Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lecture Review: Dr. Harvey Karp "The Happiest Toddler on the Block"

I first encountered Dr. Harvey Karp's work by reading the phenomenally popular book "Happiest Baby on the Block", which teaches caregivers to calm crying newborns by replicating the environment of the womb and activating a calming reflex. Dr. Karp believes that humans are born a trimester early because we evolved to a brain (and therefore skull) size that prevented us from safely maturing in the womb prior to birth. Therefore, screaming newborns whose immediate needs have been met can often be very quickly calmed by using some combination of "The five S's": swaddling, sucking, side/stomach position, shushing, and swinging. I read the book and then Greg and I both watched the DVD, and using it with Will worked amazingly well. I liked the DVD better than the book, it took less time, and I found it more helpful to actually see the techniques in practice before Will was born. It was one of the best parenting tools we used in those first three months.

So when I heard Dr. Karp was coming to speak to the Mother's Forum about "Happiest Toddler on the Block", and that spouses were invited, I called my babysitter and got ready to learn about his recommendations for toddlers. He promised to teach us how to drastically reduce the length and number of our toddlers tantrums. Sounds good to me.

The Happiest Toddler on the Block strategies focus on teaching parents how to effectively communicate with and respond to their toddlers, which in turn drastically reduces tantrums. One of his main points is that when toddlers are upset, we tend to speak to them as calmly as possible, and this actually upsets them more.

Here's how he gets there:

Dr. Karp compares toddlers to cave-men; they're primitive. Literally. A clip he showed from his DVD had toddlers running around in cavemen outfits, and it is a compelling analogy when you watch their behavior. Their right brain function is more developed than their left, meaning they understand non-verbal cues and emotions far better than language, logic and patience. If you say one thing but your facial expressions imply something else, they will receive the second message and might not even process the actual words coming out of your mouth.

So you are dealing with a cave-man. You have a partial language barrier, and they're very emotional. Also, it stinks being a toddler because they are bad at everything and they almost never get their way if there's a struggle.

Not only that, but when something isn't going their way and they're upset, adults often become overly calm and void of emotion in response, trying to get them to calm down. Picture telling a friend that something upsetting has happened to you: someone rear-ended you in the parking lot, you ruined your favorite cashmere sweater in the dryer, whatever it is. How would you then feel if they told you in their calmest, happiest voice, that everything was ok and it would be fine? And the more upset you got, the calmer they acted?

I would feel pretty downright irritated. It might even escalate things. And Dr. Karp's argument is that that's how our children feel. And that while they can learn to deal with the fact that there will be many things in life that they want but can't have or won't get, they can't deal with having the people who matter most to them not understand how they feel.

His recommendation is that we express understanding of toddlers' emotions by mirroring back 1/3 of their emotion to them while we restate their problem. Simply using words to show our understanding won't work: cavemen, left-brain deficit, remember? We need to meet them partway by mirroring what they're feeling using tone, facial expressions, and gestures. This might sound crazy, but as Dr. Karp pointed out, most of us do it already. We do it with other adults ("Argh, that is so annoying, I HATE waiting at the DMV!!!") and we do it with our children when they are happy (Yay!!! Honey, you did it!! That is WONDERFUL!!!"). But because our first instinct with a screaming toddler is to calm them down, we react differently to their anger or distress than we do their positive emotions. Instead of mirroring back part of what they're feeling, we display the emotion we want them to feel. And because they're not being heard, they scream louder, and they get more frustrated. I might too.

The clips he showed from his DVD were pretty compelling.

Dr. Karp also suggested other ways you can help your toddler be less frustrated, like speaking toddler-ese and avoiding complex sentence structures and vocabulary, or by playing silly games with them where they get to win, teach you something, or watch you make a fool of yourself. He also had some great tricks for teaching your children to wait and delay gratification, something that greatly predicts academic and career success. So even if you're not sure about mirroring back your child's emotions, the DVD might be worth checking out.

We enjoyed the lecture, and we bought the DVD on the way out. I thought his ideas made sense, and the video clips showing them in practice were quite compelling. Yes, I realize that there were probably hundreds of hours of footage before he chose these examples, but given my success with Happiest Baby on the Block, and how much I liked his ideas, I am definitely going to give it a shot!

It really has me thinking about how to communicate and interact with Will in the future. Dr. Karp suggests that these techniques may be useful as early as eight months old, so that could be soon!

Caveman? This guy? Nah...

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