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.