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….