Toddler Tantrum Management: Using the Fast Food Rule

A long time ago, I used to use a method of handling Gavin’s tantrums that was devised by paediatrician Harvey Karp, called “Toddlerese“.  I haven’t used it in a long time for various reasons.

Recently, after Gavin’s repeated tantrums and refusal to comply with my requests, I revived this tactic with some rather pleasing results…

Although I haven’t been using it for every tantrum scenario I encounter, I have found it to work pretty well whenever I want Gavin to leave a place before he’s ready.  Here are three examples recently where it has worked for me:

The first incident occurred while we were out shopping at Hartamas Shopping Center with my in laws.  When it was time to go home, Gavin launched into a hysterical fit of protest saying he wasn’t ready to go home.  Not wanting to have to endure a car journey home with a screaming toddler, I started repeating to him rather emphatically, “Gavin say ‘no go home, no go home, no go home!'”  I repeated that line over and over again until he calmed down and stopped crying – which actually wasn’t very long.  By the time hubby had packed the pram and put it into the boot, Gavin was ready to make the ride home without fussing.

The second occasion occurred again while we were at the same shopping mall after school.  Gavin was incredibly tired but reluctant to leave so I carried him all the way back to the car repeating what I knew he felt – that he didn’t want to go home.  By the time we got to the car, he was quiet and had “accepted” that we were going home.  He even fell asleep in the car on the way home without incident.

The third time, we were at Gavin’s godparents’ house.  To say that Gavin loves going to his godparents’ house would be an understatement.  Unfortunately, it also means that leaving is often difficult.  He enjoys himself so much that he never wants to leave.  When it came time to go, Gavin ran back to the room and refused to come out.  I followed him back and repeated the same thing.  It didn’t take much this time.  After a few repeats, he put away the toy he was playing with and walked out of the room on his own.

Toddlerese has worked a lot better than I remembered.  Perhaps I ought to try this more often and for tantrums that occur in other contexts…

Here’s a refresher on what “Toddlerese” is all about:

In his book “Happiest Toddler on the Block”, paediatrician Harvey Karp describes toddlerese as an effective method of speaking to toddlers when they are in the throes of a tantrum.

The first step of toddlerese is to be aware of the “fast food rule”.  What is the “fast food rule”?  When you go to McDonald’s and order a Big Mac, fries, Sprite and a chocolate sundae, the first thing the serving staff will do is repeat your order back to you to make sure that they have it right.

When your toddler is in the midst of a tantrum, before you do anything else, that’s the first thing you have to do – repeat back to your toddler what you think he’s upset about.  Of course with a toddler who is having a tantrum, there are some slight modifications you have to make with your speech.  You need to simplify your words and repeat them often to make sure you toddler can process what you’re saying.

Toddlers are still learning to master the fine art of communication.  Although they largely understand more than they can articulate, it is important to be aware that when they are having a tantrum, their capacity to understand what is being said to them diminishes considerably.  Hence, it is critical that you limit your sentences to no more than three or four words.

When a toddler is distressed, his ability to hear what you are saying is also diminished.  He isn’t ignoring you.  He just can’t hear you.  That’s why you need to repeat yourself several times until he “hears” you.

In order to make toddlerese more effective, you also need to mirror your child’s emotions.  The more distressed your child, the more empathic you must be when repeating his feelings back to him.  In other words, if he’s screaming and crying, you can’t speak to him calmly or he may not feel you understand his feelings.  You need to show that you really understand his feelings with appropriate gestures and facial expressions.

Although I have always believed that in order to take full advantage of toddlerese, you must have a follow-up suggestion that your toddler will approve of, I’ve come to realise that this isn’t always necessary.  For instance, after acknowledging that Gavin is upset about having to go home, there were times when I didn’t offered him another activity that he could do at home that he could look forward to.  Despite that, he was still accepted having to go home and he did not continue fussing.

In a nutshell, here are the three things you need to do to use toddlerese:

1. Fast food rule – repeat back to your toddler what you believe he is feeling.

2. Use short sentences with three or four words only.

3. Repetition – repeat yourself often until you are heard.

4. Mirroring – the intensity of your response must match your toddler’s emotion.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “Toddler Tantrum Management: Using the Fast Food Rule

  1. Fantastic. I have heard about “talking to toddlers” as well. I haven’t tried it but have been meaning to take a look at it.

    As parents, I believe it is important to be open to the many methods of handling toddlers. There are a lot of tips and advice around. Which will work best for your toddler often depends on you and your toddler’s individual temperament. The only way you’re going to know what works and what doesn’t is to be aware of the methods available and to try them all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: