Tag Archives: happiest toddler on the block

Transition Your Toddler Without Tears

Transitioning is a huge concern for parents and educators of toddlers, both for the typically developing and special needs kids.  Struggling to get their child to leave the playground, come to the dinner table, or enter/leave the tub are very high priority concerns for a lot of the parents I meet as an occupational therapist.  Educators and therapists refer to these struggles as difficulties with transitioning.  Dr. Harvey Karp’s fabulous Happiest Toddler on the Block program has a unique perspective on the experience of transitioning, and some equally unique strategies.

Toddlers’ brains aren’t wired to switch focus quickly once they are fully engaged in something, especially something that they enjoy.  They have no real sense of time, so saying that you need time to run to the store or library has no meaning to them.  There is always more time in toddler land.  Toddlers with spirited temperaments may see 5 trucks in the sandbox, and decide that they will be playing with all of them.  Leaving after only playing with 3 is going to seem like leaving before the main course is served; he’s been cheated!  Sometimes imagining having fun at home while at the playground is impossible for the concrete toddler brain; toddlers need an actual toy in your hand that is his “transition object” to hold while leaving the playground and getting into the car.

One of the most common transitioning techniques suggested in behavior management books is to give 5-minute and 1-minute warnings.  This can work well with an easy child with good language skills, a child who simply needs a bit of advance notice.  If your child really struggles with ending something fun and moving on, this suggestion is often pointless advice.  Your child still cries.  Sometimes they cry more because they don’t understand that you are giving a warning, not making an announcement of immediate departure.  Sometimes they cry because they feel the need to protest what is clearly your choice, not theirs.  They haven’t been consulted.

The Happiest Toddler techniques of “win-win compromise”, “kind ignoring”, “toddler-ese communication”  and “The Fast Food Rule” can really help you here.  Announce firmly and warmly that you will be leaving the playground soon.  Ask if your child wants to leave in one minute or two minutes.  If your child isn’t capable of understanding that two is more than one, you need a different approach.  That could be ” Go now or more play?”.  Your child may respond “more!!!” and keep digging in the sandbox.  Your response is something like “OK, you win! A teeny tiny bit more play then home”.  This may be enough communication and negotiation for your child; he can comprehend that you know he wants to stay.

If you can, start clearing away all the fun toys, maybe putting them in a box or behind you.  Your child will see less fun available and see you cleaning up.  All these are signals that the fun is ending and that you mean business.  If you receive a bit of whining or throwing of a toy in protest, rephrase your original statement, “teeny bit more play then home” and even use a little of the kind ignoring technique (where you briefly don’t make eye contact and turn slightly away from the protestor while you tidy up).  You aren’t rejecting him, but you are sending the message that minor defiance is not impressing you or changing your mind.

If whining or tantrums begin after you announce that it is time to leave, you can pull out the Fast Food Rule.  Remember, from my January 2015 blog post on Tantrums and Sympathetic Reframing?  The biggest problem with using the 1 and 5-minute warning technique with temperamental toddlers is that it presents a plan to your rigid or touchy toddler before laying the communication groundwork.  Such a child might even complain or explode a bit more with those warnings, because laying out a plan before acknowledging his point of view seems like being mis-understood and dis-respected!   Telling him how much fun he will have at home, how tired you are of all this whining, how he did everything he likes already, or threatening consequences isn’t going to work until your child is certain that you know what he wants.  Which is to stay at the sandbox!!

To use the Fast Food Rule here, you are going to use the toddler-ese language format of short phrases, repetition, and reflect 1/3rd of his emotional tone/gestures/facial expressions .  Tell him what you think he is saying to you by repeating:  “you say “No GO, stay and PLAY!!!”a few times.   Your child will probably make some eye contact, maybe even stop crying and nod.  He gets it that YOU get it.  You are not agreeing with him, just confirming his message.  Now you can commiserate, offer that transition toy, remind him what fun comes next, etc.  This can dial down or eliminate a tantrum in most cases.  Better yet, it teaches a bit of negotiation, mutual respect, and uses emotional warmth, firm limits and understanding of the language and emotional needs of toddlers.

When won’t it work like a charm?  Complete over-exhaustion, hunger, illness, or a major life change like a new sibling.  Sometimes toddlers are at the ends of their ropes too.  But the garden-variety whining and dawdling can be completely evaporated by this approach, and many erupting tantrums can be nipped before they get going.

If you think this is way more work than just dragging a screaming child to the car, try this.  Close your eyes and imagine the draining feeling inside you as you fight him into the carseat and dodge the sandy sneakers being thrown at your head.  Everybody loses, everybody feels oppressed.  Some toddlers can bring this fight into the house and not even nap, totally disrupting the rest of the day and the night.  Just envisioning this scenario may make you motivated to try this new strategy.

It takes a long time for the toddler brain to become good at advance warnings, shift emotional and attentional gears, and communicate well.  Using the Happiest Toddler techniques can build those skills and get you out of the playground faster and with fewer tears!


Children with Autism Stop Screaming When You Use The Fast Food Rule to Communicate

Children on the spectrum who scream instead of “using their words” are often perceived as manipulative, on sensory overload, or incapable of better behavior until they learn more language.  Try using Dr. Karp’s Fast Food Rule and watch your screaming toddler miraculously find his words.  In minutes… or less.

This isn’t a guarantee, but it really can work that fast if your child has learned that when frustrated, his best approach is to scream until he gets what he wants.  The “scream-’til-I-triumph” phenomenon happens to typically-developing toddlers too.  Anyone learning language, frustration tolerance, social skills, and emotional state control at a the same time is bound to go there.  Special needs toddlers and preschoolers just stay in that situation longer than a typically-developing child, and they can scream louder and longer and in more situations.  It can become their go-to strategy.  They have a harder time understanding your non-verbal cues that indicate your attention and appreciation for their distress.  Reading social cues is often nearly impossible for them when calm.  It is almost impossible for them when upset.  Children on the spectrum or with multiple developmental delays can benefit from using the Fast Food Rule during stressful times for years and years after toddlerhood has officially ended.

My March 2015 post “Taming Toddler Tantrums Using Sympathetic Reframing” reviews Dr. Harvey Karp’s fabulous Fast Food Rule from his Happiest Toddler on the Block book/DVD.  Take a look at that post Taming Toddler Tantrums Using Sympathetic Reframing for an example of how to navigate the screams, how to deal with your emotions about being screamed at by your child, and what it looks like to implement it in real life.  Dr. Karp did not develop his approach for children with ASD, but it sure works extremely well for all that screaming.

Adaptations that you might have to make to use it effectively with developmentally-different kids:  use it very consistently, repeat the experience frequently until your response is familiar to them, and remember that sometimes the screams are real distress based on sensory, language or habitual behaviors that they use to self-calm.  Respect their comfort level with direct gaze, sound and touch as you interact while using this approach.  That means that you may have to avoid as much eye contact and perhaps not touch them while using the Fast Food Rule.  You may also have to dial your communication down to a level that is much, much lower than their chronological age or even lower than their usual receptive language level (what they can understand, not how they speak) when they are this upset.  Kids with ASD sometimes live on the edge all the time.  They need fewer words and more gestures/facial expressions to follow what is going on when times are good.  When angry or frustrated, they need even more non-verbal communication and more targeted short verbal communication so that they can follow what you say.

Children with ASD can definitely benefit from The Fast Food Rule and all of Dr. Karp’s other great Happiest Toddler tools for communication and self-control. Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today!  A diagnosis of ASD usually includes some type of sensory processing difficulty and frequently issues with rigidity/routines.  Kids who scream can be experiencing sensory aversion/sensitivity, become overwhelmed by multi sensory input, and will need your help to parse out all the reasons that they are upset.   Carefully watching your child’s build-up to a scream will tell you if you also need to make changes to the sensory environment or give him assistance with transitions in addition to changing your communication style.

Taming Toddler Tantrums Using Sympathetic Reframing

The most challenging aspect of using The Happiest Toddler on the Block might be the need to use just enough emotion and emphasis when stating their issues back to them (the Fast Food Rule), but then modeling a cool, calm and rational state in your reply when you are tired and frustrated by a full day of toddler drama.  This is a very Zen concept, the “cloak” of calmness that you wrap around your interaction with a whiny or defiant child.  It is absolutely essential to the success of this approach.

This is not easy.  Toddlers have staying power.  Here is what it looks like:

Adult:  “It’s lunch time.  Come on over and sit in your seat.”

Child:  Want cookies!!!!! [whiny shout, banging on cabinet storing said cookies]

Adult:  “You want cookies now, no lunch, just cookies!!” Remember the 1/3 level of mirroring their delivery.  Rinse and repeat until you see him take a breath, shoulders drop, etc.  This is the start of the “Fast Food Rule” of Happiest Toddler on the Block.

Child:  “Yeah” [ quieter whine, lots of eye contact, head nodding]

Adult:  “Oh, wow.[insert pause with disappointed look]  But it is lunch time. [another pause and sympathetic look] You have a yummy ______all ready, and then it will be time for ( # ) cookies after you finish your _______.”  [insert optimistic smile, as if you get the cookies too!]  Rinse and repeat if needed, but many if not most kids will be able to come to the table.  They may not be cheerful, but they know that you have limits, and they know you will deliver the cookies.  If they are eating and interacting with you, reward them with your pleasant conversation and plans of fun to come.

Why would anyone go to so much effort to stay calm, instead of just saying “Cut that out right now!”?  Because we are in this for the long haul.  Because the job of adults is not just to keep kids alive and safe all day, but to teach them how to manage their emotions and their behavior.  Because we are supposed to be the adults, capable of managing our emotions and planning our responses, not just lashing out.  And because we are investing in the relationship, knowing that a child that has seen you set consistent limits but also knows you do not shame, threaten, insult, or beg them to behave is more likely to listen to what you have to say.  When the conflict comes, as it always will, calmly stating the limits and acknowledging their viewpoint is like withdrawing money from a bank account.

The Fast Food Rule is just step one.

Discipline and Toddlers 2.0: Using Kind Ignoring with Defiance and Mild Aggression


I have had a lot of interest in my first blog post on “What to say if you don’t say “no?”.   Parents have  tried my suggestion, and sometimes their child responds by following the directions.  And sometimes their child smiles and hits them.  What do you do next?  Most parents would try out my first suggestion again.  They could also be offended or angry.  But they might have more luck with some kind ignoring and then some time-ins.

“Kind ignoring” is Dr. Karp’s term for choosing your battles and deciding to verbally, visually and physically remove yourself from the situation.  After all, it is very common for a young toddler to gently hit to get attention, once they have noticed the strong reaction it gets from you.  Most toddlers do not have the language or social skills to engage you easily, but they want your focused attention.  The smart ones quickly learn that they become the center of your attention once they hit you.  Try teaching them that the opposite is true.

Just turn away, walk away, or put them down.  As in off your lap, out of your arms.  But no drama.  Be as calm as a millpond.  That alone should get their attention.  They are expecting a big to-do.  Don’t go there.  Hint: one of your most powerful tools in the parenting toolbox is your tone.  Quieter-than-normal tones really get their attention, in a way that yelling never will.

Should you say something?  My guess is usually yes, and it should be developmentally appropriate.  A short: “We don’t hit.  Hitting hurts” can be more than enough for most toddlers.  The older ones might hear: “In this family we don’t hit.  I go away from people who hit me”  but that is too much information for an 18-month old.  The big message, like all HTOTB techniques, is in your actions.

For a young child or a milder temperament, they may have forgotten what they were doing, and come back and engage you warmly.  Receive them lovingly and start playing with something you know they like.  You are rewarding their better choice of behavior with your attention and conversation.  If they haven’t come over, you can smile and indicate openness, but having the child seek you out appropriately affords more learning for them.  Their new strategy worked.  For an older child, you may decide to mention the hitting, but maybe not.  I know that is controversial, but you cannot make a federal case out of every misdeed.  You can compliment the new strategy, maybe saying “I really like it when you ask me to play LEGOS with you”.  Pick your battles.

What do you do if he escalates the situation, and goes to hit the cat or throw the lamp?  It is time for a fine, some consequence that he can relate to.  That may mean moving him to another room, a brief time-out, removal of the toy that was thrown. You will know what sends home the message to your child that he has gone too far.  Then you have to think about his day, and why things escalated.  Is he hungry, tired, ill, under or over-stimulated?  Cabin fever from the winter that seems never to end (at least here in NY)?  Follow up by using your time-ins like gossiping (an earlier blog post ) and patience-stretching to build your child’s self-esteem and self-control skills.

Autism and the Happiest Toddler Approach: Why Does It Work?

All children on the autism spectrum have two things in common:  they have difficulty with communication and less social skills than would be expected for their age.  Many, but not all, children with ASD struggle with sensory processing.  The level of struggle is so unique that these kids look very different from one another most of the time.  But when they get frustrated, they all can break down into aggression, avoidance and tantrums that last and last.  I recently attended a professional training where the presenter remarked that those meltdowns were not only a sign of autism but inevitable, and “you just let the child have his tantrum”.   I think that abandons the child when he needs the most support, but is the least available for traditional talk-based or token strategies.  I have also spoken with behavioral-managment clinicians who go straight through to a time-out warning when a child begins to resist or complain.

So why does The Happiest Toddler (THT) strategy work well for children on the ASD spectrum?

At first glance, it seems that it would be less successful than standard behavioral approaches, as it relies on reflecting back feelings and supporting social and self-control skills.  Initiating and sustaining direct verbal give-and-take is often the greatest limitation of these children.  Kids on the spectrum really benefit from the emphasis on non-verbal messages, the repetition, and the indirect teaching that occurs using Dr. Karp’s techniques.  The adult matches the child’s language level at the time of the tantrum, and social interaction matches a child’s skill level as well.  If a child with ASD is able to function above an 18-month level, at any chronological age, then this approach can be very effective in helping him achieve a calmer state and learn self-control skills.

I modify the program to assume that a child will need more opportunities to practice and fewer distractions to use techniques such as Gossiping and Patience-stretching. My target level of repetition, voice volume and language complexity may have to be very fine-tuned for each child.  I may need to select words that he commonly uses, or words that have previously shown a positive response.  I will strive for consistency in my delivery once I have created a plan, and accept that generalization of using THT (expanding this to other situations, or even to the parents and nannies) is going to take longer.

This strategy works more effectively with a “floor-time” model than with an ABA model, but it can be used with any program.  The definitive measure of whether this approach will work is the willingness of adults to adapt their response to a child’s unique emotional and communication needs.

Take a look at the technique demonstrated on a “Good Morning America” segment to give you an idea of what it looks like in action. http://youtu.be/lrxBKvV1p-A

Tantrum Taming With Special Needs Toddlers

Toddler tantrums are difficult to handle in the first place. The screaming, throwing and hitting can come as a wave of emotion that overwhelms and frightens both the child and the parent. When you have a toddler that may be emotionally age-appropriate but has difficulty expressing thoughts or understanding language, and add trouble handling sensory information, and you have a real problem. These children need our best efforts to help them navigate these waters.

Some special needs children remain at the toddler stage beyond the 18-4 year range. Those children are especially prone to explosions, as some of their abilities race ahead of skill acquisition (language, movement, self-calming) that would help them cope with emotional turmoil.

If you cannot reason with a special needs child who is having a tantrum, what can you do? Although he did not create his techniques for this population, Dr. Harvey Karp’s toddler communication techniques have been very effective for me in my work. He emphasizes gestures/facial expression and use repeated short phrases. Solving the cause of the tantrum comes AFTER acknowledging the child’s feelings. I will not say that every tantrum has evaporated, but I have seen simply amazing results.

The hardest part for me was that his primary technique requires me to sound, well, like a toddler. Communicating with a child in such a simple, primitive way took some practice. But looking incompetent in front of his parents wasn’t so wonderful either.

Dr. Karp’s book “the Happiest Toddler on the Block” has been revised since I first read it, and the new and improved edition is even more user-friendly. If you parent a special needs child or work with one, it is worth learning this compassionate and effective program.

does this look familiar? read on!

does this look familiar? read on!