Do You Speak Toddler-ese?

A few months ago, my sister convinced me to go see a live telecast given by Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and writer of “The Happiest Toddler on the Block”. My sister is a school psychologist and a fan of Dr. Karp, so I agreed to listen to what he had to say.

Karp discussed many things during the telecast but “toddler-ese” (a concept that is generating a lot of press lately) was my big takeaway and the thing I was most interested in trying out with my own child.

Basically, toddler-ese means mirroring a toddler’s tantrum back at them (matching about 30% of their intensity) so that your child knows you hear and understand them. It is not meant to be patronizing— rather a deliberate way of getting down to your child’s level in an effort to communicate with them more effectively.

This was a big departure for me, because whenever Mazzy gets upset (particularly about something I deem ridiculous— like the kind of cup she is using or not wanting to brush her teeth, for instance), my instinct is to talk in a quiet, even-keeled tone that shows her there is no need to get worked up about something so trivial. My theory was that if I downplayed her outburst, she would begin to understand the appropriate reaction to something small.

Well, that never really works, as most of us know.

Karp says that toddlers need to feel heard and understood. Often the escalation of a tantrum is brought upon by a feeling that their caretaker isn’t taking them seriously and therefore, must not understand the problem. So even if you are not going to give your child the cookie they desperately want, you need to repeat their request and vocalize why not getting it is so upsetting to them, all in an elevated tone that lets your child know you appreciate the stress of the situation.

It may seem silly but not getting a cookie IS the end of the world to a toddler.

Instead of calmly addressing your child with a rational argument like “Sorry, sweetie but it’s too late to have a cookie right now”, try speaking in a voice that partially mirrors your child’s level of distress while explaining what your child is feeling.  “You’re mad because you can’t have a cookie! I wish I could eat cookies all the time too! But it’s bedtime soon and you don’t want a tummy ache before bed! I know! It feels really unfair!”

If you’ve watched the most recent video of Karp demonstrating toddler-ese, he also flails his arms and talks in babyish phrases similar to a toddler in the midst of a tantrum. I don’t believe you need to go that far to be effective. Or maybe, I’m just not willing to go there. (UPDATE: My sister made the point that my daughter has very good verbal skills for a two-year-old, so that is why it isn’t necessary for me to talk in total gibberish.)

Still, I have been using my version of toddler-ese for about two months and although it doesn’t have the power to stop every tantrum, it has made a big difference.

The main thing I have noticed is that when I mirror back my two-year-old’s level of distress, she immediately stops crying/screaming and listens to what I have to say. It is very apparent to me that she appreciates me trying to relate to her issue instead of telling her it’s no reason to get upset— even if she ultimately doesn’t get what she wants.

It may seem weird at first (I know it annoys the crap out of my husband) but try it for yourself before you judge Karp’s methods.

One excellent point Karp made in the telecast was that we instinctively speak toddler-ese every time our child does something positive. For instance, if he/she climbs to top of the big slide in the playground for the first time, we clap our hands together, paste a big smile on our face, and squeal, “YOU DID IT!!!! You climbed to the top of the slide! That’s so great!”

If that isn’t talking like a toddler and risking sounding ridiculous, I don’t know what is. But in that moment, most parents feel it’s very important for their toddler to understand that they are proud of them and excited by their progress.

What better way to quickly communicate pride than speaking in a childish tone with language your kid can easily comprehend?

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