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 peoplenever listen."
The Fast-Food Rule is the best way to talk to anyupset person: Before saying what you think, repeatwhat he said — with sincerity. If you skip the Fast-Food Rule, your irate friend maynot be able to listen to you. When your child is upset, it helps to translate whatyou say to him into Toddler-ese (his native language). Toddler-ese has four characteristics: very shortphrases, repetition, emphasis, and gesturing.
How Do You Say Thatin Toddler-ese?Communication ThatReally Works!
Toddler-ese takes some practice-but it will help yoube a better, and happier, parent. You are about to learn a new and highly effective way to defuse yourtoddler's outbursts with love and respect. It's based on understandinghow his prehistoric mind works.
First, let's start with a little quiz. Which best describes your toddler'smind?
1. A neatly manicured park 2. A rolling green meadow3. A jungle If you answered (3) "A jungle," you're absolutely right! Toddlersare sweet and fun, but they're also wild and disorganized. This is especiallytrue when your child gets upset (angry, frustrated, hurt, etc.).As ambassador to your little jungle pal, your job will be much easieronce you learn to speak his language (complete with grunts, gestures,and short, primitive phrases)! Becoming fluent in his languageis nothing less than your ticket to a fun, wonderful relationship. Butbefore being trained in Toddler-ese, you must first master the number-one law of speaking with anyone who is upset-the Fast-FoodRule!
Okay, I know that burgers and fries are not very prehistoric. But Ihope that this funny name will help you remember this importantconcept forever! Once you've learned it, I'll show you how to translatethe Fast-Food technique into Toddler-ese. Together they will beyour miracle potion for quickly calming your toddler.
The Fast-Food Rule: The Golden Rule of CommunicationIn conversations you have to take turns-andwhoever is most upset goes first! — Karp's rule of communication
The Fast-Food Rule is simple: Before you tell an upset personyour concerns, you must repeat back his-with total sincerity. It isa very simple rule and once you master it, you'll be able to makethe person you're listening to feel understood, respected, and caredabout.
Here's how it works (and why my patients named it the Fast-FoodRule):
The Fast-Food Rule, Step 1: REPEAT the message you hearBurger joints have their problems, but they do one thing incrediblywell: taking customers' orders.
Imagine you're at the drive-through. A voice crackles over aspeaker, "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 whatyou want. So, what she actually says is, "Okay, that's a burger andfries. Ketchup? Salt? Something to drink?" Only after she is sure she'sgot 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 startwith one involving adults, before moving on to its application totoddlers.
You are terribly upset because you lost a purse. You're frantic becauseit contained important papers you've been working on for twoweeks, and you're afraid that when your boss finds out, he'll fire you.Weeping, you begin telling a friend what happened, but your friendcuts you off and wraps you in a big warm hug, saying, "It's okay! It'sokay! 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 whathappened to me yesterday?"
How would you feel? Although she only wanted to ease your pain,her reaction probably made you feel interrupted, disrespected, andeven more upset!
A much better response would have been for your friend to listencarefully, every once in a while letting you know she understoodyour feelings, before offering her solution or distraction.
Let's replay the conversation and imagine how you would feel ifshe 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 thissomehow." "You know I'm always here for you. What can I do to help? Can I giveyou a hug? Hey, did I tell you what happened yesterday? This may cheeryou up a little …"When you're upset, you want your friend to listen and care! Ofcourse, suggestions can be great, but they're not what most of uswant first. The best communicators show they truly understandsomeone's feelings before expecting that person to be able to heartheir advice. They don't want to be like the waitress telling customershow much they owe-before they've even finished givingtheir order!
Do You Ever Get to Give Your Message First?
Most of the time crying toddlers are so upset they need us to dealwith their messages first before telling them what we have to say.But you can skip the Fast-Food Rule and proceed immediately toyour 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 someonewho is really upset is less important than how you say it! Just parrotingback a friend's complaints, with a blank face and a flat tone ofvoice, will make her feel even worse, no matter how accurately yourepeat her words! That's why this second step of the Fast-Food Ruleis so critical.
Using the Fast-Food Rule with Toddlers
When talking to upset children many of us are so impatient, wewould never make it as an order-taker at Busy Burger. We interrupttheir cries and complaints with comments like "Be quiet" or "Stopthat" or "Don't be a baby." And on and on and on. We think our busy schedule or our desire to make our kids feelbetter gives us the right to stop them in the middle of their turn! Wedon't mean to be rude and disrespectful. But that's exactly the messagewe 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 unhappyfriend 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 yourfriend for tea and sympathy. Which one of these two responseswould make you feel really cared about?
Reasoning: "See honey? There are no monsters in yourcloset." Minimizing feelings: "Oh, come on, it's not so bad. Thatdidn'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 theirplace-but not until it's your turn!! Farmers must plow before planting,and parents need to patiently reflect their toddler's feelings beforegetting 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 showingthem respect via the Fast-Food Rule are by rushing in to use distractionand 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 anew building over there." You'd probably soon decide to switch doctors.Upset toddlers also hate it when we answer their protests with irrelevantdistractions. However, they don't have the option of switchingmoms, so instead they either become more defiant (to make youlisten to their message) or more quiet and shy (thinking you reallydon't care how they feel).
Why "It's Okay" Isn't Okay
"Putting a lid on a boiling pot doesn't stop theboiling."— Stephanie Marston, The Magic of EncouragementIt's natural to want to soothe your crying child, but interrupting himto say, "It's okay" (over and over again) may accidentally backfire. Hemay think you're saying that he's wrong to feel upset or that you nolonger want to hear about his feelings. So save your loving reassurancefor after your child starts calming down-when he really is beginningto feel "okay."
Monica was preparing a snack for 20-month-oldSuzette. On the plate was her daughter's favorite-aface made out of grapes, little cubes of mozzarellacheese, and crackers.
As a surprise,Monica decided to be even morecreative than usual. Instead of whole crackers for thebody, she broke them into strips to make arms andlegs. Suzette reacted as if she had just been forced towatch Friday the Thirteenth-pure horror! Monica skipped the Fast-Food Rule, and insteadtried 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! Suddenlysnack time disintegrated into chaos, with Monicasaying, "It's okay. It's okay," and Suzette wailing as if tosay, "No! It's NOT okay! It's NOT okay!"
I sometimes think of the Fast-Food Rule as a rescue mission. Yourtoddler is stuck deep in the jungle of his Stone Age emotions. Theonly way you can rescue him is by finding him in his jungle. And theonly way to find him is by mirroring his feelings.Now that you understand the Fast-Food Rule, you need to do onemore thing to make it work perfectly with your toddler. You have tolearn 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 differentlanguage. She suddenly needs a bathroom. She stops someoneon the street and politely, but urgently, asks, "Bathroom?" Theforeigner 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 neitherfeels heard. Even the most caring stranger would have trouble helping you if hedidn't speak your language. The same is true for caring parents. TheFast-Food Rule works best with toddlers when it's translated into theirnative tongue, as this loving mom found out one afternoon in my office:The moment I took out my flashlight to lookin Shannon's ears, the 23-month-old began tocry withworry. Her mom,Mary, responded witha respectful, calm voice, saying,"I know youdon't like it, sweetheart. You're afraid and thinkit's going to hurt, but the doctor will be gentle. It'simportant to know your ears are good so you don'tneed to take that yucky medicine again, okay? It'salmost 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 turnsstormy, you'll discover that regular talking is much less effectiveor 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 accuratelymirror 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 Flopwith Stone Age Toddlers
"What we have here is a failure to communicate." — Chain-gang warden to convictPaul Newman in Cool Hand Luke I am all for being caring and reasonable, but there are some goodreasons why logic, distraction, and even loving acknowledgmentoften fail to help irate little primitives, when they're in a frenzy.
Your toddler can't really "hear" you. All of us have more troubleseeing (and hearing) straight when we're upset. That'sespecially true for toddlers whose prehistoric brains don'thandle language well to begin with. Your toddler is not good at logic yet. Reasoning requires parts ofthe left brain that are still very disorganized in children underfour. 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 yourprehistoric pal to be reasonable and compromise when he'slivid. (He has a hard enough time being that way when he'shappy.) Your toddler thinks you didn't get his message. How could yourtoddler yell his complaint at you-twenty-five times-and stillthink you didn't get the message? As odd as it sounds, it'sprobably because you never answered him in his language!Usually, once you tell him in Toddler-ese that you understandand respect him, the badgering and whining quickly get better. Neanderthals are upset, our gentle words just sound like a jumble ofnoise. Poor Shannon! She was worried and scared and felt that evenher mom didn't understand her! So she yelled louder-like the touristwho 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 translateher 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 honoraryambassador to Toddlerland! I gradually mastered it by handlingtwenty 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 learnthan French, Chinese-or even pig latin. You may feel a bit selfconsciouswhen you start trying it out. But please stick with it, andwithin days your little time-traveler will look up at you with big appreciativeeyes, as if to say, "Hey, you understand me! Thanks, you'reawesome!" Here are the four simple steps for converting any messages intoToddler-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-tounderstandpieces that allow your toddler's stressed-out brain to realizeyou "get" his message. Repeat his words (or what you think hewould say if he could), but also use your tone of voice and gesturesto mirror his feelings. Remember, with upset toddlers, the way yousay something is a hundred times more important than the wordsyou use!
1. Short Phrases: "Brevity is the soul of wit."— William Shakespeare, Hamlet Imaginereadingasentencethatcontainednopunctuationorcapitalizationorevenanyspacesbetweenanyofitswordsitwouldbehardtounderstandwouldntit
Okay. You may have figured out what that sentence says, butwould you have had the patience to decode it after drinking a pot ofcoffee and spilling nail polish on the carpet?
When you're trying to communicate with a toddler who is upsetor crying, words are not your friends. Long sentences are tough foreven calm children to understand. They require lots of attentionfrom the left half of the brain, but that side totally falls apart the momentyour toddler enters Tantrumland. Toddler-ese breaks languageinto small phrases that little Cave-Kids can handle … even whenthey're in a frenzy.
Even when adults get upset, we seem to descend an evolutionaryelevator and turn into ranting cavemen (and women): "Ding! Goingdown!" All the clichés are true: We become blind with rage, out ofour minds with worry, and generally-go ape! ("I'm so sorry. I don'tknow what came over me.") Similarly, our frantic little Stone Agers become deaf to most of whatwe'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 shortphrases. For young toddlers, make them one to three words long. Forolder toddlers, you can stretch them to three to five words. (As I mentionedearlier, Toddler-ese is for unhappy, frustrated children. Onceyour toddler recovers, just return to your normal way of speaking.)Here's an example. Your bored 15-month-old child toddles over tothe front door, bangs on it, and screeches to go to the yard. Whetheryou intend to go out or not, the first thing you should do is reflect hismessage 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 andtry) again."— Adaptation of old saying
As you could see in the example above, repetition is a key part ofToddler-ese. "Bored!" is a short sentence, but by itself it's just notenough. Your frustrated toddler needs you to repeat it. "You arebored … bored … BORED! And you want OUT!!" If your child isscreaming because you took away the lipstick he was using as acrayon, passionately echo his feelings by saying, "You want! YOUwant!! 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 allstruggles. When your child must do something he hates or whenhe's hungry, sick, overstimulated, or overtired, he may get stuckin his tantrum for a while (and need you to try other skills, likeignoring and time-out, which are discussed in Chapter 11).But with a little practice, you'll find that tantrums can be defusedmost of the time. Clare, the Toddler-ese fluent mother ofGeorgia, said, "Of course, there are occasions when nothing workswith my two-year-old, like after the birth of her little brother, butmy 95 percent success rate is nothing short of amazing!"Even if you don't turn the situation around completely, yourtoddler's distress will lighten, and his behavior will grow less wildas a result of your loving, respectful Toddler-ese message.
NOWWWW!!" Notice the repetition, the short phrasing, and theway the sentence builds up to the final emphasized word. You shouldbe enthusiastic, but not to the point of shouting.Don't be surprised if it takes four or five repetitions before youeven begin to get your little buddy's attention! You'll know you'remaking progress when he suddenly looks up, as if he's thinking,What? Did you say sumptin'? But don't stop then. When he's reallyupset, you may need to repeat his feelings another five to tentimes before he realizes that you really "get it" and that you're onhis 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 wereolder: "Sophie says, 'No ears!! No, no … NO EARS!!! No, NO…NO EARS!!! You stop! You STOP!!!! I don't like it!' " This makesmany children relax, and those who continue resisting do so less vigorouslyeven though I'm still doing the thing they're upset about! When I'm finished, I show them my respect with more Toddler-eseFast-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 mysubmission and apology. Finally, when the child has begun to calmdown, 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 hismother, Ann, left on a table.When Ann snatchedthem away just in time, Jack burst into tears. Seeinghis distress, she instantly wanted to tell him thatscissors are dangerous, but she postponed thelecture and instead launched into a vigorous stream ofToddler-ese, saying, "You want… you want … youwant 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 offeran 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'reright! It's strange, but extremely effective! And, after you practiceToddler-ese a little, it will start feeling as natural as riding a bike. Sodon'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. Akey part of the Fast-Food Rule is to mirror someone's feelingsthrough your tone of voice. Of course, I don't recommend that youscream or shriek even if your toddler's doing it. Toddlers feel such intenseemotion that you won't always want to build up to their levelof intensity. But when your child is wailing, your voice should not becalm and measured … it should be emphatic!
The tone you choose carries your main message. When your toddleris upset, his brain may not recognize your words, but he will easilyunderstand your tone and gestures. Unfortunately, parents oftenpick the wrong tone. Rather than reflecting their little Neanderthal'spowerful emotions, they choose a soothing tone to try to nudge himinto feeling better.
A parent who is good at Toddler-ese always starts by mirroring herchild's level of intensity. She only softens her tone after he begins tocalm.
Silvia tried speaking Toddler-ese to her frustratedthree-year-old, but her singsong voice made Carlaeven madder! Silvia then realized that rather thanhonestly reflecting her daughter's feelings, she wasparodying them. She was trying to make Carla laughrather than make her feel heard and respected.
Amazingly, as soon as she changed her tone tosincerely match her toddler's level of upset, Carlaquieted in seconds!Imagine that your 26-month-old toddler is in the sandbox howlingbecause he tried to grab his friend's shovel, and she resisted andmoved away. Describe what happened using a frustrated tone ofvoice that matches what your toddler feels. Say with heartfelt empathyand respect for his irritation, "You're mad. You're mad. Mad.Mad. MAD!!!! You want Susie's shovel. You say, 'Give ME theshovel!! I WANT! I WANT! I want it NOOOOOW!!!!!!!!!!'" Is the Toddler-ese that is spoken to the youngest toddlers differentfrom that used for the oldest? Yes and no. Certainly a calmthree-year-old can handle longer sentences and less repetitionthan a one-year-old. However, the more upset a child gets, themore primitive he becomes. So during your child's meltdown,start by using the most simple-sounding Toddler-ese, no matterwhat the age of the child. Then as he calms, return to the moremature 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 untilyou're "blue in the face," it may be because you're making yourwords do all the work and forgetting to use your body language.Oops, big mistake! Just like your tone of voice, the gestures of yourbody and face carry more meaning than the string of syllables comingfrom your mouth. For upset toddlers, a gesture is truly worth athousand 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 yourface. Your grimaces, sighs, and clenched fists mean much more tohim than your words. That's why you shouldn't smile when sayingsomething serious to him. (Even if he's doing something cute.) Toddlersbelieve our nonverbal messages more than our words, so if yousmile 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 sitdown so you're just below his level. Gently touch his arm or sit rightnext to him. Let your face show your empathy. It can be like a bigbillboard saying, "I know exactly how you feel!" If you do accidentally smile, look away for a second to regain yourcomposure. Even bite your lip hard if you have to. Then turn to faceyour child again and, if he's a young toddler, say, "No, no!" with a littlelow growl. (To learn more about growling, see Chapter 11.) Ifyour 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 dosomething dangerous, like leaping off my exam table, Idon't just say,"Be careful, don't do that!" I put on ahorrified, alarmed look. Then I g-r-o-w-l my warningdeep in my throat while I wag my index finger at him,knit my eyebrows together, shake my head no, andturn my face of alarm into a serious scowl.
Many toddlers cry and thrash when they're upset. How do youmirror that back in Toddler-ese? Well, I don't recommend you getdown and kick and scream. You'll do fine if you passionately announcethe words you think your irate little Neanderthal might sayif he could. Here's how Terri, mother of a three-year-old Stone Ager namedBilly, describes putting Toddler-ese to work in her home:"Despite my initial embarrassment about lookingsilly, I have been using Toddler-ese to calm Billy'stantrums almost every day since I learned it sixmonths ago. Now I've gotten so good at it that I canquell most major meltdowns in seconds."His tantrums usually follow this pattern: He startsto 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 Irestart 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 butremains calm, that's my signal to go to the next stepand start distracting him or offering some solutions."Initially, his tantrums would last two to threeminutes. Now Billy still needs two to three minutes ofmy attention when he's upset, but as soon as I starttalking Toddler-ese, he usually stops the tantrum rightaway!"
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