Communicating with your little Bam Bam
I have seen my daughter’s temper. And I am afraid.
OK, a bit of an exaggeration. But she’s now in toddler territory, and the sweet little baby who had been content to sit and play is now exploring, grabbing and testing the boundaries of her physical abilities — as well as my emotional ones.
So, I called Dr. Harvey Karp, creator of The Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD and book (as well as The Happiest Baby on the Block which laid out the “5 s’s” strategy for calming babies) about communicating with a toddler in a tantrum. (And in this respect, he defines a toddler ranging from 8 months to 5 years).
In The Happiest Baby, the central idea for parents to remember is that the first three months of your newborn’s life should be considered the “fourth trimester.” You can best soothe the baby by mimicking the environment that he or she was in — your uterus. (For more about those techniques, go to his Web site).
So the central idea for calming your toddler?
“Our toddlers are not so much small children as they are little cavemen,” said Karp, an M.D. and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Children are born uncivilized. They spit and scratch, they pee wherever they want, they don’t say please or thank you.”
And so in teaching your child, you need to remember that they are primitive human beings and you cannot communicate with them in a way that’s too mature. Their left brains — centers for language and logic — are less developed than their right brains — centers for emotion, impulse and musicality, he said.
You need more than just words. You need to include your tone of voice, the look on your face and body gestures to communicate with them. You also need to acknowledge their emotions before you can get them to hear your message.
So how do you speak what Dr. Karp calls “toddlerese?”
1. Use short phrases.
2. Use lots of repetition.
3. Mirror some of their emotion back at them.
Example: Your daughter grabs for some scissors to play with. You take them away and she throws a tantrum.
Here’s what he counsels you do and say:
“You want, you want! You want scissors! Now! You want scissors!” You’re talking with some excitement in your voice, the pitch is higher, maybe your hands are moving around. Then, you can say in a more normal tone “But we can’t let you have that because you could cut yourself.”
(Check out this clip on his site to see a version of this in practice.)
Feels silly, sure. But consider this.
Think about how we interact as adults, Karp said. If we’re really upset and talk to someone about it, we don’t want that person to respond with a completely calm, clinical tone. That seems like the person isn’t acknowledging our feelings and just doesn’t get it, he said.
At the same time, we don’t want someone to react in an overly excited manner to our pain or frustration. If they express as much anguish as we do, it seems a little off.
Rather, everyone has this “sweet spot” where we want the listener to respond with about 30 percent of the emotion that we’re sending out, he said.
So… With a toddler sending out a lot of emotion? You need to let them know you acknowledge their feelings by mirroring some of their emotion back.
He also notes that we instinctively respond with short sentences, repetition and mirroring when we are in a happy situation with a child. Say your child goes down a slide for the first time, he said. What do we do?
We yell, “You did it! You did it! Good job, good job! Wow look at you!” So, it’s not like we feel foolish in those kinds of situations, right?
While that’s an important technique, that’s only part of his strategy for parenting toddlers. (Others that he discusses are “gossiping,” the “fast food rule” and something intriguingly called “Playing the boob.” Hmm.) He also advises getting the DVD first, so you can see the technique. You can get the book afterwards to learn more about it.
But if you see someone in public talking excitedly to a crying toddler in nonsensical short phrases, cut me some slack. Better a couple seconds of strange mama than several minutes of screaming toddler, no?
How about you? Have any success trying this technique? Let us know!
Written by Helen Jung, posted on January 12, 2009, at blog.oregonlive.com