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Harvey Karp

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On Toddlers: Help! There's a Neanderthal in my kitchen!

Posted: 08/03/11 01:41 PM ET

Toddlers aren't big babies, or little adults. They're much more like...well... visitors from the Stone Age.

I know it sounds odd, but think about it for a second: they push, scratch, grunt, yank, wipe their noses on their arms and pee anywhere they want. Toddlers are certainly not born knowing how to say "please" and "thank you," those niceties of civilization are lessons it takes us years to teach them. It's no accident that a toddler in the Flintstones was named Bamm-Bamm!

In fact, our toddler's primitive nature is exactly why tantrums are totally normal and will always be a part of life with young children (8 months - 5 years). However, a new insight into how toddlers think is showing parents how to communicate these little cave-kids and tame toddler outbursts... fast.

Interested?

TALKING TO UPSET CAVE-TOTS: 2 COMMON BLOOPERS

During 30 years as a pediatrician, I've witnessed thousands of red-hot toddler meltdowns. And, time and again, parents make the same 2 mistakes that accidentally pour gasoline on the fire:

1) Immediately focus on solutions... rather than our child's feelings.
2) React to upsets too calmly (try to soothe by using a very calm tone of voice).

These may not sound like major faux pas, but here's why they often make upset tots go totally ballistic:

Immediately focusing on solutions... not feelings:

When you're upset, do you want your friends to immediately shower you with advice? Or, does it feel better if they first listen and sincerely acknowledge your pain/anger/disappointment/fear?

Smart suggestions are great, but when our emotions are raw the first thing we want -- whether you're 1-year old or 91 -- is genuine empathy.

Yet, all too often, loving parents totally skip the empathy and jump right into damage control, with a stream of reassurance, explanation and solutions. But, rushing to placate or distract, gives our kids the impression that we're either too busy to listen.... or don't understand... or don't care.

"Billy, it's OK, it's OK...it's OK!! Sweetheart, it's OK...he's a nice doggie. The doggie can't bite you; look, look! He's on a leash. Don't cry. Please don't cry!"

Actually, those words are fine, after Billy calms down. But when toddlers are in the midst of their little tidal waves of emotion, the first thing they need is to hear our honest, sincere acknowledgment of their struggle.

Reacting too calmly:

When an 18-month-old screams for a cookie before dinner, kind explanation of why cookies ruin appetites often ignite even more extreme screams.

Why?

Emotional upsets throw our brains off balance. The dial-down the civilized left half of the brain (the center of logic, patience and words) and dial-up the primitive right half (the center of emotions, impulse and non-verbal communication -- your tone of voice and face/hand gestures).

Even on a good day, our toddlers can act pretty uncivilized. But, this surge in their primitive right brain makes them even more impatient, impulsive and emotional. Meanwhile, the dialing down of their left-brains makes our explanations sound to them like we're just mumbling, "Blah, blah, blah..." No wonder, they feel like we totally missed the point.

"Why are you talking so calm? Don't you understand how BAD!!! I want a cookie? Let me tell you again...louder...and HARDER! I WANT A COOKIE!!!!!!!!!!!!"

When soothing an emotion-charged tot, the best way to show you really understand -- and care -- is to reflect a bit of your tot's emotional level with your tone of voice and gestures (communication that's easy for her right brain to understand). Kids feel most respected and cared about when we reflect 30-50% of their upset. (Mirroring 100% of the emotion can make your child feel intimidated or ridiculed.)

For example, before you start your little lecture on nutrition, try getting down on your 2-year-old's level, pointing to the cookies and, with a little bit of emotion in your voice, say, "Cookie! Cookie! You want a cookie! You want it now!! You want a cookie, now!"

This primitive type of communicating (using short, repetitive phrases and a bit of emotion) is called, Toddler-ese. It's makes it easy for a toddler's unbalanced brain to understand what we're saying, even when they're in the middle of a tantrum.

Does this sound a bit odd? Do you think it would feel unnatural to have to remember to first acknowledge feelings and use a bit of Toddler-ese?

Actually, most parents use Toddler-ese every day, and don't even realize it! We do it all the time when our kids are very... happy.

For example, your tot climbs to the top of the slide and is beaming at you with pride and satisfaction. Do you calmly say, "Good job sweetheart. You climbed all the way to the top"? Or, do you beam back some of his joy; applaud and chirp, "Yea! Yea! You did it! You did it! Wow! Wow!"?

Yup! We all do this when our kids are very happy. So, now, it's just a matter of also doing it when they're very unhappy.

It's hard to change our behavior, but here's the big payoff: When you correct these two bloopers, you'll find you can stop 50% of your child's tantrums in seconds... and boost your young child's feeling of being understood, respected and loved!

Give a try! (And, let me know how it goes..)

(For more tips on Toddler-ese and raising a healthy, happy 8-month to 5-year
old, visit www.happiestbaby.com or take a look at the DVD/book, The Happiest
Toddler on the Block.)