Tot Tips (8m-5y): Part 1 – Help! There’s a Neanderthal in My Kitchen!

by Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP

I love toddlers! Just for the record, when I say toddlers, I don’t just mean 2-year-olds. This wacky, willful time starts at eight months — when infants are almost ready to “toddle” — and stretches all the way to 5 years. But — and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this — at times they can really push our buttons!

The key to toddler success is realizing that our pint-sized partners are really sweet, adorable little primitives!

I hope you don’t think I’m being disrespectful, but let’s face it: they walk like cavemen, talk like cavemen, drink from the doggie bowl, and pee anywhere they want. And, when upset, they go “ape!” (No wonder the littlest Flintstone was named “Bamm-Bamm!”) In fact, a big part of a parent’s job is to civilize our lovable little Neanderthals: to teach them to control impulses, say “please” and “thank you,” to share toys, and take turns.

Unfortunately, many parents talk to their toddlers with a vocabulary and tone of voice that may be fitting for a business associate, but is way too mature for a tantrum-throwing toddler. Try to see the world through your child’s eyes. Once you “get” why toddlers feel like cavemen, it starts to make sense why they feel like losers so much of the time.

Losers? Let me explain…

It’s Tough for Toddlers

We all know how tough it is to raise a toddler, but did you ever stop to think how tough it is to be a toddler? Toddlers lose all day long. They’re weaker, slower, can’t speak as well, can’t reach as high, and have less influence than everyone else. No wonder they grin ear to ear when they stamp in puddles, show off their biceps, or scare you with a loud “Boo!”

Smart parents take time every day to make their kids feel like winners by doing things like giving choices, soliciting help with chores, and letting them win at pillow fights.

Another reason kids 8 months old to 5 years old struggle is because they are experiencing an explosive rush of brain development. Toddlers literally have twice as many nerve-to-nerve hook-ups zipping around inside their brains than older children. This thick jungle of connections creates chaos, like everyone calling you on the phone at the same time! No wonder they “blow a fuse” when they’re tired, hungry, frustrated, or angry.

Besides feeling like caveman, constant losers, and as if they’re on neuro-overload, there are two more huge struggles challenging our toddlers every day:

1. Our world feels totally weird to them.
2. Their brains are immature.

Toddlers experience our houses as a weird mix of boredom and over-stimulation. On the one hand, the air is breezeless, our walls and floors monotonously flat, and there are few nooks and crannies to explore. (Think Tarzan living in a studio apartment!) Yet, our homes also hype up our little kids with ‘in your face’ videos, TV, and games.

Too many toddlers today suffer from NDD (Nature Deficit Syndrome). They desperately miss the sensations of nature (cool shadows, fresh breezes, grass under their toes, birds chirping, and rolling down hills). Even hyperactive 1 year olds turn into little angels when they’re allowed to run around outside with other kids for 8 hours a day.

What’s Going On in Toddlers’ Brains?

On top of all this, perhaps the biggest challenge for toddlers is brain immaturity. Our poor little kids are trying to play poker without a full deck.

We all have two halves of the brain, right and left. The left handles logic, patience, and verbal language (the words we say). The right is in charge of emotionality, place/face memory, and non-verbal language (tone of voice, face/body gesture). Adults spend lots of time in the left half, but any guess which is strongest in toddlers?

Now, toddlers aren’t great with talking and patience, but their brain’s right half is super-well developed. That’s why your 9-month old can read your face and voice and figure out if you’re scared or sad. And, of course her emotional outburst center works just dandy.

Interestingly our brains change when we get upset. The more we feel sad, frustrated, or afraid, we dial down our amazing left brains and we get less and less logical, eloquent, and patient. In fact, we have a term for this primitive response to high emotion: we call it “going ape!” Now, even on a good day, our toddlers have uncivilized left brains — and act kind of “ape.” But, when upset, their left-brains shut off so much they can go Jurassic on us!

The Fast Food Rule and Toddler-ese

I hope these ideas open your mind to a couple of new — and much more effective — right-brain ways to communicate with your uncivilized little friend. These core Happiest Toddler concepts are: the Fast Food Rule and Toddler-ese. The Fast Food Rule states that when two people are talking, whoever is most upset gets to speak first and her feelings must be acknowledged before the second person gets to “vent.” That’s why trying to “explain” to someone whose left brain is shut off why they shouldn’t feel the way they do almost always ends up with both people getting more upset! And, the more upset we get the more our ability to be sympathetic and reasonable falls apart. No wonder, anger often leads us into spirals of yelling and feeling uncared for and misunderstood.

Fortunately, however, even upset people still pay attention to our non-verbal, right brain language. That is why you can help your toddler calm faster by using the right-brain type language I call toddler-ese.

Toddler-ese is a variation of normal speech designed to work perfectly with a toddler’s left-right brain imbalance. It uses three simple steps:

1. Short phrases
2. Lots of repetition
3. Increased nonverbal cues (body gestures, facial expression, and tone of voice that reflect about 1/3 of your child’s emotional energy)

I hope that this new way of thinking helps you see the world from your toddler’s special point of view and understand his unique struggles.

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"Dedicated to the generous hearts of all parents and to our sweet children who enter the world with such trust."

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