Recently the New York Times added a new word to its lexicon: covidivorce. Though the portmanteau makes for a funny meme, the reality of lockdown is that it can put serious pain and strain on relationships! You’re feeling trapped indoors…juggling a dozen tasks and chores…on top of having sick relatives, a global pandemic unfolding outside, and all sorts of stress about finances and the future. 

In other words, you are totally normal if you snap because your partner lets the dishes pile up in the sink, leaves towels on the bathroom floor, or is eating pretzels with an open mouth and just making too much noise. 

So, what’s the best way to smooth tension during quarantine and back away from your own personal Defcon 1?

Wait for it….treat your partner like a toddler.

Yes, you read that right.

Much like toddlers, adults get agitated and irritable and drop a few levels of self-control when we are stressed (read: bored, exhausted, worried, overburdened, etc). All of this brings out the exaggerated reactions—even wild, illogical and uncivilized ones. It's the equivalent of using an Instagram filter that distorts us into a whiney, pouty, shout-y toddler-like versions of ourselves.

It’s all normal, but it can definitely put one on the rough road towards a covidivorce. With that in mind, here are some toddler-tested tips that can work magic for all the grownups living under your roof! 

The Fast-Food Rule

The Fast-Food Rule is one of the most basic laws of good communication during times of high emotion. Ordinarily, the simple rule that guides our conversations is “turn-taking.” We go back and forth, in taking roughly even turns.  But when emotions run high, the world’s best communicators know that whoever is most upset (hungriest for attention) automatically gets to talk first—and gets a turn that is 2-4 times longer than normal conversation. (Kind of like how at a fast-food restaurant, the waiter always repeats your order, making sure they understand what you are saying before getting to their agenda…how much you have to pay.)

But that is just the first part of this universally effective golden rule. The second part has to do with the way you speak. And, it is even more important than the first part!

Speak Your Upset Partner’s Language

The second part of the Fast Food Rule is that when you acknowledge what your partner is feeling, you do it in a very specific way! (Scientists have shown that the way you speak to someone who is upset is more important and comforting than what you say.) 

This is where the idea of speaking to toddlers comes in: 

With toddlers, you may have noticed that you use a little more emotion when acknowledging their feelings. You don’t flatly say, “Did you enjoy breakfast?” you sing-song it and use repetition, like “Mmmm yummy! That was yummy, right?” That is what makes them feel heard and loved.

I began to notice that when I echoed a bit of the child’s upset feelings back—speaking in what I call Toddler-ese—I could often transform their sobs to smiles in minutes! And, upset adults aren’t so different. When we express an emotion to one another in a genuine way using empathic facial gestures and tone of voice, whether it’s fear, anger, or sadness, it helps us feel heard and understood. 

For example, if you’re really ticked-off, it’s probably not going to make you feel better if your partner responds to you in an overly upbeat or flat tone. It might feel cold, uncaring…or even condescending! Instead, you want to try to mirror a bit of the other person’s tone, expressions, or gestures. 

Agitated people are terrible listeners. Big emotions, like anger and fear, turn our open minds into closed doors. But once we express our feelings—and they’re acknowledged—our minds swing back open and we can again pay attention to the good suggestions from the people we love. 

And, here are two more easy tips to use in between the daily upsets to help you build your patience and help you and your partner feed each other with little snacks of love and respect.

Try “Magic Breathing”

When tensions run high don’t forget to…breathe! When we are stressed, frightened, or in pain, we tend to tighten up and hold our breath, which can amp up our anxiety. But just a few slow breaths can help restore a sense of peace—that’s why I encourage parents to teach their tots what I call Magic Breathing, a self-soothing skill they can employ when they feel themselves getting upset. 

Of course, you can use it when you’re upset…but, it works best when you allow yourself to enjoy a few moments of this type of serenity and practice at least a couple of times each day. Here’s how: Sit in a comfy chair, uncross your legs, put your hands in your lap, drop your shoulders, and relax the tiny muscles around your mouth and eyes. Slowly inhale through your nose feeling the cool air enter for a few seconds. Then, exhale slowly, about twice as long as your breathing in (exhale slowly, but don’t hold your breath). 

Feed Your Partner’s Meter With a Time In

Where “time outs” discipline bad behavior, time ins reward good behavior—and in this case, they can remind a couple why and how much they love each other!

For toddlers, my favorite time ins are attention, praise, and play…all of which can be adapted for grownups! The best part about time ins for busy parents, is that they are fast and easy to work into your day. Adult time-in can be as simple as giving your partner a hug or small compliment. Or, a bit more investment, like giving a 10-minute massage, spending 5 minutes cuddling, offering a snack or cup of tea or glass of wine, or simply just show them that you’re listening to them when they talk! 

What you want to do is show your partner that what they’re doing is important and that you really care!

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.