If you’ve ever tried to reason with a 3-year-old (or a 4-year-old or an 8-year-old, etc.), you know that it’s often an exercise in frustration.
Your toddler doesn’t understand (nor care) that you have to leave the playground right now because the parking meter has nearly run out and you’ll get a ticket if you don’t. Your preschooler doesn’t care that she has to abruptly get out of the pool because for the next 10 minutes, because it’s “adult swim time” and she’s not an “adult.”
We know it’s not possible for them to have cheddar popcorn for a snack if we have run out of cheddar popcorn in the house; we’re not trying to destroy their mood/day/life, there’s simply no cheddar popcorn left. See? Look! It’s all gone! No cheddar popcorn to be found!
So, what do we do? We often try to validate their feelings (we hear you!), while also explaining the inherently illogical basis for those feelings.
“I know you want to swing longer at the playground, but Mummy needs to move the car.”
“I know you are having so much fun swimming, but you’ll be able to get back in the pool very soon!”
“YOU WANT CHEDDAR POPCORN, BUT WE. DON’T. HAVE. ANY.”
It seems reasonable, sure, but it’s also ineffective. They’re still upset, you’re still frustrated and everyone loses. But former cognitive psychologist Mary Widdicks, writing for The Washington Post, suggests an easy adjustment: Instead of using the word “but” in your responses, use “and”. Using “and” allows for the child’s feelings to be true, even when the basis for those feelings is illogical, unreasonable or factually incorrect. Both positions are equally valid.
Here’s how that sounds in practice:
“I know you want to swing longer at the playground, AND Mummy needs to move the car.”
“I know you are having so much fun swimming, AND you’ll be able to get back in the pool very soon!”
“YOU WANT CHEDDAR POPCORN, AAANNNDDDD WE. DON’T. HAVE. ANY.”
Is this a tantrum cure-all? No, it’s not. And it’s a start, Widdicks says in The Post:
Of course, simply replacing a single word in your vocabulary won’t eliminate tantrums or rid the world of parental guilt. Nothing is that easy. And still it’s remarkable what a difference it makes to compassion and understanding. I can believe that the smell of pasta makes my middle child want to vomit AND that he can simply choose to move to a different room.
That way, he feels completely valid in his experience of the unbearably foul odor of boiling water and remains in charge of dealing with his own sensitivities. He’s not wrong AND it’s not my responsibility to solve the problem for him.
It validates both their feelings and the reality of the situation. I bet it works on adults, too.