How To Handle Your Toddler’s Big Emotions

Do you remember the time when your child was first learning to walk?  Do you remember how you helped her place one hand on the couch or held one of her hands as she struggled to stay upright?  Do you remember how many times he fell down and had to get up again until one day, he was walking on his own without your help?

Just as your child needed your support to learn to walk, he also needs your support and guidance to learn about all those big feelings he is experiencing and give him a healthy and productive way to express them.

Let’s give you an understanding of your toddler’s social-emotional development at this age and then some concrete strategies for helping your child understand how she feels plus some healthy ways to express those feelings.

“People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.” 

-Epictetus (Greek Stoic philosopher)

If you view your toddler’s emotional expressions negatively, bracing yourself for every emotional outburst, then you are going to be rather afflicted each and every time he expresses himself.

If, on the other hand, you saw your child’s emotional expressions as a normal, healthy part of child development and welcomed any and all of the wide-ranging displays of emotion, you might have a completely different response to the all-too-common outburst.

Let’s learn a bit about where your toddler is at in this stage of his development.

Your child, from about one to three years old is absorbed with his own learning, is possessive, is searching for independence, and isn’t developmentally ready to share or to understand another’s perspective. He has now discovered that he is no longer one with his mother, but has his own separate self.  AND, he has just realized that he has the ability to assert control in some ways (i.e. with his possessions, with his words, with his actions).

It is this drive for independence and need for control that runs into the natural wall of the many limits that are placed on toddlers that results in a lot of feelings for your little one.  And all of those feelings are INTENSE.

So how do you help your child understand what he is feeling and then help him express those big feelings?

It begins with you.  If you’re not aware of your own emotions, how can you teach your child about his?  Take note of your own emotions.  Where do you feel them in your body?  Take the time to really feel those feelings and note them.

Express your own emotions.  Talk out loud about how you’re feeling as you feel things.  (i.e.  “I feel disappointed that we didn’t get to play outside today.”)  This is especially helpful when you are getting frustrated with your little one.  If he sees you talking about your own feelings and taking steps to regulate those feelings, he will eventually learn to do the same as well.

Attempt to understand and label your child’s emotions as they are feeling them.  Don’t ask them what they are feeling as they won’t know.  You can ask them what they feel in their body as this is often more tangible for a toddler or preschooler.  Focus on labeling both positive and negative emotions, not just negative.

Be a safe container for your child’s feelings.  Hold your child, if he will allow you, and encourage him to feel his feelings, reminding him that it is okay and healthy to do so.

Play games, sing songs, read books that talk about feelings.  Cut out faces of different feelings and put them in a jar.  Take one out and talk about it.  Try imitating the face together.  Use songs like “Happy and You Know It” and replace “happy” with another emotion.  For ideas on books that will help your child learn about feelings, check out these great ideas!

Play, play, play!!!  You can model so many healthy social interactions like sharing, waiting, giving a compliment, taking turns, and asking for help.  Don’t force your toddler to share or be upset if he ignores your prompts to share. This is normal and means that your child is absorbed in his own discoveries. Instead, model the social behavior yourself.  Keep in mind that toddlers are a “work in progress.”

Set firm limits with gentleness, kindness, and respect.  IF there is pent up emotion about something, this encourages it to come forth and that is okay.  Actually it is GOOD.  We WANT that to happen so that your child can express themselves.  It is through the limit-setting that we enable our child to positively express their emotions.

While this age can be a challenging time for you as a parent, understand that this is also very challenging for your child as well.  Imagine all those new and unfamiliar feelings coming over you, not knowing what they are or where they came from nor how to deal with them.  This experience can be frightening and overwhelming, but with your loving support and guidance, you can enrich your child’s life with a newfound understanding and awareness of his feelings.

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