I’ll never forget the moment I realized I had a toddler. I was at Whole Foods in Brooklyn, post-nap and post-snack, so seemingly with a good-to-go kid. We had strolled over to the market, located a cool 15 minutes from my apartment.
I just need a few incidentals, I thought. The lines are short, so I’ll be in and out.
At that exact moment, we walked past the Harvest Snaps. You see, they were on sale, so had a special display at the end of an aisle. They also happen to be one of my son’s favorite snacks.
He wigged out.
I immediately did all the wrong things to stop his tantrum. I caved and grabbed a bag (“might as well stock up,” I thought), but one bag wasn’t enough. He wanted to hold four. I opened the snack to distract him, pleading with him in my most soothing mommy-means-business voice. “Honey, you need to calm down. You just had a snack. It’s almost dinner. We’ll be out of here soon. I need you to calm down,” I reasoned. A minute later 50 percent of the Harvest Snaps were on the floor. (I cleaned them up, threw them in the base of my stroller, and headed for the checkout line, mortified.)
Then, I got on the phone with renowned pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, the Dr. Spock of our generation known not only for his Happiest Baby (and Toddler) book series but also for his recently launched SNOO bassinet. We discussed toddler tantrums—and my mistake in the grocery store—and he gave this advice: Practice toddler-ese.
What is toddler-ese? According to Karp, it’s the act of echoing your child’s upset feelings in the moment versus redirecting them (and their feelings) right away. It’s achieved by using short phrases and repetition, but also a tone that mirrors your child’s emotions when the tantrum occurs.
Let’s back up for a minute and discuss the wrong approach to a tantrum. Tantrums are unpredictable and there are a lot of things that can cause them, says Karp. “Sometimes, a toddler is overtired, over-hungry, overstimulated. They could also just be bored,” he explains. “Parents make this mistake in the moment: They try to calm their kid down by lovingly reflecting back their child’s feelings. They’ll say: ‘Sweetheart, I know you want the candy. We’re going to get you candy later. I need you to calm down. Sweetheart, sweetheart, calm down right now.’”
But here’s why that doesn’t work. “It’s a fundamentally flawed—and ultimately even damaging—approach to a child’s upset,” Karp explains. “Think about it this way: When you’re upset, you turn off your adult brain and become less logical, less reasonable and less patient. You become more like a toddler and your right brain kicks in, which relates more to the way you speak, not the words you speak.” In other words, saying something like: ‘Oh, that’s very upsetting. I too would be upset,’ feels patronizing versus a true acknowledgment of the emotions at play. “It becomes a case where there’s this enormous gap between what they’re doing and how you’re talking. That leads to more screaming,” Karp adds.
Enter toddler-ese. This is a technique where you basically narrate the tantrum, says Karp. “That child in the supermarket who wants the candy? You’d say, emphatically, ‘You want it now! You say, mine! You want it now! You say, mine!’ After repeating it eight or 12 times, he looks at you with those big eyes like, ‘Yes, you got my message.’ That’s when you step in with the ‘but’ or the distraction.”
In a lot of ways, it’s similar to how you respond when your toddler is happy. “When they’re not having a tantrum, you don’t apply a serious tone and say: ‘Oh, that’s very funny. I see you’re having a good time.’ You go, ‘Ahhh, that’s funny! You like that! You like that! That’s nice!’”
So, what happened when I put toddler-ese to the test with my own kid? It worked. I was in music class this time and my son did not want to get in the stroller to go home. So, I tried Karp’s approach:“You don’t want to get in the stroller! You don’t want to leave! Ugh, it’s the worst! I know! You’re sad!” I summoned up a voice that was bubbly and over-the-top (and a tiny bit embarrassing in front of other moms) instead of being scoldy and condescending. My son was surprised at first, then distracted, at which point I changed the focus:“Good listening! Now, let’s get you buckled up.” Yes, the tantrum still happened, but it was over in a minute or two.