Tag Archives: whining

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

 

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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 feel better; 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 might even push you away.  The baby that used to melt into your arms is now a toddler, rejecting your best 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 for that person to 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 that 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 intend 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 always less than when they are calm) and matches their emotional tone by 1/3.  So if your child is screaming  “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 has happened to her snack.

This can be enough validation to calm her down a bit, as seen by a decrease in the volume of her screaming, more eye contact with you, and even a sad nod.  NOW it is time for consolation, and perhaps the offer of an alternate 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….

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Negotiating With Toddlers? Why They Think That 90/10 Is A Good Deal

 

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Toddlers can make you doubt your sanity.  They really can.  How can a crushed cookie be the end of the universe as they know it?  Why do they think you can make more cookies appear on demand?  And how to explain to this person that thinks you hung the moon that you simply cannot erase crayon marks?

This post is an effort to explain how to successfully negotiate (most of the time) with children 18 months to 5 years old.  It is based on The Happiest Toddler on the Block strategies by Dr. Harvey Karp.  Once I learned his techniques, I never looked back and became a toddler whisperer.  Really.  You need to embrace his two most important ideas and then you are ready to hit the negotiating table with your toddler.

Dr. Karp’s most basic concept is that you need to understand that the toddler brain isn’t capable of much logical thinking due to immaturity.  This means that they cannot negotiate well, even when calm.  It gets better as they get older, so a 4 year-old will have flashes of rational negotiation, and an 18 month-old may never get it.  She can’t.  Her brain simply doesn’t “do” rational well at all until that frontal cortex is mature.  The other concept is true for negotiation with anyone, including your partner and your boss.  You have to see their side of the story and communicate to them that you are aware of their feelings….whether or not you agree with them!

Agreeing that they get 2 more bedtime stories but not a snack as well, agreeing that they get the giraffe cup but can’t spill half of it on the new carpet to make a pattern, agreeing that they can wear pajamas to the park but only with shoes are all successes.  Tell them that you understand that wearing Spiderman jammies is indeed cooler with Spiderman sneakers helps them negotiate the deal.  Honestly saying that you are too tired to read 6 more books using an exaggerated yawn and a sad look helps.  You need to go night-night too.  They may be able to see your perspective since they are tired as well (but may never admit it to you).

So here is where your paradigm shift happens.  You have to be OK with deals that seem unfair to you.   Adults want a 50/50 split at the very least.  But you aren’t negotiating with another adult.  Be prepared to leave your ego at the door.  If you are the kind of person that needs to be right, you are going to fail at toddler negotiation.  Toddlers negotiate from the heart and with heart.  A mature sense of fairness isn’t going to be helpful with an irrational mind.  Hint:  if you have ever had a totally irrational boss that you actually liked when things weren’t exploding all over the office, you will have had some experience with the toddler mind.

Successful initial negotiations with a toddler often yield a 90/10 split.  90% for them, and 10% for you.  If they walk away happy,  you should too.  This is why this is not only a good deal for you, it is the only way to teach fairness in negotiation: toddlers start out expecting 100%.  A 90% deal is, in their mind, having given in big-time. But if they feel OK about it and life goes on, you won.  If you can manage that, the next negotiation could be 80/20.

Many toddlers cannot manage this when tired, overwhelmed, hungry, etc.  So negotiations can start over something simple, something that doesn’t matter very much to either party, and when things are calm.  You are teaching a skill, not making a business deal.  But the results could make everyone’s life a lot calmer in the end!

Wait Out Your Whiner Before Reacting And Everybody Wins!

Whining/whinging can drive a calm parent to the edge. Like nails on a chalkboard, the effect of a small person squealing their demand may unhinge you. Add refusal to comply with a reasonable request, and you have a recipe for disaster. OK, maybe not disaster, but how your react can inflict damage on the warm and happy relationship that you really want with your child.

So what do you do with a small child who whines/whinges? You could come down on them, all threats and authority. Good luck. Your child already knows that you have the power to deny them. They are choosing whining as an alternative to outright defiance, probably as a way to avoid a showdown. Insist on taking it there, and you may get immediate compliance but risk later explosions, or risk teaching your child that threats are the way to get what he wants. Oops.

Giving in to whining/whinging isn’t much better. You may have stopped the noise for now, but you have taught them a powerful lesson: this works! If you think that your child won’t try it again, or won’t try even harder the next time he wants something, you are experiencing wishful thinking.

This is how giving in will doom your plan. Every psychologist knows that the way to get a behavior solidly stuck in a child’s mind is to reward it intermittently. If it works some of the time, it will be tried again and again. Don’t believe me? Visit your local casino to see intermittent reward theory in it’s adult form. Every time that slot machine pays out, the customer is “taught” that it could do so again, if only they will keep playing. And playing. Folks, adults know the house always wins. Your child does not. They will keep trying their strategy on you.

Looking for advice from teachers or other “experts”? You will come away with some plausible strategies that often ultimately fail to bring the whine/whinge to and end. They sound so supportive, so understandable. “I can’t understand you when you speak to Mommy that way” is a common recommendation. An alternate strategy is “Use your big-boy/girl voice please.” I am going to tell you that neither of these strategies work very well with the chronic and committed whiner, especially if the perpetrator is under 5.

Why? Because you are using words to negotiate with children that respond better to actions. I am not referring to very young children or special needs kids with language skills under 18 months of age. But wait: those children generally do not whine/whinge. They don’t have the social and language skills to do so. They can be dealt with differently. This is why peak whine/whinge time is 2-5 years old. At this age, children can create strategies and observe their success or failure. But they are still little. They don’t infer from discussion, and they watch your reactions and the tone of your voice to support their limited language and social skills. Ask Dr. Harvey Karp. Happiest Toddler on the Block transformed my understanding of toddlers, and gave me happier days as well.

If your child clearly understands your request and your response to their request, and you consistently react in the same manner, you can wait out a whiner and teach them how to approach you. If you sometimes give them cookies right before dinner so that you can concentrate, or if you inconsistently administer natural consequences (taking toys that are thrown away from them, for example), then again, waiting them out isn’t going to work. But if you are reasonably consistent, this is the one strategy that will save your sanity and improve your child’s behavior in a lasting way.

By wait-it-out, I mean ignore the whine. Don’t react. You have ALREADY given them a response. Whether you are using Patience Stretching, my favorite move from Happiest Toddler on the Block, or simply a statement that if they want a snack, they need to sit on their chair, your response was already understood and rejected. Now you do nothing. You do not even make eye contact. Busy yourself, if possible, with some task in the room. This could be putting dishes away, folding clothes, etc. You want to be observed by your child to be non-reactive. You need to be able to observe them so that if they improve their behavior, you can respond right away.

The best way to respond to a formerly whining/whinging child who has come around is with warmth and humor. Nothing, absolutely nothing, sends home the message of success to them like an adult that welcomes them warmly. Don’t spend your time reviewing what went right. “You listened to Mommy so well. Nice sitting on your bottom in the chair” only works well with the youngest of the whiners. Most of them already understand that your warm response is in reaction to their compliance. Save the sing-song review for your infant; give your toddler or preschooler a hug, a kiss or some physical response instead.

Good luck, and see if waiting works for you!