A toddler’s job is to start exploring their world, and they love to do so! They have learnt to walk and climb and pull and so they are busy and active. Every day they are learning how the world works but situations and experiences can easily overwhelm them and outbursts and tantrums are common. They don’t have the vocabulary yet to describe what is happening and they need support and teaching to help develop their emotional skills. Here are five ways you can help your toddler with their emotions.
1. It’s OK to talk about emotions
Introduce your toddler to emotions with simple conversations where you share your feelings. For example, you might say, “I felt so happy when I heard Auntie Jen was coming to visit us” or “I felt worried when I couldn’t find my keys this morning”. When you share your own experiences like this you are giving your child the important message that it is ok to talk about emotions in your family. Having simple conversations with your toddler and sharing basic feelings will help to increase your child’s emotional vocabulary.
2. Talk about feelings in the body
We register external stimuli and experiences with our physical senses and our emotions are felt within the body. When we see something sad our eyes might fill with tears or if we get a sudden fright we might gasp as our stomach suddenly drops. We have labels known as feelings for these sensations and we know to use the words sad or scared in response to such experiences. Toddlers however are still learning to speak and so they do not have the emotional vocabulary that adults have. This is something they need to learn. When you talk to your toddler and use feeling words you are building this important vocabulary for them.
Researchers have found that identifying and labelling emotions in the body helps to settle the amygdala, which is the part of the brain which quickly processes emotions such as fear and anger. Encourage your child to show you where they are feeling sad, scared or worried by asking them to point to where they feel it in their body.
When you pay attention to their face and their body, you can ask them about what they are experiencing. For example, you may notice they hang their head when they are uncertain. You could say ” I am wondering if you are feeling shy ?” or you might notice that they run around and can’t sit still when their cousin visits, so you could say ” Your body is very busy, I think you are feeling excited”. Recognising and noticing the feelings your child is having, is a great opportunity for connection.
3. Name the feeling
Naming feelings is an extremely effective way to help build your toddler’s emotional vocabulary. It is very typical for toddlers to get quickly overwhelmed with their emotions. Their language is still developing and they don’t yet have the words to express themselves. So they show you how they feel by their behaviour!
Everything from grumpiness to full-blown tantrums is very normal in toddlers. However, when you give your child words for their emotional state this is a powerful way to help them both express themselves and also learn the first steps of self-regulation. However, before a child can self-regulate they have to experience co-regulation from their parent or caregiver. If you can stay calm and present when they get overwhelmed, you are co-regulating and helping them manage those big feelings.
Notice and point out to your child how they are feeling. For example, you might say something like. “It looks like you are feeling frustrated because your brother won’t share his toys” or “You look annoyed because it’s time to have your bath “. If your child is in the middle of a full-blown tantrum that’s not the time to label their feelings for them, but once the tantrum is over and they have calmed down, it’s good to talk through what happened and what feelings they had.
4. Read stories about feelings
Picture books are a wonderful way to help toddlers learn about emotions. As you read stories to your child, talk about what is happening to the characters. Look at the illustrations together and ask your child if they can guess what the character might be feeling. Most picture books for children will have an emotional element to the story, even if it is not clearly stated in the storyline. In traditional stories, you can talk about how the little pigs might have felt when their house was blown down in the Three Little Pigs or how Goldilocks felt when the bears ate her porridge.
Many wonderful picture books are available at bookstores and in libraries that focus specifically on introducing children to emotions. When looking for books that are suitable for toddlers, look for those with a simple and short text. Books that are very text-heavy will not keep a preschooler’s attention for long. Instead, they need short text or a storyline with engaging illustrations. The Feelings Books series by Trace Moroney are easy to read and there are 10 different emotions in the series. Another book that is ideal for toddlers is Todd Parr’s vibrantly illustrated The Feelings Book.
I wrote Feelings and Me specifically with toddlers in mind. Illustrated with gorgeous animal photographs, Feelings and Me uses the expressions on different animals’ faces as a way of introducing young children to feelings.
5. Respond with empathy
Responding empathically to your toddler’s emotions doesn’t mean just giving in to your child. Instead, It means you attempt to both connect and understand what is upsetting them, but you can also remain firm if the situation requires it. For example, your toddler may be having a wonderful time at the playground, but it is time to leave. They might cry because they have had the best time there and they don’t want to go. You might be able to successfully use distractions such as “Look the other children are going it’s our turn to leave too” or you might use persuasion such as “Teddy looks tired why don’t we take him home to bed.” However, sometimes these don’t work and your child is crying and refusing to co-operate.
Responding with empathy involves acknowledging their feelings and labelling them. ” I can see you are sad that it’s time to go because you have had a fun time here but we have to leave now because it’s getting dark”. It gives your child the message that you have understood things from their perspective and that helps with connection. If things continue and your child remains upset, the simple act of hugging is an incredibly powerful way to help them regulate. Your child will feel heard and understood when you show empathy for their experiences and their feelings.