How To Get Your Toddler To Wait For Anything (Hint: They hear the Word “Wait” as “No”)


Telling your toddler to wait for anything can be almost counterproductive.  You say “In a minute” and they start whining more, not less.  I think that is why so many parents just hand over the cookie, iPhone, car keys (just kidding about the keys; wanted to make sure you were awake!).   Toddlers do not understand that waiting until you are done diapering the baby is actually you saying “yes!”.  Knowing that what they hear you say is the most important part of the message is key to Dr. Harvey Karp’s genius patience stretching technique.  I demonstrated it to a parent on Monday and her mouth fell open when her 2 year-old immediately stopped whining and smiled at me.  Tantrum. averted. in. seconds.

Toddlers are impatient, have very limited language skills, and are self-centered.  None of these are criticisms.  They are very little people, and do not develop patience, language, and empathy in a vacuum. These are all skills that we teach them.  Not everyone has patience even by adulthood, as a few minutes in line at Costco will tell you.  But it is a skill, not an inherited character trait.  If you want a patient toddler, you have to teach her how to be a patient toddler.  If you have a child with a spirited or tentative temperament, she might be inclined to react strongly even when you are very gently asking her to wait.  Your best strategy for teaching patience is to understand what toddlers hear and how they think.

Toddlers hear any response to a request other than “yes” as if you said “no”.  They don’t parse the details of “in just one minute”, “I just have to diaper the baby”, or even “the pan is on fire; I will be with you after I put it out”.  I repeat: any answer other than “yes” is a “no” to a toddler.  So don’t give them any other answer if you will eventually grant their request.   If you are not, you are going to respond in a different way.  That’s a different blog post.

Dr. Karp created a plan that really works.  You are going to say “yes” but then you are going to create a situation that requires them to wait for a very small period of time before you deliver the results.  The big issues are that you have to use patience stretching consistently, deliver it with warmth, and you have to be a little creative at the same time that you may be frustrated with your own multi-tasking.  If you are exhausted or stressed beyond belief, this is going to be hard to execute.  Take good care of yourself and believe that using this technique will make life at home less aggravating for you too!

This is what it looks like:  You are in a situation in which your child makes a request that you are willing to grant, and it can be accomplished reasonably quickly.  This is not the time to pick something complicated.  You are going to use the communication style that Dr. Karp designated the Fast Food Rule plus “toddler-ese”.  Your phrases are short, repeated often, and with clear gestures,  obvious facial expressions and a bit more emotion than a conversation with an older child.

Child:  Want juice!!!

Adult: You want juice right now! (Fast Food Rule first, of course)

Child: Want Juuuuiiiccee!!

Adult:  Smiling-Yes, let’s get your juice. ( start walking to fridge/counter and pause) Oh, I just have to open that cabinet over there and find the _____ then I will get your juicy-juice.  (Waste about 10 seconds).  OK, now where is that juice?  I know, it is right in the fridge! (big smile). Hand over juice.

That’s it.  First round of patience stretching accomplished.  The pause is so short, and your response is so upbeat that a toddler might not even know what just happened.  That is fine.  The next request is going to be a 15 second pause, and so on.  Previously instantaneous-tantrum toddlers have been known to stretch up to a minute in a single day.  And longer on the next day.  Don’t worry that she is going to see through the silly hunt in the cabinet.  She is not that focused on you, remember?  She is all about the juice.

Good luck, and I hope you get those angelic smiles as you require your toddler to wait for just a little bit!!


By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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