The Happiest Toddler on the Block: Tame the Tantrums and Raise a More Respectful Child


Dr. Harvey Karp


Taming toddler tantrums. You want help? This is r-e-a-l help! The Happiest Toddler is one of the smartest parenting books of the past decade. Over and over, parents will proclaim, Thanks, Dr. Karp! Now I get it!


Kyle Pruett, MD, Professor, Child Study Center , Yale University School of Medicine


We all know toddlers are a delight, but they can also run us ragged with their combative and uncooperative behavior. It is no exaggeration to say that young children are primitive and uncivilized. They wipe their noses with their arms, bite when they are mad, pee in their pants, and hate to wait in line. In fact, in an odd way, our tots often act more like little cavemen than little children! No wonder the toddler in the Flintstones was named Bam Bam.


Over the past 100 years, popular ideas about handling toddler misbehaviors have changed quite a bit. Parents used to whack defiant tots (spare the rod and spoil the child) or lock them in closets or put Tabasco on their tongues (hot saucing).


Then, about 50 years ago, a movement began to teach parents a kinder way to respond to their children's whining and outbursts (active listening). Books like PET - Parent Effectiveness Training and How to Talk so Kids Listen, and Listen so Kids Talk showed parents how to respectfully listen and calm their child's complaining with reason and caring.


Unfortunately however, while active listening works well with older kids it's often a flop with toddlers. Toddlers usually meet their parent's (or,doctor's) compassionate words with blood-curdling cries…flattening us like a steamroller.


Through my decades of working with young children, I gradually began to realize that traditional communication techniques usually failed with toddlers because of how the words are said! In general, parents who are dealing with their little one's tears and tantrums use too calm a voice and too many words. Literally, and figuratively, we speak over their heads.


It turns out that all people (adults and kids) get more primitive when we get upset - that is why we say, "he got so mad, he went ape!" But toddlers start out primitive and when they get upset they go absolutely prehistoric.


So, what does all this mean for parents and care givers? It means that toddlers have only a primitive ability to understand language and control their emotions; and they get even more primitive when upset. This means that parents shouldn't think of themselves so much as the boss or the buddy of their toddler, but more like ambassadors; emissaries from the 21st Century to the Neanderthal people.


And, as ambassadors, it is our job to master the two most basic skills of diplomacy:
1) How to speak with respect, despite being frustrated or angry (what I call the "fast food" rule).
2) How to translate your words into the native language of the people you're working with - in young children, that's something I call toddler-ese.


Now, let's look at these two skills:


The Fast Food Rule: When you give your order in at a fast food restaurant, what does the order taker say back to you? Does she say, "That's $5 please."


No! Order takers are trained to always repeat back your order, before getting to their agenda - the price. The "fast food" rule (which works with adults as well as with toddlers) simply states that whoever is most upset - the person hungriest for attention - has his or her feelings acknowledged first, before the other person gets to their agenda of distraction, explanation, or reassurance.


The Secrets to Speaking "Toddler-ese": You can translate anything you want to say into a young child's native language just by following 3 simple steps: 1) Use short phrases, 2) Repeat what you say many times, and 3) Mirroring back her level of emotion (be dramatic, but don't have a tantrum yourself!).


Here's how Terri, mother of a three-year-old little caveman, 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 daily 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, lovingly, but passionately, repeating his words and almost matching his feelings, with a broken record kind of repetition. Billy is mad, mad, MAD!!!! He's angrrrrrrrry!!! Billy says, No, no, no! NO!!! I don't like it!!.


If I stop too soon, he starts crying again, and I restart the "toddler-ese. "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, Billy's tantrum would last two to three minutes. Now, although he still needs two to three minutes of attention when he's upset, as soon as I start mirroring his feelings in "toddler-ese" he usually stops the tantrum right away!"


These steps may sound a bit bizarre to you or like they would require a lot of effort, but with a little practice they will actually save you tons of time and aggravation. In my experience, by translating their message of caring, attention and love into the "fast food" rule and "toddler-ese", most parents are quickly able to settle their upset toddler's eruption in minutes or less in 50-90 percent of the time!


"Dr. Karp's excellent approach gives parents the tools they need. His methods make raising rambunctious toddlers a whole lot easier." Steven Shelov, MD, editor-in-chief, American Academy of Pediatrics' Caring for Your Baby and Young Child.


Harvey Karp, MD has been a pediatrician and child development expert for more than 25 years. He is author of the highly acclaimed books and DVDs, The Happiest Baby on the Block: The new way to calm crying and help your baby sleep longer and The Happiest Toddler on the Block: The new way to stop the daily battle of wills and raise a secure and well-behaved 1- to 4-year-old .


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