Tag Archives: Fast Food Rule

Why Telling Your Child “It’s OK” Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)



In a few months I will be doing another lecture on managing difficult toddler behaviors, and I can’t wait.  I love teaching parents, therapists and caregivers how to help young children manage their most difficult behaviors.   The responses that most therapists dread (crying, whining, tantrums, etc.) are the ones I hope will happen in a session with a parent.  Why?  So I can demonstrate and explain how to handle these tricky moments.  How you respond to your child can do more than help you get them into the car and back home.  It can teach them how to deal with their feelings and how to communicate them to other people.

When faced with a crying child, telling them “IT’s O.K.” right away seems to be the most natural response in the world.  For one thing, it is usually the truth; you can clean up the broken cookie and get another, their bump is a minor scratch, and they have another blue crayon to replace the one that rolled under the couch.  And we want to help them; comforting an upset child is what we do as caring adults.

But for many kids, telling them “It’s OK”  elicits more crying, if not some wailing and even physical responses like throwing things or hitting.  You go over to console them, and they may even push you away.  The baby that melted into your arms is now rejecting your efforts at comfort!

Why?  Very likely because your response did not show them that you understand the gravity of the situation and the pain they are experiencing.  I know, pain from a broken cookie? Really? Well, when you are 18 months old, you can’t always comprehend that there could be more cookies in the cupboard.  The horror of seeing your favorite treat destroyed in front of you is just too great.  And the feelings inside of you really do hurt.  Young children need two things to recover:  someone to say that they know what your problem is and say that they are aware that you feel this way.

Note that I did not say that the other person has to agree that it is the end of your toddler world.  The adult is only agreeing that something has happened and you feel badly about it.  As adults, we don’t always remember a toddler’s perspective, and we invalidate it more than we think we do.  This is why telling your child “It’s OK” is heard as “Your complain is without merit, sir, and you have no right to feel angry or sad about it”.

You would never want to say that to your child, and yet that is the message many children get when you rush in too soon with this response.  

What could you say instead?  I first use Dr. Harvey Karp’s Fast Food Rule combined with his Toddler-Use communication style to respond to an upset child.  It is fairly simple:  State what you believe your child is thinking in simple phrases that match their comprehension level when upset (which is less than when calm) and matches their emotional tone by 1/3.  So if your child is screaming that “COOKIE, COOKIE, COOKIE!!!” and you know that her cookie fell on the sidewalk into the mud, your response has to be similarly short and heartfelt.  Something like “COOKIE BROKEN!  You want cookie!” tells the sad story of what happened to her snack.

This can be enough to calm her down a bit, as seen by less screaming, more eye contact and even a sad nod.  NOW it is time for consolation, and perhaps the offer of another snack.  You have shown that you know her problem and her pain.  She has felt understood and her feelings accepted, and may now be ready for a resolution to this crisis.  If she continues to scream, repeat your statement once or twice while further shortening your words and slightly increasing the emotion in your voice/the emphasis of your gestures.  Sometimes it takes the toddler brain a moment to process.  Give her that time.

Good luck trying out this approach with the next upset toddler or preschooler you encounter.  I promise you, communicating your empathy and modeling acceptance of feelings delivers more than a calmer child.  It teaches important emotional skills and deepens the connection between you.

And it all started with a broken cookie….



Use The Fast Food Rule to Help ASD Toddlers Handle Change

Kids With ASD can react strongly to changes in their routines or environments.  Even changing the location of furniture they don’t even use can create screaming and aggression.  Why?  Often they use their external concept of home and environment to provide internal consistency, structure, and spatial comprehension.  We all do, in reality.  Ask anyone who travels for business how nice it is to come home and wake up knowing where things are without searching for them. It is not just exhaustion from travel, but the constant reorientation to new places and looking for needed things that make business travel hard.  Kids with ASD just depend on the familiarity of their external world and their routines much more.  When faced with disruption, they don’t have a wider range of coping skills to fall back on.  They can fall into chaos.

The Fast Food Rule, Dr. Harvey Karp’s fabulous strategy for communicating with agitated toddlers, works well with kids whose ASD issues make them rigid and upset when small changes occur.  The technique is to use simple statements with slightly exaggerated emotional tone and gestures to first express what you think the child is thinking, wait for a sign of lower agitation, and then provide an explanation, alternative, or both.

Toddlers are usually not good at reading subtle language and other cues.  They need explicit interaction that says “I understand why you are upset.  I really do.  Here is what is happening, and here is what we can do.”  All upset toddlers benefit from the Fast Food Rule.  Toddlers with ASD need this kind of support throughout the day, every day.  Their world is so much harder for them to understand and handle without stress.

I worked with a family this week, and saw what can happen when an adult fails to communicate effectively.  A 2.5 year old’s trike was brought into the kitchen entry hall instead of being left in the mudroom.  It wasn’t blocking anything.  It just was not where it  is usually stored.  They were doing some repairs later that day in the mudroom, so it had to be moved.  He went ballistic.

Screaming, hanging on it but not trying to ride it, absolutely beside himself that it was out of place.  The mom tried to tell him that they would “go to the park later”, thinking that he wanted to use it.  This was not the case, as he wasn’t mounting it or doing anything that would suggest he was interesting in riding it at the moment. He screamed louder when she told him that “everything was OK”.  It was not OK to him!    She turned on the TV briefly, and then took out the tablet.  That distracted him and he quieted down.  This ended the drama but it didn’t solve the problem.  In fact, she has been trying to limit screen time because he prefers to use these devices rather than engage in social/communication/ fine motor play.  Now she would have to decide when to announce that his turn was over, face that complaint, and the trike was still sitting in the hallway instead of the mudroom.

If she had used the Fast Food Rule, she could have had a chance to explain and support him in accepting that the trike was there until work was done in the mudroom.  Is this a guarantee that he’d be perfectly calm?  Not at all.  But it would have been an opportunity to use language and emotional connection to develop self-calming, methods of communication that he needs for success in school, at home, well, everywhere.  It would have acknowledged his feelings and his perspective while helping him to accept a change in the routine/environment.

If you have tried the Fast Food Rule with your Toddler, please write a comment and share your success or your struggle!