after drinking a pot of coffee and spilling nail polish on the carpet?
When you're trying to communicate with a toddler who is upset or crying, words are not your friends. Long sentences are tough for even calm children to understand. They require lots of attention from the left half of the brain, but that side totally falls apart the moment your toddler enters Tantrumland. Toddler-ese breaks language into small phrases that little Cave-Kids can handle … even when they're in a frenzy.
Even when adults get upset, we seem to descend an evolutionary elevator and turn into ranting cavemen (and women): "Ding! Going down!" All the clichés are true: We become blind with rage, out of our minds with worry, and generally-go ape! ("I'm so sorry. I don't know what came over me.") Similarly, our frantic little Stone Agers become deaf to most of what we're saying. Our words slide by them like water off a duck's back. So, the first step in speaking to an upset child is to use very short phrases. For young toddlers, make them one to three words long. For older toddlers, you can stretch them to three to five words. (As I mentioned earlier, Toddler-ese is for unhappy, frustrated children. Once your toddler recovers, just return to your normal way of speaking.) Here's an example. Your bored 15-month-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! OUT! You are bored . . . bored . . . BORED! And you want 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.
2. Repetition "If at first you don't succeed, try, try (and try and try) again." — Adaptation of old saying
As you could see in the example above, repetition is a key part of Toddler-ese. "Bored!" is a short sentence, but by itself it's just not enough. Your frustrated toddler needs you to repeat it. "You are bored … bored … BORED! And you want OUT!!" 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 Toddler-ese-It's Better Than Magic, It's Real! The Fast-Food Rule and Toddler-ese are not magic cures to all struggles. When your child must do something he hates or when he's hungry, sick, overstimulated, or overtired, he may get stuck in his tantrum for a while (and need you to try other skills, like ignoring and time-out, which are discussed in Chapter 11). But with a little practice, you'll find that tantrums can be defused most of the time. Clare, the Toddler-ese fluent mother of Georgia, said, "Of course, there are occasions when nothing works with my two-year-old, like after the birth of her little brother, but my 95 percent success rate is nothing short of amazing!" Even if you don't turn the situation around completely, your toddler's distress will lighten, and his behavior will grow less wild as a result of your loving, respectful Toddler-ese message.
NOWWWW!!" Notice the repetition, the short phrasing, and the way the sentence builds up to the final emphasized word. You should be enthusiastic, but not to the point of 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 ten times before he realizes that you really "get it" and that you're on his side.
For example, when I'm examining the ears of a crying two-yearold, I emphatically proclaim what I think she would say if she were older: "Sophie says, 'No ears!! No, no … NO EARS!!! No, NO… NO EARS!!! You stop! You STOP!!!! I don't like it!' " This makes many children relax, and those who continue resisting do so less vigorously even though I'm still doing the thing they're upset about! When I'm finished, I show them my respect with more Toddler-ese Fast-Food statements, "You say, 'No, no, NO!' YOU don't like that! YOU say, 'Don't touch me!' You say, 'Don't look!!' You're mad!!!" Then I retreat across the room with my head down to show my submission and apology. Finally, when the child has begun to calm down, I reassure him in more mature words and a happier voice, "Bye-bye! Bye-bye! It's all over, sweetheart. It's done, done, DONE! YEAAAA!!! You did a good job! Bye-bye! Bye-bye! You hold Mommy. I'll go far away."
Jack, 20 months of age, reached for scissors that his mother, Ann, left on a table.When Ann snatched them away just in time, Jack burst into tears. Seeing his distress, she instantly wanted to tell him that scissors are dangerous, but she postponed the lecture and instead launched into a vigorous stream of Toddler-ese, saying, "You want… you want … you want it NOW, NOW, NOWWWW!!!"Jack paused. Ann continued, "You want. YOU want! But NOOOO! No, no scissors! No scissors, Jack. No SCISSORS!!!!" Only when his tears slowed to a trickle did she offer an enthusiastic distraction. "Hey!! HEY!!!! LOOK!!!!!!! Here! BIG truck, Jack! BIG truck!! Let's play . . . truck!" If you're starting to feel like this is a strange way to speak, you're right! It's strange, but extremely effective! And, after you practice Toddler-ese a little, it will start feeling as natural as riding a bike. So don't give up! You're halfway there! 3. Correct Tone of Voice
"All the world's a stage." — William Shakespeare, As You Like It This next part of Toddler-ese requires you to be a little dramatic. A key part of the Fast-Food Rule is to mirror someone's feelings through your tone of voice. Of course, I don't recommend that you scream or shriek even if your toddler's doing it. Toddlers feel such intense emotion that you won't always want to build up to their level of intensity. But when your child is wailing, your voice should not be calm and measured … it should be emphatic!
The tone you choose carries your main message. When your toddler is upset, his brain may not recognize your words, but he will easily understand your tone and gestures. Unfortunately, parents often pick the wrong tone. Rather than reflecting their little Neanderthal's powerful emotions, they choose a soothing tone to try to nudge him into feeling better.
A parent who is good at Toddler-ese always starts by mirroring her child's level of intensity. She only softens her tone after he begins to calm.
Silvia tried speaking Toddler-ese to her frustrated three-year-old, but her singsong voice made Carla even madder! Silvia then realized that rather than honestly reflecting her daughter's feelings, she was parodying them. She was trying to make Carla laugh rather than make her feel heard and respected.
Amazingly, as soon as she changed her tone to sincerely match her toddler's level of upset, Carla quieted in seconds! Imagine that your 26-month-old toddler is in the sandbox howling because he tried to grab his friend's shovel, and she resisted and moved away. Describe what happened using a frustrated tone of voice that matches what your toddler feels. Say with heartfelt empathy and respect for his irritation, "You're mad. You're mad. Mad. Mad. MAD!!!! You want Susie's shovel. You say, 'Give ME the shovel!! I WANT! I WANT! I want it NOOOOOW!!!!!!!!!!'" Is the Toddler-ese that is spoken to the youngest toddlers different from that used for the oldest? Yes and no. Certainly a calm three-year-old can handle longer sentences and less repetition than a one-year-old. However, the more upset a child gets, the more primitive he becomes. So during your child's meltdown, start by using the most simple-sounding Toddler-ese, no matter what the age of the child. Then as he calms, return to the more mature language he usually understands.
4. Facial Expressions and Body Gestures
"One picture is worth a thousand words." — Fred Barnard, "Printer's Ink," 1927
If you feel like you're talking to your little toddler Cave-Kid until you're "blue in the face," it may be because you're making your words do all the work and forgetting to use your body language. Oops, big mistake! Just like your tone of voice, the gestures of your body and face carry more meaning than the string of syllables coming from your mouth. For upset toddlers, a gesture is truly worth a thousand words.
Kids listen to our faces more than our words.
Make your tone and words consistent.
By one year of age, your child is already an expert at reading your face. Your grimaces, sighs, and clenched fists mean much more to him than your words. That's why you shouldn't smile when saying something serious to him. (Even if he's doing something cute.) Toddlers believe our nonverbal messages more than our words, so if you smile when you say something serious, your little Neanderthal will "listen to your face" and ignore your request!
Practice using your face and body to show your interest and respect. Nod your head, lower your face with humility, and kneel or sit down so you're just below his level. Gently touch his arm or sit right next to him. Let your face show your empathy. It can be like a big billboard saying, "I know exactly how you feel!" If you do accidentally smile, look away for a second to regain your composure. Even bite your lip hard if you have to. Then turn to face your child again and, if he's a young toddler, say, "No, no!" with a little low growl. (To learn more about growling, see Chapter 11.) If your toddler is older, say something like, "I know my face was smiling, but I'm not smiling inside."
When one of my young patients is about to do something dangerous, like leaping off my exam table, I don't just say,"Be careful, don't do that!" I put on a horrified, alarmed look. Then I g-r-o-w-l my warning deep in my throat while I wag my index finger at him, knit my eyebrows together, shake my head no, and turn my face of alarm into a serious scowl.
Many toddlers cry and thrash when they're upset. How do you mirror that back in Toddler-ese? Well, I don't recommend you get down and kick and scream. You'll do fine if you passionately announce the words you think your irate little Neanderthal might say if he could. Here's how Terri, mother of a three-year-old Stone Ager named Billy, describes putting Toddler-ese to work in her home: "Despite my initial embarrassment about looking silly, I have been using Toddler-ese to calm Billy's tantrums almost every day since I learned it six months ago. Now I've gotten so good at it that I can quell most major meltdowns in seconds. "His tantrums usually follow this pattern: He starts to scream and cry at the top of his lungs. I jump in, almost matching his feelings with words and emotions. If I stop talking too soon, he starts crying again, and I restart the Toddler-ese. 'Billy is still mad, mad,MAD!!!! He's ANGRRRRRRRY!!!' Billy says, 'No, no, no … NO!!!' If he stops screaming and looks puzzled but remains calm, that's my signal to go to the next step and start distracting him or offering some solutions. "Initially, his tantrums would last two to three minutes. Now Billy still needs two to three minutes of my attention when he's upset, but as soon as I start talking Toddler-ese, he usually stops the tantrum right away!"
Excerpted from The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp.
Find out more about Dr. Karp's techniques on his Web site, www.thehappiestbaby.com