tantrumI have a very short list of things that I hate. I am, by nature, freakishly genial and open. As an exhausted new parent, my tolerance may be a bit lower than it should be for normal annoyances (“One-handed” nursing bras! Lies! All lies!) but I am pretty sanguine about everything else.  Except:

  • People who are mean to waitresses.
  • Smoking around babies.
  • To-go sushi that does NOT COME WITH WASABI AND GINGER (c’mon, Whole Foods! It was like 43 dollars for some smushed avocado and some brown rice! Cough up the ginger!)
  • A person using the phrase “the help” to refer to the people who assist them with their house and children.
  • Parking tickets.

That’s it, except for the worst, most egregious thing I encounter on an almost daily basis:

  • A parent or caregiver telling a tantruming child “Use your words!”

I hate this. I hate “use your words.” I find it cruel and illogical (and ubiquitous—it is one of those parenting practices that SEEMS to make sense but when applied without thought is kind of terrible).  I typically live and work (and therefore advise) by the rule of “kids are doing the best they can all the time.”  If they are de-compensating (fancy word for utterly going bananas), it probably means that they have NOTHING left in the tank. No reserves. No calm, well-regulated responses. For most kids, especially recent (or delayed) talkers, their “words” are still the most complicated modality they have at their disposal. Grunting, kicking, grabbing, swatting, screaming, and flopping despondently on the ground are all easier alternatives, which is why most kids fall back on those behaviors when stressed or over-taxed. Luckily, when I have the chance to work with a client, I can remove this little soul-shredding practice from their repertoire and replace it with something productive, kind, and just…better.

Here is what I tell clients:

In situations where you are unwilling to give your child what he is screaming/tantruming for NO MATTER WHAT, it is really strange to make them ask nicely for it.  If, after all that effort of sputtering out, “Pleeeeeease may I have a cupcake?” you kindly and firmly explain to them that they absolutely cannot have a cupcake, you have really, really really disappointed them. Just tell them no at the beginning and don’t make them do verbal gymnastics only to be shot down. It’s not very reinforcing (it won’t make little Susie more likely to “use her words” next time she sees that big ol’ box of Magnolia cupcakes sitting on the edge of the counter), and it’s kind of mean.

In situations where you are willing to give little Susie that 4 lb cupcake but find the tone of her voice grating or bossy or screamy or awful, use this little trick:

  • Tell her “Sure! But try it like this!” and then use the exact words and tone that you would like her to use and ask her to repeat it.  That’s right.  Just like a little myna bird (or a Mockingjay for you big Hunger Games nerds).  A lovely little mimic!  One whose tone and prosody doesn’t make you want to smash your head into the refrigerator door!
  • Calmly repeat until little Susie has managed to sputter out a reasonable approximation of your statement, and then hand over the goods.  The affect here should be one of “I am SO EAGER TO GIVE YOU THIS CUPCAKE I CAN’T EVEN BELIEVE IT so just do this teensy tiny thing first, no big deal!”
  • When you give your kids the words and tone that you’d like, you take the immediate pressure and stress off of them. Sometimes it is that stress or fear that they won’t get something they want (and to a little kid, that CUPCAKE IS A BIG STINKING DEAL. Really. They might die without it and will behave accordingly) that causes the big meltdowns.  Then, you are stuck offering a cupcake to a kid who has just kicked you in the shins on the way down.  That can’t (and should NOT) feel good.
  • The cool thing about being consistent with the “Try it like this!” strategy is that you will see (most) kids begin, on their own, to use calmer, more polite language when they ask for something. It is a glorious thing to see all of those self-regulatory and impulse control bits marshaling your little caveman’s basest impulses!
  • The key to this is that tone and affect, although seemingly “surface” issues, are actually important in dictating the behavior that follows. You know how, after a really groovy yoga class, you feel all Zen and compassionate when someone cuts you off in traffic? That’s what we are trying to do in the presence of a cupcake. Change the tone/affect with a reminder often enough, and soon there is no need for a reminder!

So, in short:

  • Remember to just say no quickly and without making your poor kid work extra hard only to have a serious case of the sads when you say Non!
  • Model EXACTLY what you want said back to you.  Accept reasonable approximations, of course.
  • Any version of “Use your words!” (like “Use a big-girl voice” [barf!] or “Ask nicely!” [aaaaarrrrgh!]) is a no-go.
  • Look for opportunities to praise your kids when they stop themselves from using bossy, bratty, yelly, icky language and actually “ask nicely” for something. Tell them you noticed, and you really love how they sound.
  • Don’t get caught giving something in order to end a tantrum that started with a “Use your words!” If your kid is close to a meltdown, help out a little.  Give them a simple, stress-free way to communicate with you.
  • Don’t forget to stop by the hidden secret condiment bar at Whole Foods or you will be choking down your veggie sushi sans wasabi. The worst.

This, of course, is just my take on things.  But, I have seen bigger and more meaningful changes in behavior when kids are given a model…that old screaming stuff usually fades pretty quickly.  The issue of frequent tantrums is big enough to be tackled another day, so if that is what you are dealing with, check back soon.  As always, if you are worried about your child’s behavior or coping, check in with your pediatrician. –Liz Schwandt

8 thoughts on “Try it Like This

  1. Liz Schwandt needs to write every day. I’m not sure I want to raise my kid without her.

  2. These are great suggestions! I have been telling my 2-year-old to use her words when she’s in a panic, and it doesn’t typically work… Which makes sense, but I hadn’t really thought about it this way before!

  3. Oh I just love your writing!

    I’ve been using your previous tips of repeating back what he wants and it really makes a huge difference. We all like validation, even little guys.

    Any tips on how to get them to slow their speech down a little? I’m not sure what language my little guy starts to speak when frustrated and he just gets more frustrated that I don’t understand.

  4. Loved the article. “Use your words,” is one of those expressions that drove me up a wall and down and is especially grating when told to pre-verbal children which I heard/hear all the time.

    I think to myself ” if they had the words they would use them.”

    So thanks Liz not only for the commentary but also for the guidance !

  5. Interesting take, but I think it largely depends on a child, age and situation. If you work with you child regularly on appropriate ways to ask for things, a simple variation on “use your words” (I usually say “can you ask nicely” or “how do you ask?”) is all they need to get there. It works with all three of my kids, even my 20-monts-old quickly comes out with “peeeeeease” if prompted with “how do you ask?”. It comes down to knowing your kids and what they are capable of.

  6. Hi, Renata! I totally agree…my suggestions were more for those (hopefully!) rare times when the meltdown is imminent…just a way to avoid pushing further into melt mode…Congrats on your 3 very well-regulated kiddos!! Best, Liz

  7. Hi, Joanna! Hmmm…some tips for slowing down speech when frustrated…using some kind of visual cue (a sign or a small picture that you carry with you) during times that you think he might be getting frustrated. The key would be to prep him during the times he IS not frustrated before you expect it to signal “slooooooow down!” Lots of modeling is also helpful. Maybe have his Dad start to talk “too fast” and both you and your little guy can use the signal. Best, Liz

  8. Liz, you write great, the wasabi and ginger problem IS crucial, but I just REALLY want a big honkin’ cupcake right now! Bravissima!!!!!

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