Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Parenting

Font Size

Got Tantrums? Try Talking Like a Toddler

Pediatrician and author Harvey Karp, MD, has a surprising way of calming a tantrum: acknowledging feelings and talking "toddlerese."
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Does this scenario sound familiar? I recently took my kids to the science museum. In the cafeteria, my 3-year-old son, Adrian, changed his mind about his lunch order after we'd already gotten our food. When I told him it was too late to get the chicken nuggets instead of the hot dog, he threw himself on the floor, wailing at the top of his lungs. With what felt like hundreds of eyes on me, I hauled a screaming toddler, a lunch tray, a baby stroller, and a 5-year-old through the checkout line.

I asked parenting guru Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block/The Happiest Toddler on the Block book and DVD series, how I should have managed the meltdown.

The prefrontal cortex, which helps control emotion, doesn't start to mature until around age 4.

Or, as Karp reminded me, toddlers are like cave people. "When they get upset, they go Jurassic on you. They spit and scream and scratch and throw things." To reach that prehistoric toddler, Karp has two key rules: the Fast Food Rule and the Toddlerese Rule.

"The Fast Food Rule says that whenever you're speaking with someone who is upset, they get to go first, and you acknowledge their feelings before doing anything else," Karp says.

Karp's Toddlerese

How do you do that? Use "toddlerese," which involves talking to your screaming, sobbing toddler in his own language: lots of repetition of short phrases that mirror his feelings -- with body language and facial expressions to match.

Instead of calmly telling Adrian, "I'm sorry, honey, but you told Mommy you wanted the hot dog," I should have said: "You say no! You say no! You want chicken nuggets! No hot dog! No hot dog! Your face is really sad! You're on the floor!"

After they look at you and calm down (and they will, Karp promises), that's the cue to switch to your own agenda. "But nooo, no chicken now. Hot dog now. Hot dog now."

It's almost never too soon to start with this approach, Karp says. "Even a 1-year-old will respond to it. By acknowledging their feelings and speaking their language, you can help them be more cooperative, respectful, and attentive."

Preventing Tantrums

What's better than defusing tantrums? Try what Karp  calls "feeding the meter": taking a few minutes periodically throughout the day to devote uninterrupted attention to your toddler. Some of Karp's favorite coins for your meter:

Stick to it. No need for anything extravagant. A sticker on her forehead will do (and make her giggle). Or you can put a checkmark on your child's hand with a washable marker every time he does some small, good thing. "Check!" you declare. At bedtime, count your child's checkmarks and talk about what a great day he's had.

Be a gossip. Let your child "catch" you praising him to someone else (in a loud stage whisper). Everyone loves praise, but it's even more gratifying to overhear your achievements being heralded to someone else.

Reviewed on June 07, 2011

Today on WebMD

Girl holding up card with BMI written
Is your child at a healthy weight?
toddler climbing
What happens in your child’s second year.
 
father and son with laundry basket
Get your kids to help around the house.
boy frowning at brocolli
Tips for dealing with mealtime mayhem
 
mother and daughter talking
Tool
child brushing his teeth
Slideshow
 
Sipping hot tea
Slideshow
Young woman holding lip at dentists office
Video
 
6-Week Challenges
Want to know more?
Chill Out and Charge Up Challenge – How to help your tribe de-stress and energize.
Spark Change Challenge - Ready for a healthy change? Get some major motivation.
I have read and agreed to WebMD's Privacy Policy.
Enter cell phone number
- -
Entering your cell phone number and pressing submit indicates you agree to receive text messages from WebMD related to this challenge. WebMD is utilizing a 3rd party vendor, CellTrust, to provide the messages. You can opt out at any time.
Standard text rates apply
Which Vaccines Do Adults Need
Article
rl with friends
fitSlideshow
 
tissue box
Quiz
Child with adhd
Slideshow