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."

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 07, 2011
3 min read

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.