If you are a parent, chances are you’ve heard of the book “Happiest Toddler on the Block” by pediatrician Harvey Karp. Last week, I was able to attend a parenting conference and sit in on a lecture where he gave some practical tips on how to raise happy and respectful kids, and I wanted to pass on some tips I thought may be useful to you. Today we’ll be tackling how to acknowledge your little one’s feelings during a tantrum (in the hopes of stopping said tantrum!), and next week we’ll discuss some secrets to keep good behavior momentum going!
Having a background in counseling psychology, I especially appreciated Dr. Karp’s emphasis on acknowledging and reflecting our kids emotions. This helps them know we understand their tender feelings and that they are valid (specially if those feelings are anger, sadness or frustration). This need to be understood is innate and does not only develop once we’ve learned to drive or have graduated high school – we need to feel understood during our earliest of years too. In fact, conveying our understanding for their feelings and in this way building an emotional connection with our sweet, little children is of the utmost importance during their formative years.
So just how do you help your toddler feel understood when s/ he is screaming and wailing…. And stop that screaming and wailing at the same time? According to Dr. Karp, it’s all about how you communicate your understanding. A funny thing happens to our brains when we are upset – in simple terms, the part that manages language and logic is overpowered by the part that processes how emotions are expressed. And thus, any attempts at explaining to your raging 3 year-old why they can’t have 2 cookies before dinner literally goes over his/her head. Instead, Dr. Karp suggests we try talking like a toddler to a toddler. Sounds silly (see the side notes throughout), but it may just work to stop your kiddo’s tantrum on the spot AND, more importantly in my opinion, help them feel understood by you when they’re upset. Here’s how to employ toddler-ese:
1. Short Phrases: Even when a toddler is composed, long-winded sentences and explanations tend to be difficult for them to understand. This is even more pronounced when your little one is upset and her emotions take over. Use short phrases, even just a few words, to paraphrase their wants and feelings. Here’s how you’d use it in the cookie example above: “You want cookies. Cookies! You want cookies, now! Cookies!….You’re mad, mad. Mad!. Ruby says “Cookies, now. now!” (Sidenote: Dr. Karp capitalizes the words I’ve underlined and italicized to show emphasis. I changed this so it doesn’t read as though you’re screaming to your little one, but just make sure you emphasize the words you use. I know, it reads kind of silly, but stick with it, it’s a quick technique to bring your toddler’s emotions down, after which you can begin talking normally again. )
2. Repetition: Your kiddo goes deaf when angry or upset, so give them several chances to hear what you’re saying. Note in the example above how many times the main point is repeated. Ruby will have several opportunities to notice that her parent understands that she wants cookies now and is mad she can’t have any. Remember this when you read the examples below- there’s a reason for sounding a bit like a parrot 😉
3. Mirror 1/3 of emotion: Using the same emotion when communicating with your little one lets her know that you understand what she is feeling, and this can in turn decrease the intensity of a tantrum (much like how you feel calmer after venting and being heard by a friend or therapist). For example, if your little one is sad, you should mirror sadness (not silliness or laughter). When reflecting their feelings, remember that only around 1/3 of the intensity should be matched, otherwise this could 1) hype them up more or 2) make them feel like they’re being mocked. Facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures go a long way in mirroring, so there’s no need to scream or throw yourself on the floor.
Here’s an example: Jack’s play date with a school friend is over, but Jack does not want to leave and begins to scream and cry. Jack’s mom begins toddler-ese by saying “Jack wants to stay! Stay and play! Play! You want to stay!” (note the short phrases and repetition). With a sad facial expression and hand gestures, his mom then mirrors his emotion and says “You are sad! Sad! You want to play, but mom says let’s go, Let’s go!”. When Jack pauses this crying to look at his mom, she tells Jack he can play with his favorite toy when they get home – she can also do/say something else that usually helps Jack calm down (here, you would do what works for your kiddo). Sidenote: if your little one is doing something dangerous or being aggressive (say, Jack began hitting his mom), don’t wait to acknowledge how they’re feeling, dangerous behavior should be stopped immediately)
Once you’ve gotten your little one’s attention and they’ve begun to calm down, you can return to your normal way of speaking. Dr. Karp emphasizes that you can then do what you normally do to help your kiddo continue to calm down, which may include: “See? It’s only a small owie”, “let’s go play with this toy instead”, or “It’s ok, I’m right here”. What Toddler-ese aims to do is to first validate and acknowledge your little sprout’s feelings, which has a powerful impact on the tantrum itself.
Sometimes nothing works to get our kids’ tantrums to stop and we just have to wait it out, and that’s ok. For those times that our little one just needs a little more understanding from us, we’ll have this technique in our parenting toolbox at the ready.
*The information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Please consult your healthcare provider before making any diet or treatment decisions.