It's a simple solution but it works because it's rooted in something we all need.
I ran across a trick for handling an emotional toddler that made me think, “Gee, I’m going to try that on the adults in my life, too!” It’s not that the adults I know are particularly immature; it’s just that the technique taps into a universal human need, which you and I seem to have as badly as my 2-year-old does.
Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block, talks about how essential it is to speak “toddlerese” when you’re talking to a toddler. So when your kid is having a tantrum, you’re not going to make much headway trying to convince him to be reasonable if you’re not speaking his language. A toddler’s primary language is an emotional one, so if you’re too calm, you may be sending the message that whatever is causing him such intense emotional pain isn’t particularly important to you. It’s more likely that he’ll come away with the idea that you’re just not getting it, and he’ll ramp up the intensity of the tantrum.
So Dr. Karp recommends that you address a toddler’s tantrums by mirroring his emotions with a few notches less intensity (it doesn’t help if you’re both screaming and flailing, after all!), and repeating back to him the problem that he’s trying to express. One mother describes what that looks like: “I jump in, lovingly, but passionately, repeating his words and almost matching his feelings, with a broken record kind of repetition. Billy is mad, mad, MAD!!!! He’s angrrrrrrrry!!! Billy says, No, no, no! NO!!! I don’t like it!!”
You look really silly doing this, admittedly, but it’s a good trick. I’ve used it myself, and it can stop a tantrum in its tracks. Effectively, you’re communicating “I understand your emotions, I understand your problem, and it is important to me.”
And that kind of understanding isn’t just something toddlers need.
Okay, so what this doesn’t mean is saying to your husband, “You’re so mad! So so mad that I spoke badly about you to your mother! You feel so so betrayed!” When you’re speaking to adults, you can use adultspeak, but the principle you use is exactly the same. A person will be much less upset if you can convincingly show them that you understand what they’re feeling (by mirroring the emotion, but with less intensity) and that you understand the problem well enough to articulate it in your own words. Repetition of your understanding of the problem also contributes to making it clear that you care, and you want to listen.
When I think back to the times I’ve felt really heard by somebody, they’ve always been doing some variation of this. If a person listens to my troubles but looks bored, I’ll feel shut down. If they listen to me but clearly can’t put themselves in my shoes, there’s no use even telling them.
But if I’m convinced that a person understands what I’m feeling, and why I’m feeling it, I’m always grateful. And it’s not just for emotions like sadness and frustration, either. When I’m excited, when I’m joyful, it’s just as important to me that the people who love me can share in that joy.
Dr. Karp’s little trick is really just about compassion. After all, the root of that word means “to suffer with” a person, to feel what they feel. Without compassion, there’s no true connection.
You know the old stereotype about how men want to fix the problem, but the woman just wants the man to listen? Well, the man and the woman are both on to something. Problems need to be met with solutions, but part of the solution is the willingness to engage with compassion in whatever frustration or sorrow the other person is feeling. That’s why the principle works so well on a kid who’s having a meltdown — because it’s legitimately meeting part of his needs, so that even if he doesn’t get the popsicle he wanted, he’s gotten something better: compassion, connection, and understanding.