Goodbye, coos and gurgles and slow, long-lashed blinks. Hello, screams and kicks and flailing arms.
People, we have a toddler.
It seemed to happen overnight. One day we were happily playing in a confined space; the next day my sweet little boy was furiously trying to squeeze out the front door while I wrestled a large package over the step — and dissolving into a fit of rage when I finally managed to wrangle him back inside. Where did this miniature Hulk, erupting with fury and superhuman strength, come from all of a sudden?
But that’s the catch when it comes to parenting: things change. Things change when you don’t want them to; things change when you do. Most of all, things change just as soon as you finally start to figure them out.
Toddlers don’t exactly give you a heads up when one stage is ending and another is on the horizon. Toddlers just let you know when they’ve had it with something, once and for all. Loudly. Yes, my son’s transformation into a willful toddler was sudden, but I see now it had been coming for some time and I just didn’t recognize the signs.
As it turns out, that’s lesson number one in dealing with a toddler: spot the signs. Hunger, thirst and the general “wanting” of something are predictable warning signs, but my son’s most reliable freakout trigger is fatigue. With all the running and climbing and hiding spatulas in the dog food container, he gets overwhelmed easily these days. I’ve found if I take him back to his room for a book and a little quiet time before he gets too frazzled, we all benefit. (So far, that’s been working well, but I expect it’ll change soon.)
Another saving grace for me has been Dr. Harvey Karp’s “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” recommended to me by a mom in my play group. I was a huge fan of Dr. Karp’s first book, “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” so I eagerly requested the follow-up publication from my local library.
Okay, I may have driven an hour and a half to get a copy from the only library location that had the book in stock rather than waiting just a couple days for it to be returned to my branch. Desperate times, friends. Desperate times.
With book in hand, I set about to regain control of my household. Dr. Karp’s tactics are a little unconventional (read, embarrassing), but I was sold after the first day of trying his methods. Basically, he encourages parents to get down on their child’s level and talk like a deaf caveperson in order to break through the chaos of a toddler temper tantrum.
“MAD! Hudson MAD! He want more cheddar bunnies!! Cheddar bunnies gone. HE MAD!!”
I know, right? Believe me, it’s even worse when you’re trying to actually talk this way to a screaming, red-faced terror thrashing around in a high chair.
But the strange thing? It works.
The reasoning is that when toddlers get upset, we have to break down our communication to its most basic form and then match their intensity by getting on their level and speaking loudly. All this helps them feel understood and heard, which is usually the only thing that will get them to break out of a fit.
The first time I tried it, Hudson had started to freak out over something during mealtime. I couldn’t figure out what he wanted and he was thrashing about wildly, sure to hit his head on something any minute. I was standing over top of him while he cried and flailed, saying things like, “What is it? What do you want? Do you want some more milk? Do you want to get down? Look! Here’s your ball! BALL!! What is it you want???”
Suddenly, I saw things from his perspective: he’s small; I’m big. I’m throwing suggestions at him during the height of his anguish. I’m trying to distract him from feelings that are real to him.
So, I flipped the script. I squatted down so I was below him, looked him in the eye and said loudly, “You’re mad! You are SO MAD! I hear you!”
Amazingly — miraculously — he stopped. I stopped too out of total shock, but then quickly remembered myself and kept going. As he calmed down, I was able to expand my vocabulary to help him show me what he wanted and we got out of the situation without either one of us banging our heads on the wall.
If you think about it, a tantrum is, at its core, an incredibly frustrated response to a lack of control over something. Talking to a toddler in this crazy way helps them see that you get it. You’re listening. You’re on their side. That understanding paves the way for trust, and trust paves the way for communication. Before you know it, you’re making this parenting business look something akin to easy.
Then your son spots the cheddar bunnies on a shelf at Whole Foods. You look in your wallet to find that your credit card slipped out in the car.
CHEDDAR BUNNIES GONE! HUDSON MAD!
Ah, well. Tomorrow’s another day.